Mike Flock Gymnasium is a special place for Rebecca Conley.
The gym near the top of the Calaveras High School campus was the place Conley spent four years as a volleyball player. It was in that gym where she earned the title of an all-league member. It was in that gym that she gained the skills to go on to play college volleyball at California State University, Stanislaus. And it was in that gym, back in 2013, that Conley and Calaveras last won the Mother Lode League championship.
Now, after graduating from Calaveras in 2014 and from Stanislaus State in 2018 and being hired back at Calaveras as a math teacher in the fall of 2020, Conley will step back into the gym not just as a former player, but as the current head volleyball coach.
“This gym means a lot to me,” Conley said. “It’s full of traditions and memories. I remember the first time I came back to the gym; it was a really weird feeling and I was just so proud to be a Calaveras alumni and I hope to give my future players that same experience.”
For all the success the Calaveras volleyball program has had over the past few years, the one thing that hasn’t been consistent has been the head coaches. After longtime Summerville head coach Kristy Dwyer took over the program for just one year in 2013, which ended in a league title with Conley on the court, Pam DiBasilio coached for the next four years.
After DiBasilio stepped away in 2017, Mikki Taylor took over in 2018, followed by Mike Koepp in 2019, and then Nicole Lamica in 2020 (although there was no season due to COVID-19). Conley is Calaveras’ fifth head coach in as many years, and she hopes to stay in the role for many years to come.
“What is crucial for the success of a program is keeping the same head coach for a long period of time, and I plan on staying,” Conley said. “It also helps that I am a staff member, as I plan on staying as a math teacher as well. I’m in it for the long haul and I want to build this program up to what I know it can be.”
While at Calaveras, Conley was a two-year varsity player. During her senior year, she played 72 sets, had 121 kills, 45 blocks, 16 digs and 15 serving aces. As a team, Calaveras posted an overall record of 20-7, while going 13-2 in the Mother Lode League. 2013 was the first time Calaveras finished the season as outright league champions and was the first time the team even shared a league title since 1985.
Even when Conley left Calaveras to attend and play volleyball at Stanislaus, she always planned to return to her alma mater and take over the program she cherished so deeply.
“I knew that I wanted to come back and teach here and I knew that I wanted to come back and run the program,” Conley said. “I’m excited and I don’t necessarily think that I’m nervous. I’m happy to give the girls the same experience that I was able to get.”
At Stanislaus, the 5-foot, 10-inch Conley finished her career with 30 blocks, 21 kills, eight digs and two serving aces. Even while she was playing, Conley was thinking about coaching. While in college, she helped coach travel and youth teams, which only fueled her desire even more to one day have a team of her own. And with her volleyball playing career complete, Conley has no problem switching from player to coach.
“I’ve always loved coaching, just as much as I loved playing,” Conley said. “Because I have that love for the game, I think it delivers well to my girls and I think I can get them to love it with me. A lot of what I want to show them is how to love the game and to give them those good experiences, especially since they missed out on so much since 2019.”
Conley’s first year as Calaveras’ head coach is unlike anything she could have ever imagined. She is taking over for a program that hasn’t played since the fall of 2019. She will have junior players who played only one year of freshman volleyball and some senior players with zero varsity experience.
“Every team in the league is going to be in the same spot, because we all lived through the same pandemic and all had the same conditions and didn’t have a full season since 2019,” Conley said. “I do think there is going to be a lot of work that will have to happen at the start of the season to get their fundamentals back to where they were and then continue to grow from there.”
Even though Conley has one year of teaching at Calaveras under her belt, with the majority of the 2020-21 school year conducted virtually, she does not know any of her future players. While having no knowledge of who is in the program can be another obstacle to overcome, Conley is also using it as an opportunity to give all players, on all levels, a chance to start over.
“It’s good because everyone gets a fresh start,” Conley said. “I don’t know who they were their freshman year and a lot of people change, especially during high school.”
Like all coaches, Conley wants her players to walk off the floor each game with a victory. She also knows that college coaches don’t care about final standings, rather, they just want to know if a player can perform at the next level. Conley wants to get all of her players to the point where playing in college isn’t out of the question.
“Everyone likes to win, but I am huge on fundamentals,” Conley said. “I want all of my players to come out of my program being fundamentally sound, so that when they get to the next level, they are halfway there already. Also, I want to coach them to be good all-around athletes. That’s both mentally and physically. If they want to compete at the next level, they’ll be mentally strong, and their all-around development is good.”
With any new coach, there are always some changes made to the program. Some are noticeable to all, such as new uniforms or a different style of play. Other changes are made behind the scenes, like different team rules or expectations. The first thing that Conley wants from her program is to make it feel like a family and that a first-year freshman player is treated no differently than a four-year varsity star.
“I want the program to feel like a family,” Conley said. “It’s not just freshman, JV and varsity. I want everyone to feel welcomed and that it’s one big family. That’s the No. 1 goal that I want to set up for this season.”
It has been seven years since Calaveras ended the season as Mother Lode League volleyball champs and Conley hopes that one day, that drought can come to an end and it will happen with her as head coach.
“I would be very proud of that,” Conley said about winning a league title as a player, to possibly winning it as a coach. “My players would have to work really hard for that. It doesn’t come easy and I know that. To get them to that point, I would be very proud and excited. I’m just really excited to be back and for the girls to have their first game in this gym since 2019.”