Lewis and Clark first-year coach Larissa Welch and senior setter Katie Kenlein have negotiated the shortened spring volleyball season together, battling not only their Greater Spokane League foes, but the challenges of the COVID-19 protocol and everything that goes with that.
They both have a deep appreciation for the legacy their sport carries at LC, which has helped carry them though a season of building from within the program, hoping that their dividends will pay off in the future by adding banners to the gym’s rafters.
But for now, after a regular season that ended with a 3-7 record, they are satisfied to know they were a part of something bigger than themselves.
“We had a long talk at the beginning of the season,” Welch said. “I said, ‘I’m taking a lot of freshmen. You guys aren’t gonna see (the development) this year. But I promise you, if you come back in two years, what you helped build, you will see the difference.’ ”
There aren’t too many high school kids who will admit to watching C-SPAN, let alone profess it to be their favorite channel.
But then, Kenlein isn’t a typical high school kid.
“I’m just a political nerd and I love all of that,” she said Tuesday after leading the Tigers to a four-set win over Ferris. “Just watching C-SPAN is one of my favorite activities when I don’t have volleyball practice. I’m not joking – yeah, hours of it.”
While plenty of teens have part-time jobs, Kenlein has been preparing for a career. Her biography for her college application reads like a 30-year-old’s resume, including internships with Mayor Nadine Woodward and Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers and a state senate page stint for Senator Andy Billig.
Kenlein is headed to Grove City College in Western Pennsylvania to play Division III volleyball and pursue an education, but she’s always been drawn to the idea of public service.
“I think that just the idealism of what our government can look like when people participate and work together to solve problems has really always been something that just amazes me,” she said. “I think that leaders in our community and in our country have inspired me to lead and I think that’s something that, you know, I want to pursue public service where I can help people.”
Helping people comes natural to her on the volleyball court as well. As Tigers setter she’s responsible to make sure her teammates are in the best position to be successful on any given play.
“It’s so rewarding to have a team that works together to reach a common goal,” Kenlein said. “I’m a very goal-oriented person. I love to set the bar. (Tuesday) it was to beat our rival, and it was amazing to be able to encourage everyone and we all rallied around that goal.
“At the end of the day, the goal is to play good volleyball and play for each other.”
Coach on the court
Welch has been happy to be able to lean on Kenlein’s leadership.
“It’s a lot of more of her personality than her position,” Welch said. “Yes, normally our setters are always our leader, they’re like the quarterback of the football team, they kind of run everything. But it’s her personality and who she is.”
It helps that the team’s primary hitter, fellow senior Maya Eastlund, has been playing with Kenlein since they were in grade school
“I actually have pictures of them at U-12,” Welch said. “Just little girls. It’s funny because one of the pictures on my phone is of those two, so they’ve been playing together since sixth grade.”
“It’s been amazing to be able to develop that chemistry,” Kenlein said. “It’s almost like you have a second sense of, I know where she wants the ball and she just will put it away and it’s amazing to see that come alive on the court. It’s really, really cool.”
With just three seniors listed on the team roster, Kenlein has been willing to do whatever is asked of her – and more.
“This year we had a long talk about all the freshmen we’re bringing in,” Welch said. “And she’s like, ‘I got it, Coach. I can do this.’ And she’s just taking them under her wing.
“She’s constantly talking with them and she brings them in and she’s like, ‘Hey, let’s work on this some more,’ so she’s just that natural leader. I’m grateful and thankful that she’s here.”
Kenlein gets it done on the court, too.
Late in the tight fourth set on Tuesday’s match, she surprised Ferris with a spike from her setter position, then used a well-placed dink for a three-point lead in a set the Tigers won 25-20.
“She gets it,” Welch said. “We’ve been telling her to do some of that stuff, but all of a sudden when it starts clicking, she just like goes with it. She needs to trust herself a little more, because sometimes she second guesses. But she’s like, ‘OK, we’re in trouble, my team needs this.’ ”
“You know as a setter, it’s almost my dream to get to get to attack and to play to play offense and put the ball down,” Kenlein said. “I get to play right side (hitter) so I’ve had a lot of practice this year on attacking. And so it’s just now becoming second nature almost where I’m able to when the ball is tight and I can go up and be aggressive.”
Welch might be a first-year coach with the Tigers, but she’s hardly a newcomer to Spokane volleyball – or LC for that matter.
She was an assistant and JV coach at University for eight years, but more than that, she’s the daughter-in-law of Buzzie Welch, considered the patriarch of Spokane volleyball.
Buzzie Welch, who died in 2018, had a 504-185 record with 10 state trophies in 18 appearances – three at Rogers and Ferris and four at LC, which included two state titles. His teams won 11 Greater Spokane League titles, five with LC.
“I think about that constantly, what it means,” Larissa Welch said. “My first day after I took the job I came in here with my daughter and we went to go to the (volleyball) closet and he she’s like, ‘Mom.’ And I was like, ‘I can do this,’ and of course the emotions came.
“I mean, this is where I started with him, 24 years ago coming here and helping him and running the (Linda Sheridan) crossover classic and doing so much other stuff.”
Cleaning out that closet with her daughter, Welch found a box of old photos of her father-in-law.
“There’s pictures of him from Ferris. There’s pictures of him from Rogers, and we’re just looking at each other,” she said. “And it was right around the time of his birthday, I think within a day or something. And we’re trying not to (cry) and it’s like, so many pictures of him.
“So I took them home. And there’s articles that (The Spokesman-Review) had written about Shannon (Welch, Buzzie Welch’s daughter) and I remember those because I played against Shannon, she was a year below me, and there’s articles of her, and it was just like the coolest kind of thing.”
Taking the reigns at LC seemed more than natural. It was like coming home.
“I’d been offered a lot of jobs in the GSL to come and coach at schools and I’m always like, ‘I have it made at U-Hi,’ she said. “But for some reason, this school holds a special place in my heart and a certain tie, so it would have taken a lot, but that’s 100% of what brought me here.
The current players are well aware of the history surrounding Welch’s return to LC.
“We’ve all kind of talked about what it means to play for LC and to represent our school,” Kenlein said. “Of course, we do really look at that legacy of Buzzie Welch.
“We know the banners are up there, and I think that, yeah, we strive to it.”
The lessons Larissa learned from Buzzie have stuck with her throughout her coaching career.
“I love him to death,” she said. “He was the best role model I ever had and he taught me so much. His rules, when you walk in the gym, that are on the door, I’ve used them for 25 years coaching club, in high school.
“They’ve stuck with me and I have great meaning and I don’t know what else there is to say about that man, except he was wonderful.”
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