For a coach, it’s the equivalent of the Titanic sliding into the icy North Atlantic. It’s the car that won’t start on the morning of your most important job interview. It’s the unexpected thunderstorm the afternoon of your outdoor wedding. It’s the dread, the Charlie Watts drum solo pounding inside your chest, the inconceivable coming alive.
The Arizona Western Lady Matadors were playing at home in early November with a berth to the NJCAA Div. I National Tournament on the line. They were across the net from the Gila Monsters of Eastern Arizona who just two weeks before had beaten the Lady Matadors at home, 15-13 in the 5th set.
Now Western lost the first set but came back and won the second handily 25-16 and was up 24-16 in the third with all the momentum pointing to a fourth set win and the booking of tickets to Caspar, Wyoming for Nationals.
24-17….24-18: palms got clammy, heads starting to fill with doubt. 24-19…24-20….24-21…. Two timeouts by Western but the bleeding persisted. 24-22…24-23…24-24. Finally a service error gave the Lady Mats a set point, only to see Eastern dig in and score the next three points and take a 2-1 set lead.
Every coach’s nightmare.
But this is a different coach, at least from last season.
Lorayne Chandler was ending just her second year at the helm of the Az. Western College volleyball program and she couldn’t let it end like this. The year before, her first year as a college head coach, she saw her team go a substandard 11-12. The year before, as an assistant coach to the program while simultaneously coaching the local high school varsity team at Gila Ridge, (talk about grinding!), Western had gone 21-7 and earned a place at Nationals.
Now, a year removed from her first season, and staring a huge disappointment in the eye, she settled the troops. Under her guidance, Western had won their first 23 matches of the season, running through most of the Az. Community College Athletic Conference like they were late for prom. But this night, this match was a crossroads for this young coach who self described, was learning on the fly.
AWC Libero Sofia Lopez waited to hear what her coach would say. “During games, she was the same. She trusted us and in every rough time we had, she knew exactly what to say to make us react and start playing our game.”
That they did. They responded to their coach by taking the next two sets 25-20 and 15-6 and booking their trip to Caspar.
How much can change in a year? For Chandler, it was more above the shoulders for her and her team.
“My philosophy throughout my first season was ‘don’t fix what isn’t broken,’” Chandler recalls. “I tried to keep everything from class selection to practice regimes almost identical to the previous season. Biggest change I made was implementing mental training sessions with the team. I am a firm believer that female athletes play better when they feel confident and comfortable in their own skin.”
With a losing record her first season, the first one in 8 years, Chandler regrouped. “I spent a lot of my off-season contemplating what kind of coach I wanted to be. My first season, I mirrored Jason (Smith, the former AWC coach) and other coaches in the conference, by sitting on the bench during the majority of the matches. This season I decided I am way too competitive of a person to sit along the wayside. I felt more in-tuned with the matches and the athletes by making this change.”
Following the volleyball coaches mantra of there are no small things, Chandler saw this as a key. “My first year we lacked the leadership necessary to win matches. I believe my ‘bench sitting coaching tactic”’ would have only worked if I had the leadership on the court. But with me on the bench and no one on the court to step up—the writing was on the wall.”
“This year I spent more time developing leadership skills with my team captains both on and off the court. I also tried to make adjustments in my own leadership. Recruiting plays a huge role in how well each season will unfold. Our returning sophomores played at an extremely high level for us, which encouraged our freshman to also level up.”
She also made a change in the practices. “I realized running identical practices year to year did not allow me to help my players grow. I hit a learning curve once I started customizing my practices to my players versus my ‘practice book.’”
With a Masters degree in sports psychology, Lorayne used those lessons to directly affect her team. “This season I tried to stress the ‘family’ aspect of team sports.” Many of AZW’s athletes are from other countries and she felt the team played better when everyone got along. “I spent a majority of each week having individual player meetings so I could learn as much about my players as possible.”
“We stressed the need to ‘fake it ‘till you make it’. Obviously, teams have their share of conflicts. We encouraged the girls to develop a certain level of respect for each other on and off the court that allowed them to work together, regardless of outside ‘drama’, during practice and matches. We made sure the girls understood, just like their real families, conflict happens—address it and move on.”
After a stellar high school career at Pettus High School in Texas, she took her defensive skills to Richland College in Dallas where she played for two years before transferring to Texas A&M and graduating in 2009. She spent a year with the TCU volleyball program in 2010 before her move to Yuma.
With all of her comeback success, including being named the Conference Co Coach of the Year, she relied on her coaching staff…all one of him: Roberto Madrigal who’s English is a second language. “Roberto attended each practice, weight training session, and match throughout the season. In practices we utilized his volleyball skills to challenge the team. Roberto played men’s volleyball for his university in Mexico. I especially utilized Roberto’s bilingual skills. In situations where I needed my Spanish-speakers to get the message quick and efficiently Roberto would step in and assist.”
“Roberto and I seemed to have a lot of the same ideas. Typically when I asked for his help he would say what I had already been thinking. This gave me the reassurance that my thoughts were at least in the ballpark. We occasionally had hiccups with our language barrier. But with so many Spanish speakers I’ve learned to coach and talk in a way that includes more visuals than speaking cues.”
Chandler’s Lady Matadors are restocking this season after she’ll graduate six. She’ll help them with their school work and assist them if they want to play on into a four year school. But Lorayne’s biggest advantage is from the ears up. With her degree, she utilized her athlete’s biggest muscles to reinvent a program that disappointed all last season. “Understanding the ‘why’ has always been of interest to me.”
AZW Libero Lopez agrees. “It was undoubtedly better and I guess it is all about experience. This year, most of us knew how the season was going to be and she knew the problems we could face. All this together made us a great team and the Region Champs.”
Chandler’s ability to push the right buttons has given this collegiate coaching fledgling some confidence and street cred going into her third season. “Allowing my athletes an opportunity to discuss their fears and successes in a nonthreatening environment gives me the opportunity to learn what makes them tick."
"This in turn, allows me know what buttons to press.”