Mothering three young children and managing a team of 17 young adults requires the same elements: work, time and dedication. USD head volleyball coach Leanne Williamson wears both hats.
Williamson found herself on the road almost every weekend for the first month of the 2019 season, away for non-conference volleyball tournaments. Her husband was overseas serving the country during that time.
Williamson has led a 31-2 Coyote volleyball team to its first regular-season Summit League title, as well as a runner-up finish in the NIVC tournament.
“I’d love to say it was easy, but it wasn’t, it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Williamson said.
When work and home collide
Williamson became the head coach of the Coyote volleyball team in 2014. Since taking the reigns, she has seen her fair share of success with a 122-57 overall record and a 70-22 record in Summit League play. Williamson won the 2016 Summit League Coach of the Year award and led the Coyotes to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 2018, but she said she doesn’t take the credit for it all.
“This is their team, it’s not my program,” Williamson said. “I’m a small part of it in the grand scheme of things. I’m going to help them, I’m going to be their biggest advocates.”
Williamson, like most coaches, recruit players who can lead, but Williamson coaches to help her players lead themselves.
In the middle of that first season, Williamson was pregnant with her first two children, twins Jaxson and Logan. Williamson presented the team at the time with a question, and they responded the way she hoped.
“I was going to go into labor at some point in time and I just asked them, ‘what are you going to do if I’m all of a sudden not there one day?’” Williamson said. “They’re like, ‘well, no offense but you don’t play the game,’ and we’re like, ‘perfect.’ That’s what we (the coaching staff) wants, and I don’t feel like I’m bigger than I need to be. I am a small part of their program.”
Kinsley, Williamson’s youngest at less than a year old, has traveled with the Coyotes throughout the season, making her first appearance in Indianapolis on Aug. 30.
While Williamson’s husband, Tyler, was overseas, she carried the parenting workload alone until late October, when he returned from duty.
Leanne Williamson said while it is the hardest thing she has ever done, it is also one of the most rewarding things. She would have loved for her husband to be in Vermillion for the majority of the season, she said, but she understood.
“I really tried to leave work at work,” Williamson said. “If I was watching film it was when the kids were sleeping and just things like that. The other thing is, I had a great support system.”
Williamson’s parents and in-laws, along with friends and coaches, helped her through the first part of this season. The team was there for her, too, just like in 2014.
They recognized Williamson’s life outside of the arena and were helpful and understanding when she had to leave right after practice, she said.
“I wouldn’t say I was perfect in that situation, but I tried not to let stress affect the different parts of my life,” Williamson said.
The 1-0 Mentality
Each coach presents a different style, method or mentality to the sport they coach. For Williamson, it’s simple: 1-0.
“She’s always said that about just winning the day, winning this practice, winning this drill,” senior libero Anne Rasmussen said. “I think that does get implemented into our practices. We talked about, how can we be the best we can be that day, and how can we improve that day?”
Rasmussen said the mentality helped throughout the season, easing pressure surrounding the win streak or how far they have left to go in the season.
The 1-0 Mentality has taken the Coyotes further and further nearly every season. Williamson acknowledges it can be easy to dissect the big picture or the past, but the focus should be on the 1-0.
“I think in sports it’s very easy to dwell on past accomplishments, past struggles, past losses, past wins,” Williamson said. “If you’re winning a lot, you can feel like you’re just going to win because you have won a lot. But if you have a loss, if you have a bad game maybe as an individual, you start dwelling on that.”
The mental ability to clean the slate is one of the best parts about Williamson as a coach, Rasmussen said.
“She’s remained pretty steady, whether we’re losing a ton or winning a ton, through my four years here,” Rasmussen said. “She’s always been that steady presence. She’s always held us to a high standard. And that doesn’t change with our win-loss record. She knows what we’re trying to reach, we know what she expects us to reach, and every day in the gym we show that.”
A few years ago, Williamson began referring to goals as expectations. The team is aware of the expectations, and that they are attainable through 1-0 mentality, she said.
“Not that we’re going to hit absolutely everything, but we don’t want these to feel lofty,” Williamson said. “We want these to feel like something that is attainable every single year.”
The 2019 season
Four seniors have guided this year’s Coyote team on its historic run. They won 24 consecutive games to finish the regular season; no team before this year had won more than 20 games in a row.
“I do think that it takes a special person to not let the lights and the excitement around those situations get to you,” Williamson said. “What I really like what this team is we played in really big moments in our home tournament when we played Wyoming we played Iowa and beat both of them on our home floor.”
The relationship between the players and coaches is another unique thing about this year’s squad, Rasmussen said.
“I think it’s really something special between our coaches and us,” Rasmussen said. “We’ll be joking on the bus with them. We actually don’t mind having to sit next to them at team meals like we actually enjoy getting to talk to them and seeing their views on things. So it’s actually a really cool relationship that I think a lot of programs don’t have.”