Three of the six athletic programs — softball, women’s basketball and volleyball — at Labette will have new assistant coaches for the 2020-21 season.
The softball program, headed by longtime head coach Ryan Phillips, will have to replace assistant coach Emilee Vance. The former All-American third baseman for the Cardinals submitted her resignation after the season was canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“I thought Emilee did a great job of recruiting,” Phillips said. “I tell assistants that I’ll figure out how good they are by seeing how good the kids they bring in are. She did a tremendous job doing everything assistant coaches are supposed to do. She’ll be missed, but we discussed prior to the season that this was potentially an option.”
Vance spent three seasons, including this spring’s shortened campaign, as Phillips’ assistant. She said she plans to pursue other career opportunities.
“I didn’t see coaching as a longterm career plan,” Vance said. “I just couldn’t see myself in it for the long haul. So I wanted to find something else.”
Labette softball snapped a two-year losing streak during Vance’s second season on staff in 2019.
“The outlook program is really good,” Vance said. “We have one of the best recruiting classes coming in. It’ll continue to turn the program around. With the way this season ended, we don’t know how we would’ve done. Hopefully the next team will continue the trend.”
The school recently posted the softball assistant coach job opening and Phillips hopes to have a candidate on staff by early August. This will be just the fourth time Phillips will have to hire a head coach since taking over the softball program in 2004.
“I’d like to get somebody that has some experience,” Phillips said. “I want somebody who’s more defensive minded or a pitching coach so I can focus more on the offense. The pay isn’t conducive to getting somebody with a big resume, so this position is really about getting a start in coaching.”
Women’s basketball head coach Mitch Rolls endured an entire winter season without an assistant coach after Tiffany Conner departed the staff in November 2019.
“The hardest part was recruiting,” Rolls said. “We signed 12 kids this year. Doing it in a timely manner was definitely the hardest part. That’s tough even with an assistant, though. But I also had to throw on my plate all the things Coach Conner did. It made me a better coach. It was a challenge, though, for sure.”
Labette women’s basketball had a ticker-tape year in 2019-20, winning its second-ever Kansas Jayhawk Conference title and punching a ticket to the NJCAA Division II National Tournament. The national tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus, robbing the Cardinals of a chance to compete for a national title.
As Rolls looks to fill his staff on a timeline mirroring Phillips and softball, he said he values college playing experience in his search for the right candidate. The reigning KJCCC Coach of the Year will be searching for his fourth assistant as he enters his sixth year on the job.
“The most important thing for me is that they have good playing experience,” Rolls said. “There’s a lot of people that played. But I want a player that went through the grind and knows the ins and out. I want to give a younger, ex-player that opportunity. We share a love for the game so I’m looking for somebody that’s really hungry.”
As for the volleyball program, head coach Haley Miller hired a new assistant coach, Deardin Kelley, during the spring semester.
Kelley, a former Fort Scott Community College player who went on to star at Southwestern College, played at Fort Scott while Miller served as an assistant there under former head coach Lindsay Hill.
“Just from coaching her at Fort Scott, she was always one of the go-to leaders,” Miller said. “She was somebody her teammates looked to and as a coach, I could go to her to help get the team in line,” Miller said. “I watched her go to Southwestern and help turn the program around. We stayed in touch throughout all that.”
Kelley graduated from Southwestern with a bachelor’s degree in psychology last December and joined Miller’s staff shortly afterwards.
“When I first took this job, I always wanted Deardin to be a coach,” Miller said. “With her graduating this winter, it became perfect timing. She knows the expectations for my program. She knows what’s on my mind before it comes out of my mind. We complement one another super well.”
Kelley aims to take an ambitious approach on the recruiting trail in her role in trying to rebuild the Labette volleyball program.
“To get this program on its feet, it’s going to take a change in culture and a change in player that we’ve been getting,” Kelley said. “We’re looking for athletic, multi-position players. Versatility is what’s going to help us out. To spark that change, we need different types of athletes that come in and are ready to work.”
Miller, who will enter her third season with Labette this fall, has had trouble finding an assistant coach since taking over the position as Kelley will be the fourth to hold the position under Miller.
With Miller and Kelley having developed their relationship at Fort Scott, Miller hopes this hire sticks.
“Deardin is going to provide the consistency in an assistant coach,” Miller said. “She hoped she could be a part of this staff ever since I got this job.”
Kelley added that she intends to stay for at Labette for at least two years as she pursues her master’s degree at Pittsburg State.
“I plan to stay at minimum as long as it takes me to get my master’s degree,” Kelley said. “There’s no real timeframe, though. I wouldn’t leave earlier than two years, though.”
While softball and women’s basketball have already suffered direct consequences as a result of COVID-19, volleyball is still anxiously awaiting what the future holds for its fall season. The KJCCC recently announced that it was barring all in-person athletic contact with student-athletes until June 30. The conference also said it will make an announcement no later than June 15 regarding further plans to return to athletics.
Phillips pointed out that the school’s decision to open up the softball and women’s basketball assistant jobs for hiring shows the institution is still valuing athletics through the pandemic.
“That’s helping me keep my sanity through all of this,” Phillips said. “I’m really happy they decided to actually open it up. It shows they still want the position.”