Aug. 25, 2010
High Expectations for Northwest Seniors
By David Boyce
On the first few days of volleyball practice coach Jessica Rinehart got confirmation of her initial impression.
Rinehart inherited a group of players ready to put Northwest Missouri State on the MIAA volleyball map.
The Bearcats haven't dwelled in the basement of the MIAA. But their goal is to reside with the likes of Central Missouri, Washburn, Truman and Emporia State.
Last year Northwest Missouri finished 15-21 overall and 6-14 and tied for seventh in the MIAA. The Bearcats are picked to finish 8th in the 2010 preseason coaches' poll.
But Rinehart didn't accept the job as Northwest Missouri's new volleyball coach in December, 2009 with an expectation of finishing near the bottom.
She quickly learned she took over a group of players, including six seniors, who have the same belief.
None of the players or coach made bold statements that they will finish in the top three in conference and make a run at postseason play.
They were just three days into practice for the 2010 season. The most important thing now is to practice hard each day.
"So far I've seen a team that came in shape and ready to go for the 2010 season," Rinehart said.
And that's good enough for a program eager to transform itself from two straight losing seasons. The last time Northwest Missouri had a winning season was 2000 when it went 17-15. The Bearcats were 17-17 in 2007.
After getting to know the team better during spring drills, Rinehart is confident she has a group that will do the work necessary to be successful.
"I feel like this senior class really wants to finish their careers on a high note," Rinehart said. "I feel like I'm on the same page with this class. I feel these seniors have the right stuff. I do see a lot of them contributing.
"I learned they are hungry to do new things for the program. They are ready to turn things around. They are competitive. They want to make a name for Northwest volleyball. They are very coachable. They are a great group. I think I got lucky."
The feeling is mutual.
Seniors Amber Ryan, Sara Falcone and Paige Spangenberg all smiled when told how much Rinehart likes the senior class.
Getting to know the coach in March and April was important for the players to lay a new foundation for the upcoming season.
"It was a time we built our team chemistry between all the players and her," Spangenberg said. "It was a time to build trust for everybody to move forward and we made huge strides. We worked on a lot of fundamentals, which we needed as a team.
"She's got a positive outlook and an intense outlook about the game and our team. It's unbelievable how easy the transition was. It was pretty smooth."
Volleyball is simply in Rinehart's blood.
As she was walking off the court in her final collegiate match at Hillsdale College it hit her that she needed to stay involved in the game.
Becoming a coach was the logical next step. The Hillsdale coach asked Rinehart to be an assistant because his wife, who was assistant coach, was pregnant.
Rinehart then went to Central Michigan as a graduate assistant while working towards her Masters degree in sports administration.
As the age of 24, Rinehart became a head coach at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, in 2003 and led the team to back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time in the program's history.
"It was kind of scary at first, but it ended up being a great thing," she said.
Rinehart moved on to Augsburg College in Minneapolis in 2005 and found more success. She took over a program that finished 12th in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and when she left the program finished fourth in 2009.
"It was more difficult when I was 24," she said. "I felt I had to keep my distance more. I probably wasn't as personable as a coach as I am now because I felt like I had to set those boundaries.
"Now, I'm ancient. They (players) actually look younger."
It's debatable whether the players actually look older than Rinehart. It is clear she relates well to the players and she has their respect.
"She's all about having fun while we are working really hard," Ryan said.
"It's going to be really tough and take a lot of work to move up in conference."
The Bearcats gained some confidence late last season before Rinehart arrived. They won their last two matches, including a 24-26, 25-21, 25-20, 25-17 victory over Truman.
Truman has been one of the top volleyball programs in the MIAA the last decade.
"It really built up confidence," Falcone said.
"We have everything we need. We just need discipline and have someone on our backs."
Rinehart plans to push the Bearcats to reach their best. Her volleyball philosophy is fairly similar to the successful coaches in the MIAA. She stresses ball control and defense.
"The competition never gets easier but I do feel we have the athletes here who can compete at that level," Rinehart said. "A lot of it is going to depend on how we handle the challenges of a competitive schedule.
"There is no doubt we can play at a high level, but it is going to be how we respond to that on a daily basis and how we finish the last five points."
But Rinehart is ready for the MIAA test. It's why she took the job.
"This is a tough volleyball conference. I was excited about the potential of the school. Northwest is a really good school. It is in a great location between Des Moines, Kansas City and Omaha. I feel like it is a place you can really build a program."
David Boyce spent more than 20 years covering high school and small college athletics at the Kansas City Star newspaper in Missouri. He's covered six of Northwest Missouri State's seven national championship football games and recently served as a guest columnist for the MIAA.
Boyce was named KIAAA Sportswriter of the Year in 1994. He covered boxing at the Star from 1991-2004 including Tommy Morrison and worked both championship fights between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis. His 1997 exclusive story on Morrison becoming HIV positive was named an Associated Press Sports Editor top 10 feature for papers serving more than 150,000.
Boyce was born in New York City and was raised in Kansas City, Kan. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1988 with a degree in journalism. He is currently one of three official scorers for the Kansas City Royals and is a contributing writer for the Royals Gameday magazine.
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