Good Goodbye to a ‘second mom’

Jan McNeely (center) leaves the folds and strings of the volleyball net this year after 20 years of coaching at South Whidbey High School. Seeing her off (from right, counter clockwise) are Jessi Eaton, Jenny Saephan, Amy Brown, Julie McNeely, and Caitie Newman. - Matt Johnson
Jan McNeely (center) leaves the folds and strings of the volleyball net this year after 20 years of coaching at South Whidbey High School. Seeing her off (from right, counter clockwise) are Jessi Eaton, Jenny Saephan, Amy Brown, Julie McNeely, and Caitie Newman.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

On hundreds of nights over the past 20 years, Jan McNeely has gotten into bed, closed her eyes, and seen little but volleyball in the images in her mind.

She can see a team of South Whidbey girls huddling together for warmth in a Sea-Tac airport bathroom a number of years ago, as they waited overnight to catch a late flight to the state tournament. She can see current Falcon junior Sara Hicks jumping in the air, pumping her fist and screaming in joy after pounding a kill to the floor. And she can also see class of 2006 varsity setter Jessi Eaton sobbing her eyes out the night McNeely left her volleyball shoes on the court for the last time.

After two decades of coaching freshman and junior varsity volleyball teams at South Whidbey, McNeely is retiring this year. In doing so, she walks away from a volleyball career that started in 1965, when she was a freshman and a player on her own high school team in Minatare, Neb.

She ended her Falcon coaching career — which included helping coach the school’s varsity teams to six league championships, five district championships, and two third-place finishes at the state tournament — as definitively as possible. After the team’s final game on Oct. 25, she placed the running shoes she has worn while coaching the past few seasons in the center of the court, then walked away from them and the game she has loved her whole life.

“I was OK with it,” said McNeely, who performed her final functions as a Falcon coach at her team’s annual award banquet Monday night. “I went to the state tournament last week knowing I wouldn’t be there next year.”

McNeely said she is quitting coaching to spend more time with her sophomore daughter, Julie, who also hung up her volleyball shoes at the end of this season to concentrate on acting.

Volleyball at South Whidbey has been a tough habit for McNeely to kick over the past two decades. She came to South Whidbey in 1985 to teach physical education instructor at the primary school after teaching and coaching in Nebraska and Seattle for 10 years. She immediately signed on as a JV coach with former Falcon head coach Mike Parnell, staying with the team for over a decade before making an abortive attempt to retire in the late 1990s. She came back the next fall as a freshman coach.

Current Falcon head coach Tim Durbin was hired as the team’s JV coach that same year. He gave a emotional goodbye to McNeely Monday night in front of a crowd of players and their parents.

“I’ve learned more from this gal about being a great person than from anyone,” he said.

His comment seemed a theme among both current and former players, who said McNeely influenced far more than their playing.

“She taught me how to score points on the court and off the court,” said Amy Brown, a senior Falcon who has been coached on and off by McNeely since she was 7.

Deeply affected by McNeely’s retirement was Jessi Eaton, who said she cried an entire night after the team’s last game. She said she will strive in the future to have the strength and sense of humor she saw McNeely exude as a coach.

“She’s a second mother,” she said.

Even players who spent little time under McNeely’s volleyball tutelage had a hard time saying goodbye Monday. Jenny Saephan, a 2002 South Whidbey grad and former Falcon varsity squad member, played only one game on McNeely’s freshman team before being moved up to JV and varsity. The two first met when Saephan was part of McNeely’s first kindergarten class at South Whidbey. Now South Whidbey’s JV coach, Saephan said it is difficult to see her coaching friend leave the program.

“She has done so much for this program,” she said. “Words can’t describe Jan.”

McNeely said what she will miss most about coaching is the chance to influence the girls that came to her teams. Though she had opportunities to take the head coaching job with the team, she said she preferred coaching the younger girls and helping them make their transition from middle school to high school.

The rewards reaped from giving that help have been tangible over the years. In particular, McNeely remembers a state tournament third-place game against Fife that demonstrated how far the girls on the team had come during the season. She and Parnell overheard Fife’s coaches confidently talking about how they would win the game in less than an hour. At that point, the Falcon coaches thought the opposition might be right.

The Falcon players didn’t, and went on to win the game.

“They didn’t know they could beat that team,” McNeely said.

In her coaching retirement, McNeely has already begun to catch up on some of the family life she feels she might have missed had she stayed with the team. Her daughter, Julie, said she will be happy to have her mother more to herself.

“I think it will be a lot better having her at home,” she said.

Still, on nights the Falcon volleyball team plays at home, mother and daughter will have their quality time in the bleachers. While McNeely left her shoes on the court this season, Falcon volleyball will always have her heart.

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