Winds of change: Three elite volleyball teams see coaching changes in 2019
Off-season coaching changes in the world of Texas high school athletics occur about as often - and shocking – as seeing a white line separating lanes driving down I-40.
Yep, nothing to blink at.
However, the volleyball coaching world in the Amarillo-area felt the winds of change like a helpless aluminum backyard folding chair in a 70-mile per hour gusts on one of those cruddy, windy spring days the Texas Panhandle is infamous for.
Now, it’s one thing when bottom feeders of districts make coaching changes. It’s another when the changes occur where state title banners hang from those school walls.
Never before in the storied volleyball history of the Amarillo-area have perennial powers Amarillo High, Bushland and Randall seen those winds of coaching change hit its programs in the same year.
But it happened last spring.
“This is a once in a lifetime deal,” said new Bushland coach Jason Culpepper, a 26-year veteran of coaching volleyball in the Texas Panhandle with stops at Hereford, Dalhart, Randall and now Bushland. “And the reasons were totally different. I guess you could call it the perfect storm.”
Perfectly put by Culpepper.
The trio of coaching changes meant Culpepper moved from Class 5A Randall (a state semifinalist under him last year) to Class 3A Bushland where Tori Blankenship departed after one successful year.
The changes meant Amarillo High, once the pillar of coaching strength with coach Jan Barker the foundation claiming 10 state titles and winning 1,116 matches from 1987 to 2017, now has its third coach in 21 months with 39-year-old Mike Moffitt taking over.
These coaching changes meant Canyon ISD athletic director Toby Tucker and the CISD school board approved Haleigh Burns moving on from ever-improving Caprock High and the Amarillo ISD to lead the Randall High program.
In this case perennial powers is an understatement with the UIL state volleyball titles numbering a hefty 15 between Amarillo High, Bushland and Randall.
So what gives with the moves?
Is the state-wide respect for Texas Panhandle volleyball talent pool drying up?
Is the heat from “club parents” demanding playing time for their kids after coughing up the big bucks for travel, lessons and club fees too much stress for even the best coaches to handle?
Is it simply 2019, where seeing a coach, teacher or business person make a career at one place unheard of?
In this case, pointing one finger on these coaching changes is a waist of time. Simply put, timing meant everything in Culpepper, Moffitt and Burns changing addresses for the 2019 schoolyear.
All three started their respective 2019 seasons this past week. Here’s a glance at their stories and why the trio changed jobs all three were happy as a middle blocker after a solo stuff continuing for years.
Leave the Rock? Tough, tough decision
A conversation about volleyball with Haleigh Burns doesn’t end with enthusiasm and passion for the sports.
The conversations starts, continues in the middle and ends with enthusiasm.
“I could talk all day about volleyball and these hard working and dedicated kids (at Caprock and Randall),” Burns said. “All day long.”
A graduate of Caprock and West Texas A&M, Burns is no stranger to the Texas Panhandle and the rep volleyball has in these parts and statewide.
A talented basketball and volleyball player at Caprock in her high school days, Burns’ passion for volleyball burnt the deepest.
“I first started playing in the sixth and I was horrible,” said Burns, who played for WT’s elite Division II program in college. “But it was so much fun. I loved even going to practice. I was on a club team, but I was bad they stopped calling me for practice.”
When practice is “fun” in any sport, your heart has found a home. Burns quickly got the hang of things and was playing varsity by her freshman year at Caprock.
That passion for volleyball never waivered, even though her degrees for WT were in advertising and public relations.
“But when I had the opportunity to coach a club team, the first time after a practice I knew this is something I could do for the rest of my life,” Burns said.
The previous four years, anybody watching Burns coach volleyball at alma mater Caprock High, know this is what the Longhorn graduate of 2009 will be doing the rest of her life.
Burns guided Caprock to back-to-back 20-win seasons, including a 23-win season last year.
Playing in the same district as state semifinalist Randall and regional semifinalist Amarillo High, the Lady Longhorns never backed down and even though in long playoff run was never in the cards, respect oozed over the Longhorn program.
