When Nancy Dorsey accepted the job as head volleyball coach at St. James Academy in Lenexa, Kan., she wanted to do more than build a winning program.
This fiery competitor set out on a mission to make a difference in the lives of her young players.
The affable Dorsey—who wondered if she could even field a team when the small Catholic high school opened in 2005—has accomplished those goals and much more during nine seasons with the Lady Thunder.
The former outside hitter for the University of Kansas coached St. James to its sixth-consecutive state championship in 2013. As a coach she’s posted an impressive 370-22 record that includes two undefeated seasons. And she’s transformed an infant program in a suburban Midwestern town into a national powerhouse.
But Dorsey—American Family Insurance’s 2013 All-USA Volleyball Coach of the Year—doesn’t define success by her team’s win-loss record or its national ranking.
She uses a surprisingly different standard to gauge her program’s success.
“First and foremost, I’m a teacher,” said Dorsey. “Part of my job is to teach my players that there is nothing they can’t do. When our girls leave this program, I want them to be strong, confident young women.
“If they believe that anything is possible for them,” she added, “then we are successful.”
Dorsey’s philosophy has created an atmosphere that inspires players to take their games and their lives to the highest levels.
They’re driven to reach their goals – even when the odds seem stacked against them.
They’re motivated to win.
Dorsey’s teams, for example, won 56 straight matches in the past two years. Her girls posted a perfect 46-0 record last season and earned several accolades, including VBM’s 2013 Girls’ High School Team of the Year.
“We don’t win on talent alone,” said Dorsey’s husband and assistant coach, Bryan Dorsey. “We’re overachieving because we believe in ourselves and our team.”
But infusing players with confidence is only one chapter in Dorsey’s playbook for success.
What are her other secrets?
How has this mother of four young children—3 ½-year-old triplets Finley, Ellen, and Cooper, and two-year-old Fiona—created one of the most highly-touted volleyball programs in the country?
She sets high expectations.
“From day one, Nancy had a vision of what she wanted her program to be,” Bryan said. “She played for a good high school program [Mother McAuley in Chicago, Ill.] and came from a place where the expectation was that you were going to be the best in the country.
“Nancy had those same expectations for this program,” he added. “From the start, she wanted our girls to win state and be one of the best teams in the country.”
During a recent interview with Volleyball, Dorsey revealed two other secrets that have contributed to her program’s success.
“Family and tradition,” she said without hesitation.
The family piece was easy to fill. Dorsey’s husband has always coached with her at St. James. “He’s my wing man,” she said.
Dorsey’s sister—former University of Iowa volleyball star Jennifer Gile—helped coach, too. And their mom continues to play a pivotal role in the program. “My mom [Ellen Bell] lives with us and takes care of our kids,” Dorsey said. “Without her, none of this would be possible.”
But Dorsey’s family circle extends much further. All her players, past and present, are part of that growing dynamic. Dorsey develops personal relationships with the girls on her teams. She gets involved in their lives. She champions their dreams.
Dorsey and her family even take “volleyball vacations” to visit former players at college.
“Nancy has committed so much time to her players,” Bryan said. “She has a mother-daughter or sister-sister relationship with them. Her players love and respect her. And [those relationships] have played an important part in making Nancy’s program the success it is today.”
“The reason Nancy gets so much from her players is because she cares so much about them,” she said. “When you do that for a person, when you talk to them and build up their confidence, you can get a lot more from them.”
Dorsey’s players echo those sentiments. They say one of the main reasons they fight so hard on the court is to make their coach proud.
“We want to do well for her because of the trust and relationship we have with her,” said sophomore setter Jenna Gray. “She builds us up on a personal level and that makes us want to play for her and win for her.”
Dorsey’s first group of players started the school’s tradition of winning. The young and inexperienced squad, which only fielded freshman and junior varsity teams, went undefeated and posted a 35-0 record.
“We took a chance with that group,” Dorsey said. “We only had a freshman class [of 120 students] that season. But they gave us confidence to play the next year.”
St. James’ team included freshmen and sophomores its second year on the court. The Lady Thunder faced tougher varsity teams but still finished with a winning record of 30-10.
Dorsey started to up the ante. She challenged her players to dig deeper every time they stepped on the court.
The Thunder captured its first state championship during Dorsey’s fourth season. The team went 45-1 and ended the year ranked fourth in the country.
“We were now on the map,” Dorsey said.
And she and her players have worked hard to stay on that map and keep their competitive edge.
“One of the most important things you need to know about me is that I don’t like lazy people,” Dorsey said.
Her fast-paced, no-nonsense practices reflect that ideology. “I run my practices like college practices,” Dorsey said. “No one walks. Everyone hustles. It’s always go-go-go. We want our players to have game-like behaviors during practice.”
Dorsey challenges her players with tough drills. “The attitude I’m trying to instill in my players is they’ve got to be smarter on the court,” she said. “I want them to become students of the game. I want them to see the entire court, look for the holes, and work on spot serving.
