Coach's competitive edge has DeWitt volleyball in midst of stellar season

Hometown coach Christy Thelen looking to bring state volleyball title to No. 3-ranked DeWitt

DeWitt volleyball head coach Christy Thelen instructs her team during the 1st set of their match with Mason Wednesday September 7, 2016 in DeWitt. The Panthers are the No. 3-ranked team in Class A.

DeWitt volleyball head coach Christy Thelen instructs her team during the 1st set of their match with Mason Wednesday September 7, 2016 in DeWitt. The Panthers are the No. 3-ranked team in Class A.

DEWITT – Christy Thelen’s final high school volleyball game is forever etched in her memory.

The 2003 DeWitt High School graduate remembers having bronchitis. She remembers the three-game match lasting nearly three hours long, despite game point being 15, not 25 like today’s rules.

More painfully, Thelen, whose maiden name is Drayton, remembers her team holding a 13-8 lead over Carelton Airport High School in Game 3 of the Class B state quarterfinals. And she remembers her team missing out on the state semifinals, a year after losing in the regional final the year before.

“I couldn’t even cry afterward because I was so mad,” the two-time State Journal Dream Team selection said. She also played in the state semifinals, twice, with the basketball team.

Thelen, who was an assistant coach on the girls basketball staff for seven years after graduating high school, became the Panthers’ full-time volleyball coach in 2008. She came back home for a job opportunity after graduating from Michigan State.

It took no more than two years before she had flashbacks of her senior season. She coached DeWitt to the Class B state quarterfinals in 2009 and 2010 — her team falling short both times.

“The quarterfinal is my nemesis,” Thelen said. “I wish I knew then what I knew now. I was like 24 years old. I would have done a lot of things differently.”

It’s clear that what Thelen knows now is working. In her ninth season, the Panthers are currently the No. 3 team in Class A and have a 39-1 record. As of now, they’re one of the favorites to win the state championship, which means Thelen could potentially get another opportunity to take hold of the elusive state championship.

“For me, because I fell short so many times …. I feel like I have something left still missing,” Thelen said. “I always say to them that I would do anything to come back and play one more high school sport. They have no idea what it’s like for it to be over. You can’t instill that into (somebody) until it’s actually over.

“I’m competitive. And one of the gifts I have is instilling that into other people.”

Jim Silsby, who was DeWitt’s coach from 2000 to 2004, saw the coaching bug in his former setter back then. Most notably, in Thelen’s senior year, when the incoming juniors weren’t performing in practice to her liking, and she told him a player-only meeting was necessary.

“She pulled them into the supply closet, with the other senior captain, and I sat outside the door listening,” Silsby recalled. “I had never heard so many F-bombs in my life. …The juniors all come out crying, tears flowing down their eyes. Christy comes out and says, ‘I think we’ve reached an understanding.’

“After that, we were (clicking) on all cylinders from that point forward.”

It’s that competitive edge that’s helped the Panthers, who were recently voted as the State Journal’s high school team of the month, become a consistent force during Thelen’s nine-year tenure. The program has won three Class B district titles (2008-10), two Class B regional titles (2009-10), and two Class A district titles (2014-15). Junior outside hitter Grace George said Thelen’s competitiveness runs throughout the program.

“I see myself in her,” said George, whose team was ranked No. 1 for three weeks this season. “I feel like because she’s been my coach for so long that she’s rubbing off on me more.

“(Her competitiveness) really helps us when we get down because not only do we want to win this game for each other, but we want to win for coach. She enjoys the game and has a huge passion for it. We want to do the best to represent our community and represent her.”

DeWitt is in the midst of what could be a historic run, and it comes a year after its season was ended by Mattawan in the regional final in a five-game thriller. Eight players returned from the 2015 team, and the thought of the season-ending loss is as distasteful now as it was a little over 11 months ago.

And until Thelen is finally able to bring a state title home, the bitter taste of defeat will stay there. Just like it’s been for the past 14 years.

“She’ll always tell past stories of the final game, when you can’t do anything else, and what it feels like to be done,” said Lexi Nordmann, a Miss Michigan Volleyball finalist. “She’s making sure that you’re working hard every point so that you can get past that feeling and feel that you left everything on the floor.

“She always talks about how much high school sports mean, and to be able to have that experience. You can’t go back, and she makes sure we make the moment count.”

Contact James L. Edwards III at jledwards@lsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @JLEdwardsIII.