So when the Randall High volleyball job opened with Culpepper departing for Bushland, Burns’ heartstrings were put the test. She loved everything about The Rock.
The backing from the administration and Caprock head football coach Dan Sherwood and his staff was the real deal, a situation any coach would be proud of.
Her players were her heart. This was her alma mater and she knew how hard they worked to make the program go.
But Randall is Randall, a volleyball program known statewide and famous for its nearly yearly long playoff runs.
Should I go, or should I stay. Those words lived with Burns day-in and day-out as she decided to look into the Randall job.
“Probably one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make,” Burns said of changing jobs and leaving her beloved Caprock. “You know these kids gave everything they had to making the program better. Those relationships with those kids is something so special. I had to ask myself was I being selfish? I also had to look at goals I have as a coach.”
In early May, Burns decided to accept the Randall volleyball job when the Canyon ISD offered it to her.
CISD athletic director Toby Tucker said Burns is simply amazing.
“Seeing the progression that Caprock had made over the last two seasons under Coach Burns’ leadership, you knew something special was going on,” Tucker said. “Since being on board at Randall she’s already had to make some difficult decisions and jump in with both feet to the fire. I love how she leads with passion and look forward to seeing the program continue to grow in the future.”
Randall opens 2019 ranked No. 3 in the state, Burns loves the pressure of having a target on the Lady Raiders back.
“I do look at the rankings and do want the challenge,” Burns said. “The kids love competition, they work hard and play with grit. For us it’s every day doing the little things to get better and remember how we got there.
“Coming from a WT program that expected excellence, I see this as huge opportunity. Randall is a premier volleyball program and I want to be a part of this.”
Hmm? Small school superintendent? Coach at AHS?
For Moffitt, who turned 39 this weekend, stepping on the court for his first Lady Sandie match earlier this week meant stepping into AHS volleyball history.
Moffitt is the first male to lead the AHS volleyball program as the head coach.
Moffitt arrived from Brownfield where he was the high school principal. Yes, not the volleyball coach at Brownfield, but the principal.
But Moffitt’s lifelong background in volleyball, which includes a stint as a Texas Tech assistant volleyball coach from 2002-2008 and a year as an assistant at the University of North Dakota, was a major reason the chance to guide an elite high school program tugged his heart strings away from his current goal of being a “small town superintendent.”
“When I first heard about the AHS job, I was like, this is really interesting,” Moffitt said. “It’s one of those things if I was in the coaching realm I would have jumped at immediately but I was so far down this other path. I was looking at small-town superintendent jobs, that’s what I was looking at.”
Moffitt had spent seven years in school administration, while still owning respect in the volleyball world by coaching club teams.
“The more I looked at the Amarillo High job,” Moffitt said, “there is so much talent and tradition and all those things, here. That was really appealing on the coaching side of it, but also appealing was, as a dad, to put my daughters through that program. One is a freshman and one is a seventh grader. To usher them through that, is really exciting. But really in my heart I think this year’s team can do amazing things.”
Moffitt takes over an AHS program entrenched in recent turmoil when the Amarillo ISD informed first-year coach Kory (Cooper) Clements last winter her contract would not be renewed, thus prompting her resignation on Jan. 16.
This after an impressive 33-14 regional semifinal season, not to mention Clements (who played on a national championship team at Nebraska) was ecstatic returning to her alma mater of AHS.
The non-renewal was controversial reaching the school board as one member had daughters in the AHS volleyball program, where their lack of playing became a sticking point as one reason Clements was let go.
So with Barker’s retirement in December of 2017, Clements not renewed 4-5 months into her 2018-19 contract, and the recent hiring of Moffitt last spring, AHS’ once rock-solid volleyball coaching situation has crumbled.
Amarillo ISD athletic director Brad Thiessen said at the time Moffitt was hired he “is the perfect fit.”
