LANGLEY — There were coaches with better records.
There were coaches with more playoff wins.
After a meeting of Cascade Conference volleyball coaches, South Whidbey head coach Mandy Jones was voted the Coach of the Year.
“I’m really honored and excited to have that reward,” Jones said. “I think I needed it. I was feeling a little crushed about not getting my team to state.”
Jones led the Falcons to a 9-5 conference record that qualified her team for the Northwest District 1 tournament.
At districts, the Falcons beat the Lynden Lions in five sets, were swept by the Burlington-Edison Tigers and lost to conference rival Archbishop Murphy in five sets. The loss to the AMHS Wildcats kept the Falcons from qualifying for the 2A state tournament, which South Whidbey has not played in since 2003. The Wildcats and coach Jeff Curtis finished conference play as the top 2A team, and the Steve Bain-led King’s Knights, a 1A school, went undefeated in the conference.
“It was definitely a surprise,” Jones said. “I thought either Steve from King’s or Jeff from Archbishop (Murphy) was going to get it … who are both very well deserving.”
This was Jones’ fourth year as the Falcons’ head coach, and this was the first time she won the coaching award.
One of her goals has been to build a program, from the middle school teams to a club volleyball team. South Whidbey signs coaches to one-year contracts, but South Whidbey athletic director Scott Mauk said he’d like to keep her coaching there for years to come.
“Barring any surprises, the expectation is that Mandy sticks around,” Mauk said. “We think she does exemplary work as a coach and she does exemplary work on the staff. I cannot imagine having a volleyball program without Mandy.”
Mauk, who is in his first year as the athletic director, said his job is to support the coaches any way he can, though there hasn’t been much managing required.
“She’s been really dedicated to volleyball in the community and really built the program that way,” Mauk said. “As a high school coach she really relates to the girls well.”
Few of Jones’ Falcons have experienced as tenured a relationship as senior Linden Firethorne. Jones was her coach at Langley Middle School and through all four years of high school.
“Mandy has made me a better player in every way,” Firethorne said. “She has been my coach from the beginning and has pushed me and encouraged me to better myself every day.
“I wouldn’t be the player I am today if she hadn’t coached me for all those years.”
Firethorne signed a letter of intent to play volleyball for Central Washington University on Nov. 9. The middle hitter’s agreement with the Division II team was the largest school that had snapped up one of Jones’s players. Firethorne credited Jones’ evolution as a coach for getting the team as many wins as it had.
“She has become much more about the mental part of volleyball,” Firethorne said. “When she was first my coach she was all business — and running, lots of running. She is still a tough coach but outgrew the young coach mentality and became an amazingly supportive, tough and wonderful coach.”
Jones took over a 5-9 team in the 2008 season and led the Falcons to an 8-6 record and a district tournament berth. The Falcons mirrored their success in 2009, making it to the third round of the district playoffs.
Last season, South Whidbey slumped slightly to a 6-8 record, but qualified for districts before losing to Granite Falls and Mount Baker in the tournament.
This season the Falcons finished second among 2A conference teams.
“She deserves this award because she turned a team that didn’t have a reputation of being one of the top competitors into a team that other teams were nervous to play,” Firethorne said. “She led our seniors to the best season we could ask for, and she deserves it for the passion she has for the game and her players.”
When Jones started in 2008, she developed players from middle school through their senior year. That was just part of the reason Jones thought her fellow coaches voted her coach of the year.
“I think they saw how good I did with the team, how far I took them, how much we progressed throughout the year and the fight and want to win,” Jones said.
“It’s important to develop a good relationship with the other coaches throughout the league,” she added. “I try to instill that in the players, too, with the other teams.”
Mauk envisions Falcon sports as a community endeavor. As such, he was pleased with the way Jones engaged the community through the younger teams, rowdy fans and weekly dinners.
“Our crowds were great; the referees had fun when they were here,” Mauk said. “I do not have any expectation that our sports teams will be the best. The wins are going to come.
“Really making them be together as a team was quite lovely.”
The team spirit and Jones’ coaching helped carry them through a pair of two-match losing streaks this season. Negative attitudes often spread through the Falcons, and Jones struggled to find a way to get her players out of a mental slump.
“One of the things that everybody saw … they would just plummet off this cliff emotionally,” Mauk said. “We talked about it a lot. I’m not really sure how I would have handled it. She worked really hard to keep them inspired and motivated.”
In her four years of coaching, she’s learned some lessons that led her to being the Coach of the Year.
One of the first things she learned was that her position includes more than practices and matches, and for that, she thanked her fellow Cascade Conference coaches, her administrative staff and the South Whidbey Booster Club.
“I now know there’s not just the role of coaching, there’s also the role of administering,” Jones said. “It’s not easy by any means when you just want to coach, but you have all of these other roles as well.”
Jones also learned about the importance of experience for her youngest players, rather than speeding their progression and limiting their playing time.
“Lesson learned is not having freshmen on varsity right away,” Jones said.
It’s all part of Jones building a program, rather than a team.
“I’m just going to keep working hard at developing the program,” Jones said. “It’s going to take a lot of hard work for myself and also for the players to achieve the overall goal of going to state.
“I’m excited for the group coming up from eighth grade, and I’m excited for these freshmen and sophomores and juniors next year.
“We really have a good chance of going far again in another couple of years.”