MALTA – Stephanie Gooden admits she’s become more than just a casual coffee drinker during her first season as Kishwaukee College’s head volleyball coach while regularly driving the team bus on five- to nine- hour trips to Ohio, Iowa, Kansas and Michigan.
Those long trips are tough, but they give Gooden a chance to get to know the seven freshmen and four sophomores on her roster, who take turns sitting next to their coach so she doesn’t become droopy-eyed.
“You're getting to hang out with one of your players, and you’re not talking about volleyball, you’re talking about life and learning about them,” Gooden said. “The travel is hard sometimes, but at the same time, you’re building relationships.”
Those relationships have been important during a season in which the Cougars won their 16th consecutive Arrowhead Conference title. Gooden was named the conference’s coach of the year after her debut season and sophomore Janelle Gerds was named conference MVP.
Gooden will make the long bus ride to Toledo, Ohio, next week for the NJCAA Division II National Tournament. The four sophomores, including former DeKalb standout Mackenzie Johnson, have experience at the national level after finishing third at the tournament last year. This season they open with Phoenix College in the first round, the same team Kishwaukee defeated in last year's third-place game.
This year’s Phoenix team, which plays teams on the west coast, is unfamiliar to Gooden and her team. But the arena, where the Cougars played a tournament earlier this year, is not.
“We’re familiar with the gym, we’re familiar with getting on the charter bus and making that drive, losing the hour with the time change, all of the stuff you don’t think about,” Gooden said. “We have to make it a priority not to look ahead.”
The road to this point, though, hasn’t been easy for Gooden, who took the job in April when there were only four players on her roster. Thankfully, Gooden has experience in high school and club volleyball, and she was able to put together a roster on a short deadline.
Stilll, she didn’t know what to expect when her team began the season. After compiling a 30-13 record, she’s expecting big things from her team, which is seeded 10th at the national tournament.
“If you would have asked me [about expectations] back in April, I would have said, ‘I want to get the group together as an actual team,’” she said. “As we started progressing through the season, nationals was definitely a big goal. And not just getting to nationals, actually competing for a chance to be in that top conversation.”
If the Cougars do succeed, it may be a result of those relationships that have carried them through the season. The team has come together under a first-year college coach, and the seven freshmen have fallen in line behind players just one year older than them.
Gooden hopes those relationships will carry Kishwaukeee far.
“We’re young on paper, but our sophomores are leaders by example,” she said. “We enjoy being around each other, and that’s a big deal, especially when we’ve been together since August 1st.”