Senior Deandra Bockhold will never forget the moment she met the new head coach for her struggling volleyball team at Culver-Stockton College.
The outside hitter for the Wildcats of Canton, Mo., watched in awe last spring when a legend in volleyball history walked across the wooden courts at Charles Field House. Standing in front of Bockhold and her teammates was three-time Olympian Caren Kemner. Yes, the Caren Kemner. The powerful 6’1” outside hitter who helped the 1992 U.S. women’s team capture the bronze medal in Barcelona with 127 kills and seven aces.
“We were like ‘holy cow, this is going to be our coach,’” Bockhold said. “We were intimidated at first, but then we were like ‘this is awesome.’”
The small Midwestern college located about two hours north of St. Louis hired the world champion to turn around its volleyball program, which hadn’t recorded a winning season since 2004. Under Kemner’s leadership, the Wildcats focused on the fundamentals of the game that this 47-year-old superstar calls the most “intellectually challenging sport ever played.”
“I’ve never played a ball that’s exactly the same as the ball before,” said Kemner, once considered the best female volleyball player on the planet. “There are six people around the court and it’s literally like a ballet. And fundamentals are at the core of everything you do.”
The strategy paid off early. The Wildcats went undefeated in preseason. They breezed past Harris-Stowe State University in their 2011 season opener. After their first four matches, Kemner’s players had tallied a 3-1 overall record in the NAIA and were 1-0 in the Heart of America Conference.
Then tragedy struck the team late in their preseason. Kemner’s father, Alex, died on Aug. 24 after a courageous battle with a rare form of lung cancer called mesothelioma. He died six weeks after he was diagnosed, said Kemner, who was at his side when he passed away.
The fiery competitor known for her aggressive play and 30” vertical leap struggled to find her emotional footing in the months that followed her father’s death. It’s a battle she continues to fight today.
“I’m his baby girl,” Kemner said, her voice cracking. “He and I just always had a special connection.”
Her team struggled, too. The Wildcats ended their season with a disappointing 7-27 record.
“Losing my dad was just really hard,” Kemner said. “It’s hard to focus…you feel like you’re stuck in between worlds. I wouldn’t say this was the darkest point [in my life], but it’s the most painful point I’ve ever been in.”
During those dark hours, though, Kemner discovered a renewed sense of peace in her decision to coach at Culver-Stockton and return to her Midwestern roots. The former University of Arizona All-American made the move six years ago when a force more powerful than volleyball called her home.
“My mom was diagnosed on Christmas Eve  with leukemia,” said Kemner, the youngest of five. “I felt like it was time to come home and spend time with my parents.”
The volleyball prodigy, who played professionally in Brazil, Italy, and Japan, moved into the basement of her parents’ home in nearby Quincy, Ill.
“I’m glad that I got to spend all that time with them,” Kemner said, as tears filled her blue eyes. “I wouldn’t change that – ever. As hard as it was to watch my dad die, I am so grateful that I was there.”
Her mom, she said, continues to take chemotherapy every day. “But she’s good.”
Since she returned home, Kemner has also helped thousands of young athletes in her community. She founded the non-profit Riverfront Athletic Association, served as an assistant volleyball coach at Quincy University, and coached volleyball for two seasons at her alma mater, Quincy Notre Dame High School. Kemner, who excelled at softball and volleyball in high school, had a 43-27 record with the Lady Raiders when she decided to take over Culver-Stockton’s ailing program.
But what convinced this volleyball icon to coach at a tiny liberal arts college in what she calls “the middle of nowhere”?
Kemner liked the program. She liked the challenge. She also liked the people. “The president of the college [Richard Valentine] showed up at my father’s funeral. He’s a big reason why I took this job [originally].”
When asked where her Wildcats will be in five years, Kemner smiles and shakes her head. “I’m working on more of a six-month plan because of where life is for me right now.”
Kemner is busy recruiting for next season. By mid-December, she’d talked to 175 potential players. “Last year I only talked to about ten kids,” she said.
The volleyball icon is confident about her team’s future, but warns it will take time to rebuild the program. “I saw so much improvement,” Kemner said of her girls. “But just because you have an Olympian [for a coach] doesn’t mean everything changes overnight.”
Players like Bockhold share their coach’s optimism and are convinced that Kemner will lead the Wildcats to many championships. “I wish I could play for her another year,” the graduating senior said. “If we would have had her my freshman year we’d be amazing by now.”
To improve your skills, take these pointers from Kemner to heart.
“I’m a better player because of her,” said senior setter Carrie Gerberding, who will help Kemner coach next season. “I feel like we became a better team, too. She was very motivating and always wanted us to do our best. She’s been on that high level and she wanted us to be great. A lot of people think of her only as an Olympian, but they need to get to know her. She is a great all-around person.”
“Every loss hurt her and that hurt us,” senior outside hitter Deandra Bockhold said. “We wanted to win for her because she’s accomplished so much in life. We wanted to make her proud. We were a competitive team; I definitely saw improvement each time we stepped on the court. Our losses had nothing to do with coaching…it takes a whole team to win games.”
She added: “One thing people don’t know about her [Kemner] is her genuine side. In all reality, she’s a sweetheart. She’s softhearted. She’s like a big teddy bear once you get to know her. I know I could go to her for anything I needed and she’d be there for me.”
1980-82 Led the Quincy Notre Dame High School to three state volleyball titles.
1984-85 University of Arizona women’s volleyball team (second-team All-America and first-team All-Conference pick). Also played softball for the Wildcats.
1986 Goodwill Games (bronze)
1986 World Championships
1988 Olympics (7th place)
1989-90 Played in Italian Professional League – Telcom-Milan
1990 Goodwill Games
1991 Named to the World All-Star squad
1992 Olympics (bronze)
1992 Inducted into the University of Arizona Hall of Fame
1992-93 Played for Ravenna Il Messaggero in Italy
1993-94 Played for Club Atletico Sorocaba in Brazil
1993 Named to the All-Spectacular team at the FIVB Grand Champions Cup
1995-96 Played professionally in Japan
1995 World Grand Prix (gold)
1996 Olympics (7th place)
Six-time recipient of the United States Olympic Committee Female Volleyball Athlete of the Year.
Five-time winner of Team USA Team MVP award.
She doesn’t scream or yell when she’s coaching. “I’m almost the opposite of what I played like,” she said. “Everybody said they can’t believe I’m so calm on the bench.”
She calls herself an “average” volleyball player. “I believe I was a better softball player,” said Kemner, who played shortstop. “But in the old days, I was considered kind of a phenomenon when it came to athletics. I could jump and hit the crap out of the ball.”
She started playing volleyball in the sixth grade at St. Francis Elementary School in Quincy, Ill. “We had nine players on the court back then,” she said.
She loves to cook and regrets she didn’t go to culinary school. Her best dish is a pesto sauce she makes from scratch (see the recipe here). She is also “obsessed” with good cookbooks. “I read them over and over.”
In 1985, Kemner considered giving up her volleyball scholarship and career at the University of Arizona to focus solely on playing softball for the school. Instead, she accepted an offer to play on the U.S. national volleyball team. “I wasn’t overly happy then with volleyball and I loved playing softball,” she said. “But then I was asked to be on the Olympic team and I said ‘I think I’ll go do that.’”
She didn’t want the number 7 on her jersey because that was the great Flo Hyman’s number. “Years later, I think she would have been proud that I wore the number and did so well with it,” Kemner said.
Caren Kemner was named #26 on VBM's list of the Top 35 Volleyball Players of All Time. See the entire top 35 list here.
Originally published in March/April 2012