Turning the Tide: Kuntz starting new era of Mustang Volleyball

Editors Note: The following story is Part two of a three-part series called Turning the Tide. The Custer County Chief will go inside sports programs with young coaches who are changing the culture. This week, the Chief focuses on S-E-M volleyball coach Adam Kuntz. Adam Kuntz has loved the game of volleyball ever since he can remember. Being the son of a single-mother volleyball coach (up until age five) can have that effect on someone. “Instead of going to daycare, I just came with her after school and would go with her to the gym,” Kuntz said. “I would just stand there and hit the ball against the wall. I just had a natural knack for it.” It wasn’t long before he started getting into some drills with the team and really becoming a student of the game. He would use anything at his disposal to help him constantly learn about the game and improve. He would play the ball off the roof of the family’s shed, doing the three hits and then hit hard off the top and play defense. He also used a traditional child’s play area as a makeshift court. I would always beg people to play volleyball with me after school using the swingset as a net,” Kuntz said. “Anywhere I could play volleyball that I could make a net out of, I was doing it.” While volleyball isn’t widely available as a high school sport, Kuntz was taken under the wing of some high school coaches who helped him continue to hone his knowledge of the game before he went on to be on the staff of the volleyball team at Wayne State.Upon graduating college, Kuntz was offered the job ad Hartington-Cedar Catholic in Hartington- a town of about 1,600 people. It didn’t take long for Kuntz to show that he was up for the job at age 23. He responded with three straight trips to the state tournament and won the Class C2 state title in 2012. The question he gets asked all the time is- why leave one year removed from winning a state tournament? Like most coaches, they also teach class during the day. Kuntz is no different. Lured by the extended benefits of the public education system, Kuntz decided that it was time for a change. In his first season with Sumner-Eddyville-Miller, he has already pushed the Mustangs to 11 wins- five more than all of last season. Coach Kuntz has come in with his volleyball knowledge and has helped a ton,” S-E-M Principal/Athletic Director Bill Schmidt said. “The girls like the fact that he instills this confidence in them that they can go out and get it done.” He is starting to see the culture change with the volleyball program under his guidance. The atmosphere is starting to resemble the winning aura of what he had at HCC. That’s not saying they don’t have a long way to go to reach that point, but the roots have been laid. “(At HCC) I had girls that just begged to come in the gym that wouldn’t leave at night,” Kuntz said. “The practices were so intense because it was so competitive. We were so deep. Here, I’ll have girls stay after and pepper and they are starting to realize that volleyball can be fun.” Fun is something that didn’t always come to mind in relation to volleyball the past four seasons. Especially among the seniors Shaylee Burr, Rachel Ibach, Miranda Pierce and Kisha Thomas. Kuntz is their third coach in four seasons. It was definitely a different experience each year,” Thomas said. “It was a lot different styles of coaching, which is hard to get used to because you have to get used to every different coach.” Another thing the girls have sensed with Kuntz is the installation of some confidence every night on the floor. His coaching philosophy is something that has them having a renewed confidence in themselves. He really believes in us,” Burr said. “From day one, he never took any excuses. He made us work and made us believe that we can do it- that we aren’t the same team that we were before.” He focused more on lifting us up instead of bringing us down,” Ibach said. The positive energy is a big part of what is making the sport fun for the entire team. It’s one thing to have the backing of the community, their parents, their classmates, but if the coach of the program doesn’t truly believe a team can win, then they won’t make it very far. That is something Kuntz has brought to the table. We finally have a coach that has confidence in us and that enables us to have confidence in ourselves,” Ibach said. “The coach is the first person that is supposed to believe in you. We haven’t had that before. Now that we have that, we were able to build up our own self confidence. The fun came from there.” Kuntz delivered a message to his seniors at the beginning of the year, telling them that they have to take control and take ownership of this team. Leadership is another quality that they may have been lacking in the past. With little time left for them to make something happen, he stressed the importance. “I told my seniors, as bad as I want this to be my season and my team and a winning record for me, you guys have to make that happen for you,” Kuntz said. “You have to want it. This is your last shot; this is your year. Ownership is key.” S-E-M has been successful in volleyball before. The team won a state title in the 80’s and made it back to the state tournament in 2005 before losing in the first round. It’s been since elementary school that these girls have seen competitive volleyball and I’m not sure they’ve ever been forced to compete,” Kuntz said. “At the beginning of the year, I talked about the concept of a team. There was eyerolling, shrugging shoulders, cheering for only people you didn’t want to take their spot. Those are things I’ve started correcting since day one of practice.” Kuntz feels the progress is moving faster than expected. He feels that he has girls who knew they had athleticism, but didn’t necessarily know how to use it. He knows that once they are able to improve on the little details of the game, they will start to see some consistency. One of the key attributes on the court is communication. We’ve talked about the pass going into transition,” Kuntz said. “If that pass isn’t there, our hitter doesn’t make an aggressive hit. If we lose communication between the two points, we lose everything that we had going for us. It’s a game that requires constant communication and focus.” This is part of the reason Kuntz’s practices have few stoppages, tuning the ethic that playing until the point is dead- the equivalent of the “playing until the whistle” cliche in football. One of his drills is called the team pit that requires players to compete for “perfect” dig. First player to a certain number wins. This is a fast-paced non-stop action drill that, from a distance, looks like a human popcorn machine. That is an example of a drill that sets the physical pace, but to hone the mental aspect of the game, Kuntz has the team listen to a song with their eyes closed before each match that acts as sort of a meditation exercise.“I did it for three years at HCC,” Kuntz said. “I live by it. I’m a guy that lives for focus. It’s gameday- wake up, think about it. It’s so easy to get distracted so, those small things become part of the daily routine.” While the practices have a new tempo, the players seem to like the refreshing change of pace. “Our practices before would be what you would see in a junior high gym” Burr said. “We used to just run all the time,” Thomas said. “We would never really work on technique. It was all about conditioning and punishment.” The players feel that Kuntz doesn’t really have a dictatorship-type mentality. Once he finds an error, he goes back to the basics of the technique and shows them where they need to improve. Getting back to basics is something that the girls have needed for awhile. “All the drills we do our based on the fundamentals, so we keep that in mind,” Pierce said. “That way we don’t go into bad habits again. We had bad habits for three years, so changing it up this year has been a little hard, but I think we’ve adjusted well. Coming in with the accolades he did, he admitted he felt immense pressure, not from the community right away, but from himself. Once he is able to fight through the pressure and thrive on it, its obvious that his passion for the game is rivaled by few. “People can see I love it,” Kuntz said. “People can see I’m passionate about it and sometimes my conduct on the sideline comes off as ridiculous. I’ve had people tell me I’m too aggressive with the girls, I’m too mean to them.” “I want to tell those people to come to our gym one time; come to one practice and ask the girls how they feel about me and how much they know how much hard work we’re putting in after school.” While the attitudes started to shift once the team got out of their early season funk, Kuntz knows he still has a lot of work to do before that will shift completely. He knows the team has to continue their upward trend. The Mustangs now know that they have a coach that has brought a renewed sense of confidence, competitiveness, focus, drive and passion to the gym and onto the court. This is a feeling that some of the players are experiencing for the first time in four years. When they walk out of the school after a practice or game, even though their eyes may be pointed at the sidewalk that lines Elm Street, it will only be because their heads are buried in their coats with the whipping November wind turning the surrounding farmlands into harsh tundra. For the first time since they could remember, their heads will be held high- they will feel like winners.