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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Steve Christilaw: Recalling Spokane’s volleyball pioneers

Judy Kight, Mead High School’s volleyball coach, gives her players a high-five before sending them back on the court  during the 2005 Crossover Classic. Kight led Mead girls to seven state titles, including an incredible five in a row from 2003 to 2007. (Amanda Smith / The Spokesman-Review)
Judy Kight, Mead High School’s volleyball coach, gives her players a high-five before sending them back on the court during the 2005 Crossover Classic. Kight led Mead girls to seven state titles, including an incredible five in a row from 2003 to 2007. (Amanda Smith / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s time to start cranking the volume up in the gym.

And no, I’m not talking about basketball. The colleges are beginning the slow grind toward March Madness, but the rest of the dribbling world still has a while before rolling out the orange balls and remembering how to set a pick.

I’m talking about setting and digging and spiking. The game that tends to get overlooked a bit every fall while we get busy tailgating on Football Fridays.

The volleyball regular season is underway, and now the fun starts.

I’ve always thought about fall’s lone indoor sport the same way I look at making a great sauce on the stove. The regular season is about prepping ingredients, gathering the right spices and picking the right pot.

Cooks use the French phrase “mise en place” to describe the prep work – getting “everything in its place.” In volleyball, we call it roster management – fitting each player into their role on the court by figuring out when and where to best use their talent and personality.

To make the best “sauce,” a coach layers the flavors he or she has on the team. Making certain each brings its best to the dish. Sometimes that means a gentle sauté to take the hard edges off and mellow the overall taste. Sometimes it means holding back a spice until later in the dish so that it’s flavor adds character and bite. Some flavors bloom in the heat of cooking, filling the air with unforgettable aromas. Others must be added at just the right moment for just the right punch.

Teams simmer through the regular season. Individual ingredients blend and meld together to become something more.

Sometimes that simmer is about softening and melding. Sometimes its about creating a reduction that concentrates flavors and turns the final sauce into something more bold.

That’s where the great chef’s shine.

Spokane has some great chefs on the volleyball court. What they will turn out over the coming weeks will be another in a long line of memorable meals.

Area colleges have boasted Hall of Fame coaches. Eastern Washington under Pam Parks. Irene Matlock at the Community Colleges of Spokane, where her disciple, Jenni Hill, has more than 400 career wins already.

Washington State has prep legend Jen Greeny, one the best Class B girls basketball players the area has ever produced.

But the engine that drove Spokane to the top, that turned it into a volleyball power in the state, started in the Greater Spokane League.

Really, it started with just two coaches.

But what coaches.

Just the way that Julia Child and Jacques Pepin inspired generations of home cooks, Donald Allen Welch and Linda Sheridan are the founding coaches in an impressive family.

Of course, you could just as easily refer to them as pioneers who led the sport into the promised land.

Sheridan inspired players in two sports, volleyball and basketball, in the early days following the advent of Title IX.

Sheridan won seven state championships at Shadle Park, five of them in volleyball.

Among her coaching disciples was Mead legend Judy Kight, who won seven state titles, including an incredible five in a row from 2003 to 2007.

“Buzzie” Welch was easily the Pied Piper of Spokane volleyball. If you talked with him for five minutes and did not come away as a converted, rabid volleyball fan you could legally be declared dead.

Welch won a pair of state championships at Lewis and Clark.

But individual accomplishment is not the indelible mark these two long-time friends and friendly rivals left behind when they passed away much, much too soon – Sheridan to ALS and Welch to cancer.

Early on, Sheridan and Welch decided that the game was more important than their individual rivalry. They never sought to patent the game at their respective fiefdom.

Instead, they created an all-City volleyball camp. Elementary students through high school students could learn from this collective brain trust.

If you wanted to learn volleyball, they were ready, willing and able to teach you.

To help drive that success, they founded a tournament they called “The Crossover Classic,” which annually draws some of the top teams in the state. The tournament was renamed “The Linda Sheridan Volleyball Classic,” and the tournament moved to recognize Welch.

“What they did was so selfless and you can see the results,” Freeman coach Eva Windlin-Jansen said. “The tournament they created is still one of the best part of our season.”

Windlin-Jansen is not a product of that Spokane melting pot, but she has been adding to it since joining the staff at Gonzaga University and later becoming the school’s head coach.

But it says something about the volleyball culture in the area when a former college coach stays in the area to build a program at a Class 1A school the way Windlin-Jansen has at Freeman.

“I think we’re seeing a new generation taking over and building on what coaches before them built,” she said.

Sheridan and Welch started something special here. They built something aimed at longevity. And something that has flourished beyond even their own expectations.

And that is a fitting legacy.

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