116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS - Mary Kay Van Oort is a ball of energy wrapped in a shell of volleyball knowledge.
On this particular day, a Friday night practice, the Mount Mercy men's volleyball coach is folded in a chair in a suite overlooking her team set up practice. It's obvious by the look on her face and the words she utters to each player as they enter the facility that she is immeasurably proud of them.
Proud of the fact they're part of the first ever season of men's volleyball at the school. Proud that the team has persevered through a 1-12 start to the season. Proud that they haven't quit on themselves or their coach.
'I'm overly optimistic sometimes, I'm a glass-half full kind of person,” Van Oort said. 'That doesn't always work in every area, but it helps in an area like this.”
The dream started back in the summer of 2015. Mount Mercy had the funds and administrative support to add two new sports, men's volleyball and competitive cheer and dance, but the team still needed a coach.
The Mustangs are an NAIA team and with five other men's volleyball playing schools in the Heart of America Athletic Conference, having someone with a background in that level of competition would be critical.
Enter Van Oort into the picture. She certainly had the necessary experience, as she was an assistant volleyball coach at Southern Illinois (1990-92), Mount Mercy (1992-93), Kirkwood (1996-97) and the head coach at Cedar Rapids Jefferson from 2013-14.
At two of those stops - Mount Mercy and Kirkwood - she was an assistant under her husband, Doug. Now she's in the lead roll and her husband is a volunteer assistant.
'It's good for our marriage to spend a little time together once in a while,” Van Oort said. 'I think he's been just key in our growth so far.”
Van Oort, as part of her contract, is also an assistant coach on the women's team under Deb Marlin. It's been a productive relationship and Marlin is also an assistant coach on the men's team.
'We're capable of bringing quality volleyball to the Midwest,” Marlin said. 'It's exciting bringing this sport to Mount Mercy.”
Coaching, however, is just part of the formula for a successful team. Getting players to buy in wasn't going to be the easiest thing in the world.
Van Oort was also worried that, being a woman coaching a men's sport, there might be some tension. She has found none.
'I didn't know if there would be some friction,” Van Oort said. 'I wasn't sure they'd listen to me as well as they'd listen to my husband.”
She says her team, made up nearly entirely of freshmen, has stayed coachable and is one of the things that make her happiest about this team.
There have been some tough bumps in the road. Players redshirting, injuries, changes to the lineups and piling up of losses, but in her eyes, the team has a strong future.
The players say the exact same thing.
'It's nice being the first of everything for this school and this team,” Justin Atienza said. 'You're creating the base for the program and that, in itself, makes you feel really cool.”
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