Coach of the Year: DeJarld Made Macs Mightiest
Twelve years after retiring coaching legend Nancy Pedersen was honored as co-National Coach of the Year by PrepVolleyball.com, Mother McAuley High School in Chicago has another coach, Jen DeJarld, who set the standard for coaching excellence this past fall. After leading the Mighty Macs to improbable state and national titles, she is the 2016 PrepVolleyball.com National Coach of the Year.
Jen DeJarld was perplexed. After her team won the Illinois large-class title in 2013 with nine Division I players on the roster, she expected her Mighty Macs from Mother McAuley to reach the state tournament every year.
But in the two years that followed, despite a 68-11 combined record, her teams fell just short of reaching the state final four, each time losing to another perennial power, Benet Academy.
An ordinary coach with a state title to her credit and almost 70 wins in the ensuing two years might have continued on the same path. That many wins…with so few losses…she had to be doing things mostly right, right?
DeJarld, who took over the head coaching position in 1995 after 12 years at various programs at the sub-varsity levels and as an assistant coach, decided that a change to her coaching style was necessary.
“I took a hard look at our past two seasons falling short in the state playoffs and decided to make some changes in the way I taught some of our skills and decided to put more effort into the mental part of our game,” DeJarld explained. “I felt like I needed to prepare my team better mentally in high-pressure situations and help them to maintain a consistent mental game every match we played. We focused on not ‘riding the emotional roller coaster’ in matches – we worked hard on training the girls to stay in a ‘here and now’ focus and not let emotions get in the way of riding the highs or lows in a match.”
Those weren’t the only changes this veteran coach enacted. After observing how the Notre Dame University staff did things while serving as an instructor at the Irish summer camps, DeJarld changed her entire approach to practice.
“After that camp, I incorporated new passing technique, new hitting technique, new setting technique and new defensive technique…I basically changed a lot of the way I taught the game and how I analyzed it as well,” she said. “I kept stats in practice and measured everything they did to help them understand the deficiencies in their game better. I had to teach my staff our new system as well as all our players – it started in summer camp and we gradually became stronger for it by mid-September.”
Did the changes pay off? Mother McAuley went 40-1 and not only captured the Illinois 4A title but was the consensus national champion as well.
The twist is that this wasn’t a Mighty Mac team that was expected to roll through the state in 2016. DeJarld had graduated two of her three top players, really had just one highly-regarded collegiate recruit with any experience on the roster and had players most of whom had been on second or third teams during club ball and had not been “super successful” (DeJarld’s term) in volleyball before.
This was the team that twice beat perennial national power Louisville Assumption, that beat a Geneva team called by some the “most physical” in Illinois history, that got revenge by sweeping Benet when it was highly-ranked, that knocked off five other nationally-ranked teams and that defeated Minooka and its roster full of high Division I recruits for the state title.
“This team earned all of the clichés,” said coach David Vales of rival Sandburg. “The whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Play for each other not yourselves. One match, one set, one point at a time. I know the talent it takes to be considered a national power and on paper this squad probably should have fallen short. Jen definitely deserves to be National Coach of the Year as she convinced her players to bring their ‘A’ game every night. I’ve had the opportunity to compete against Jen since she took over for the Illinois high school legend, Nancy Pedersen. Although those shoes should have been impossible for anyone to fill, Jen has transitioned the program, making it her own and it culminated with the best run in state history.”
Mother McAuley’s run to the state title was anything but easy. Several times, both early in the season and during the playoffs, the Mighty Macs were on the ropes and staggering. Drawing on that mental training, McAuley found a way, including in a 90-minute Supersectional win over Geneva in which it trailed for all but 10 minutes.
“A lot of credit for this I think has to go to DeJarld,” said Tony Baranek, the longtime volleyball writer for the Daily Southtown Star, which covers the Macs. “She groomed these kids to embrace the challenges, don’t get overwhelmed by a rough patch, don’t get too confident with the lead.
“We talked about it a few times down the stretch, and when I talked to some players after the season was over they concurred. It was more will than overwhelming talent that won them a state title.”
Minooka learned first-hand about Mother McAuley’s resilience in the 4A championship match, which went McAuley’s way in a tight third set after the Indians won the second to put the pressure on.
“Playing them in that state match, McAuley played the best defense and had very limited errors in their offense,” said coach Carrie Prosek. “[DeJarld] did a great job with the group by keeping them positive and determined. Several times throughout the year they had been down but would always fight through and take the win. I do believe Jen is a big part of that success.”
“Jen did an absolutely fabulous job keeping her team focused and prepared for every match,” said Benet coach Brad Baker. “The consistency they were able to play with from night to night and point to point is a true testament to her ability to get the most out of her players and teams. There is no coach who deserves this award more.”
“I have known Jen since I was a player at Mother McAuley myself,” said Nancy Dorsey, who has coach St. James Academy in Kansas to two national titles in her short career. “She is a dedicated coach and wonderful person. I have great respect for her and her willingness to play a tough schedule year in and year out. She knows to be the best you have to play the best and that has helped her teams be successful every single year.”
Though DeJarld has had a lot of success in her 12 years being in charge at McAuley – six trips Downstate and a 420-67 overall record – there can be no doubt that 2016 was her finest coaching job yet. That she was able to take this team to such heights with a new coaching style, implemented as the result of self-assessment, is extraordinary, remarkable and every other superlative one can think of. I’ve been covering volleyball for 17 years and have never seen anything like it!
“I think being honest with my players and being consistent as a coach in all that I am saying to them and teaching them has been a big contributor to our success,” DeJarld said. “Helping them to be mindful of every rep and making every contact count has made us a stronger team because the girls understood how to be accountable for their successes and failures.”
Congratulations to Coach DeJarld and the Mighty Macs on a fantastic and memorable season. There has never been a more deserving National Coach of the Year!