2 men's teams, 2 women coaches, respect

Mary Kay Van Oort is making men's volleyball a thing at Mount Mercy

Mount Mercy head men's volleyball coach Mary Kay Van Oort talks to her players before the second set of their match against Culver-Stockton Wildcats in Cedar Rapids Wednesday night. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Mount Mercy head men's volleyball coach Mary Kay Van Oort talks to her players before the second set of their match against Culver-Stockton Wildcats in Cedar Rapids Wednesday night. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Women being the two head coaches in a men’s college athletics competition certainly isn’t the norm.

Yet, that’s what was witnessed Wednesday night at Mount Mercy University when the Mustangs played Culver-Stockton College of Canton, Mo. In a Heart of America Athletic Conference men’s volleyball match, Mount Mercy won a long, intense contest, 28-26, 25-18, 23-25, 19-25, 16-14.

A couple of decades ago, Culver-Stockton Coach Caren Kemner was a volleyball hero to Mount Mercy’s coach, Mary Kay Van Oort. Kemner was a three-time U.S. Olympian. She was a fiery leader on the Americans’ bronze-medal team in the 1992 Summer Games. She was inducted into the International Volleyball Hall of Fame in 2013.

“She was the best player in the world at her peak,” said Van Oort, who played at Notre Dame and has her name sprinkled all over that school’s volleyball record book.

The two women were here Wednesday in the Hennessey Recreation Center, directing male athletes.

“It shouldn’t be that rare,” Kemner said, “and that’s unfortunate.”

“We’re still in the minority,” said Van Oort, “but this wasn’t unusual, because there are so many more women who grew up playing volleyball than men.

Kemner has been the women’s volleyball coach at Culver-Stockton for seven years. She is in her first season of coaching the men’s team.

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“The school asked me to do it,” said Kemner. “I enjoy working with the young men. For me, it’s easy. I feel I can be much more direct with the men, more like how I played. I think they appreciate that. I think there’s a lot of mutual respect.”

Van Oort was the girls’ volleyball coach at Jefferson High School when Mount Mercy approached her about building a men’s volleyball program from scratch. She had been an assistant coach to husband Doug Van Oort when he coached the Mount Mercy women’s volleyball team from 1990 to 1993.

The Mustang men’s first season was last year. They went 3-25, and one win was a forfeit. All the players were freshmen.

“We tried to win points, a set here and there,” Van Oort said.

This year’s Mustangs are 7-3, and they look like a volleyball team. Nothing but positive energy was seen from them Wednesday night. During one timeout, the players clapped and sang along to the recording of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” playing on the public-address system.

Van Oort was a smiling, supportive, hand-slapping coach who commanded her players’ attention during play-stoppages. But the 24 hours before that weren’t full of singing and grinning. The Mustangs had lost at home to Clarke University Tuesday.

“We struggled with our mood and attitude,” Van Oort said. So she held a day-full of individual meetings with players Wednesday before they returned to the court that evening.

“We stayed in a good mood and played hard tonight,” she said.

Van Oort has done most of her recruiting in the Chicago and Madison, Wis., areas, where boys’ volleyball clubs are more advanced than the seven in Iowa. Twenty-two states have sanctioned boys’ high school volleyball. Iowa isn’t among them.

But the Mustangs have three Iowans among their 14 players, including Prairie High grad Evan Gaskill, a freshman who plays a lot. He played for the 380 Devil Dogs volleyball club based at Prairie.

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“He just grew on us,” Van Oort said. “He’s our best passer. He’s a wonderful kid and the team is really enjoying him.

The Mustangs also have two Bulgarians, sophomores Nikola “Coco” Stoimenov and Strahil Svilenski. The players connected to Van Oort sight unseen. They sent letters to U.S. coaches looking for places to play and pursue college educations.

“I got a little bit of luck,” Van Oort said.

Stoimenov, 6-foot-7 and an assertive presence on the court, insisted “She is a good coach.”

Van Oort was a Division I player who was an assistant coach at Division I Southern Illinois a quarter-century ago. This is a small-college program, not D-I.

But it’s still coaching and volleyball, and it looks like Mount Mercy has the foundation of a strong program in place.

“It’s not a glamorous job,” Van Oort said. “But it’s an exciting job. Because these kids want to play.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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