Six years ago, Ryan Mitchell was hired to coach volleyball and teach leadership at Lovejoy (Lucas, Texas)
. Or was it to coach leadership and teach volleyball?
"I teach leadership class at Lovejoy, which is mandatory for freshmen," said Mitchell, who has guided the Lovejoy volleyball team to three straight 3A Texas state championships. "It's really basic leadership. 'How do we self-lead? How are we developing?' It's how we handle ourselves as individuals and the life lessons we get from that."
That's Mitchell in the classroom.
"It doesn't matter whether we're team captain or not, it's how we handle ourselves as part of the volleyball program. It's how we represent our school, our teammates and our families. It's how we develop as people."
That's Mitchell on the volleyball court. He calls it "buy in."
He set out six years ago to "create a culture" that would develop a premier volleyball program at Lovejoy, at that time a new school.
"The key has been the buy-in of the vision for the program," said Mitchell, who was named the 2010 MaxPreps Volleyball Coach of the Year
. "We wanted a clear vision for the program as to where we needed and wanted to go. Once you get kids going in that direction, it's just small adjustments after that."
The vision was to be known not just locally or only in Texas, but to be known nationally as a premier volleyball program. It started the day the school opened.
"We were a new school, so we started from scratch and I was able to put my own stamp on it," said Mitchell. "It comes with plusses and minuses. Plus is you haven't created a culture of losing, thus the need is to create a culture of winning."
And win they do. The 2011 team has started the season 20-2 after winning 46, 43 and 40 matches in each of the three preceding state championship seasons. Entering 2011, Mitchell has a won-loss record of 137 and 20.
With the "vision" in place, Mitchell is quick to add that his secret for success isn't really much of a secret.
"It's just good talented kids," said the former Dallas Baptist University setter. "Any time you are going to win it is because you have good talented kids, followed by support of parents."
Mitchell said he hasn't "had a parent problem in six years - pretty phenomenal."
"The goal isn't simply to become the first Texas team to win four straight 3A titles, it is to be the best regardless of classification," said Mitchell, who has coaching victories over Texas 4A and 5A state champions.
With an enrollment of just less than 1,000, this season will be Lovejoy's last at 3A. The school moves to 4A next season and Mitchell says the "vision" is to win as many state titles at 4A as possible.
While Mitchell has received his share of Coach of Year honors, he is quick to point out that he has "great mentors." He coached under Hebron High School coach Karin Keeney for five years and learned how to structure a program centered around hard work and discipline.
"I knew Xs and Os - but learned a lot (from Keeney) about the program side of things," said Mitchell, the father of two boys, ages 6 and 4.
He also relishes his time spent assisting club coach Ruth Nelson, who taught Mitchell how to coach kids and run practices. "I was like a sponge with Ruth," he said.
Mentored by Nelson and Keeney, Mitchell said he also trained under a "yeller and screamer" where the athletes wanted to succeed just to prove their coach wrong.
"I was able to blend my coaching style," he said. "Some probably think I'm too aggressive, but I'd like to think my best attribute as a coach is balancing relationships built with players on and off the court. The ability to connect with kids and athletes and then ask a whole heck of a lot from them all comes from buy-in. They believe, and know, I have the best interest for them."
And what does he expect of them?
"What I expect is what we talk about all the time: do things that are going to represent Lovejoy volleyball that will make your parents, friends and coaches proud. Do not step out of line."
He noted this relates to Facebook, dating life, in the school halls, academics and hard work at practice. A typical Lovejoy practice is very fast-paced, likely faster than those of most of the Leopards' opponents.
"The more reps you're getting, the quicker you're getting and the quicker you get to success," said Mitchell. "Our kids are always moving right down to the way they shag balls. It's a system that works. We do not stand around. We are moving constantly. I don't want practices to be boring."
In addition to gold medals and recognition, Mitchell said in return for their buying in to the program's vision, his players "get a family."
"They get to be part of a group of individuals all working for a common goal," he said. "They learn discipline, to be part of something bigger themselves ... part of something good. It's about life lessons. It's about relationships."
The coach admits to being "blessed" and surrounded by great people in the evolution and elevation of the Lovejoy volleyball express. And his conversation is full circle returning back to being blessed with exceptional athletes. This year's team is loaded with talent, starting with senior Andi Molloy
, who just returned from two weeks playing for the U.S. Girls' Youth National Team at the World Championships held in Turkey.
"Andi is just a different breed of kid. Not only does she do the right things, she does everything the good kids do and then takes it to the next level," said Mitchell. "She is in the gym earlier than everyone, later than everyone and watches more film than everyone."
Add Ebony Nwanebu
, a 6-4 outside hitter who has committed to USC and setter Shannon Connell
, who will play her college ball at Stephen F. Austin University. Both are juniors, as is Mallory Puckett
, a 5-foot-9 outside hitter.
Mitchell calls Nwanebu "the real deal. She changes the game in so many ways. Hits hard, blocks well, manipulates what other teams do."
Comparing this team to the previous trio of state champs isn't easy, said Mitchell.
"This team is big and physical, we're just not as deep. But this group knows how to win. It's a good X-factor and they have a little swagger the other (state champion teams) didn't have."
Though the school has had only two graduating classes since opening, Malloy will be the sixth Leopard to attend a Division-1 school on a volleyball scholarship. There have only been nine seniors in the program.
"Malloy is a great leader," said Mitchell.
The vision at Lovejoy starts - and ends - with leadership.