“During the interview process, it became clear Coach Moffitt and his leadership style were a perfect fit to lead our volleyball program,” Thiessen said. “He brings with an extraordinary amount of Division I collegiate and high school coaching experience. His recommendations from many of the best volleyball coaches in the state are outstanding.”
Moffitt said he ready for the unique challenge the AHS coaching job entails and doesn’t shy away from the challenge ahead.
“You can’t be scared of this job at all,” said Moffitt, who fell in love with volleyball as a student at Lubbock High and because of his families passion for volleyball (his sisters coach at Lubbock Christian and the club level). “You have to come in and own it. And that’s what we talk about this year. It’s to honor the past and create your own future.”
A second time? Not a coincidence. Time to go
Jason Culpepper, unlike the Bible tale, didn’t literally see the writing on the wall, prompting the correct decision to be made.
However, he knew. He knew this time the timing was right to leave 13-years of building the Randall program into a power, a school he guided to a 2009 state volleyball championship.
“When the Bushland job opened for the second time in two years, somebody was telling us maybe it’s time,” Culpepper said. “With my wife (Kristi) working in the Bushland school district, once of us was going have to move so our family wouldn’t be going in two different directions. This was the right move for me to make.”
In mid-April, it became official.
The man with 590 career coaching wins at in 18 seasons at Dalhart (5 years) and Randall (13 years) was headed to Bushland taking over for Tori Bryant who left after one season.
Bushland, steeped in volleyball tradition with five state titles since opening in 2005, is a coveted job. Bushland athletic director and head football coach Jimmy Thomas heaped heavy praise at Culpepper when was hired.
“If you look at (Culpepper’s) resume there’s probably no better of a volleyball coach out there,” Thomas said. “Part of that is that you always want some consistency and that’s what you see here at Bushland.”
Culpepper is steeped in Texas Panhandle tradition having graduated from Hereford High, and coached 26 years at Hereford, Dalhart, Randall and now Bushland.
But volleyball wasn’t the sport he first thought would be his coaching passion, football was.
“I really got into volleyball when I was going to Texas Tech,” Culpepper said. “I was taking a PE class and the head volleyball coach was teaching it and I learned how to play.”
When Culpepper graduated his wife, Kristi, had a job at Hereford High. Culpepper was headed home to work under his former football coach Don Cumpton.
However, a coaching change with Craig Yenzer coming in left Culpepper out of a job coaching football. However, a volleyball assistant job under Brenda Kitten was available.
Hereford and Dumas were volleyball powers at the time and remain programs of prominence.
“I learned so much under Coach Kitten and that was a lot of fun,” Culpepper said. “I really loved those eight years at Hereford.”
Culpepper decided to test the head coaching waters and started at Dalhart for five years, then his 13 years at Randall, the highlight winning state in 2009.
In Bushland, he will get the chance to coach his daughter, Logan, and attend football games with sixth grade son, Canon.
“One of the reasons I moved is this is a chance for our family to be together more,” Culpepper said. “I might be at a Randall football game on a Friday night and my wife would be at Bushland’s games. My son likes going to football games and we can all be together now.”
Now, anybody who has watched Culpepper coach knows the word intensity fits him perfect. That intensity, and sheer volleyball knowledge, is what he brings to a Bushland program he is thrilled to have the opportunity to coach.
“The plan is to win state, for sure,” Culpepper said refusing to go into coach speak and speaking his mind. “There are a lot of great athletes here. A lot of hard working kids here, just the same as Randall.”
Hey, it’s ALL good
Randall, Amarillo High and Bushland each have new coaches guiding these amazing successful programs making for an interesting 2019.
Yes, amazingly successful is the way to describe the volleyball athletes and coaches in this area. Moffitt should know. He was recruiting this area while at Texas Tech.
“Overall, the reputation of this area, when you look across the scenery and landscape, well, there are players here who can play,” Moffitt said. “You aren’t trying to find random kids who have not had a lot of coaching. You have a bunch of kids who take it very seriously. There is so much talent that comes out of the Amarillo-area.”