“And they always better be talking to each other.”
Dorsey said her teams rarely scrimmage. “When we play six-on-six, we make it a faster paced game than a regular scrimmage,” she said.
Dorsey also tells her players to check their attitudes at the door. She doesn’t allow any “divas” in the gym or on her teams.
“I have zero tolerance for bad attitudes,” she said. “There is no ‘I’m better than you attitude’ allowed. Someone might be more skilled than another player, but no one is better than anyone else.”
What does the future hold for Dorsey and her team? Will these queens of the court continue their reign next season?
“We will graduate six seniors this year,” Dorsey said. “Four of them are starters. The pressure will be on our underclassmen, but I think we’ll be in good shape.”
St. James still has plenty of talent in its lineup, including 6'4" middle Audriana Fitzmorris. The shy volleyball phenom, one of the country’s top college recruits, isn’t worried about the Thunder’s chances next season.
“We lost quite a few seniors, but I believe in our coaches and in our program,” she said.
Whatever happens next season, Fitzmorris and her teammates say they’re better athletes—and better people—because they played for Dorsey.
“She’s really helped me with my confidence and [to] become a leader,” said Fitzmorris, who will be a junior in the 2014 season. “She coaches in such a positive way. If you make a mistake, she explains what happened and lets you fix it.”
Without any prompting or cues from Dorsey, Fitzmorris added: “Every player just comes out of here as a confident young woman.”
Traits Nancy Dorsey Looks For in Players
2. Work Ethic
- Dorsey writes a weekly newsletter about her program. Each team—varsity, junior varsity, and freshmen—has its own page. Dorsey’s newsletter also includes information about former players.
- Several of Dorsey’s former players have competed at the collegiate level. Currently, she has players at Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, and Appalachian State.
- Fourteen players on Dorsey’s team this season had 3.8 or higher grade point averages.
- One of Dorsey’s favorite sayings is “Tighten your ponytail and move on.”
- Dorsey convinced a cable sports channel in Kansas City to host an annual women’s high school volleyball tournament. The Metro Sports Volleyball Slam showcases the top prep teams in the Kansas City area.
Set high expectations and stick to them
Don’t tolerate bad attitudes
Don’t specialize or pigeonhole players
Communicate with players, parents, and administrators
Don’t waste time at practice
Let players know you care about them – on and off the court
Participate in team drills
Use volleyball as a tool to teach life lessons
Don’t criticize after games
Tell your children how much you like to watch them play
Encourage your children to advocate for themselves
Don’t pressure children to get college scholarships
Trust that coaches make decisions based on the team – not individual players
Have a good attitude
Talk on the court
Support your teammates
Set goals for every practice
Nancy Dorsey’s Favorite Drill: Hitter Heck
This drill works on both hitting and defense. It’s called Hitter Heck, but my defensive players say it is Defensive Heck!
I split my hitters up into groups of three or four and some players will do the drill twice (for example an outside may also hit out of the middle).
The hitters attack against a full defense and a stationary block.
I usually start with a group of outsides hitting off a toss. After they hit, they have to run back and touch the end line then get back in line. The three hitters have to get 10 good kills to end their turn.
The catch is that they go back to zero if they get an error (get blocked or hit out of bounds or in the net). An attack dug up by the defense is a wash.
The goal of the drill is to mentally and physically challenge the hitters with a closed block and perfectly established defense. They have to talk to each other and try to find holes in the defense where players might be too shallow or possibly cheating out of their defensive release.
There are several variations you can do with the outside attackers. Instead of running to the end line, you can have them close to a stationary blocker in the middle, block jump, and then transition out to swing. You can also replace the block with a dig. These options are harder and more game-like.
Depending on the skill level of your players and how the drill is progressing, you can eliminate the “go back to zero” policy entirely or tweak it by subtracting one every time they make an error.
When the outsides have reached their 10, we have the middles go next. They’ll hit off a setter. They also have to sprint to the end line after each swing and have to hit a variety of attacks both in front and behind the setter. Like with the outsides, I like to make it more game-like and incorporate a block transition, moving to the opposite direction of the hitter in front of them (this way they go both directions). This teaches them to block first and then find the ball and get in quick to be a part of the offense.
Finally, the opposites and setters will go together hitting from the right side of the court, hitting off a toss, with all the variations available to outsides.
The defense across the net is a vital part of the drill. Their job is to make it as hard as possible for the hitters to score. It gets pretty colorful in our gym when they really start to compete.
I often have the defensive players change up what defense they’re playing to make the hitters really think. They have a pattern of how many times they stay perimeter before they go to rotation, etc. If one of the hitter groups is really starting strong, you can put your best blocker in front of them and make them work a little bit harder.
The number of possible variations is one of the reasons I love this drill so much. It also conditions the players very well for those long rallies and allows them to do things they may not normally do, like play defense.
Originally published in May 2014