March 29, 2013
Poems are full of it. And romantics espouse it ad nauseam: The idea that love can overcome anything. Of course those people haven't been in-season coaches in the first months of a miserable-when-we're-not-together marriage and separated by the 165 miles of I-90 between Missoula and Coeur d'Alene.
And that's how the former Kandice Kelly, who was an assistant coach for the Montana volleyball program from 2007-09 and who wrapped up a successful two-year head-coaching stint at North Idaho College in November, came to rejoin the Grizzlies this week, now as Kandice Gregorak.
The dominoes started falling last summer, when Kelly and Montana defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak were married. After her second season at North Idaho College and no longer interested in a long-distance marriage, Kelly moved back to Missoula.
In December, then Griz assistant Gina Schmidt applied for a job at Simon Fraser, and in early February she was announced as the new head coach of the Clan.
On Wednesday Gregorak moved into Schmidt's old office like she'd never been away.
"Just like in our sport, timing is everything," UM volleyball coach Jerry Wagner said. "We needed somebody who could hit the ground running and move in the direction we want the program to take.
"The overall resume that Coach Gregorak has been able to build as a player, as a recruiter and now as a head coach will make her a valuable addition. Her experiences at North Idaho these last two years will only make this staff better."
Gregorak rose to the top of a national search, and any applicant interviews with Wagner were likely short.
Gregorak was recruited to Montana State more than a decade ago by Wagner, when he was an assistant coach with the Bobcats, and Wagner gave Gregorak her first coaching job less than a year after she had finished her playing career.
Allison Lawrence was hired to replace Gregorak in 2010. The 2013 season will be her fourth on Wagner's staff, and she takes over the role of recruiting coordinator, a position formerly held by Schmidt.
"Coach Lawrence and I talked about the direction we want the program to go and what we wanted from the position, and we were able to take those ideas into a search that attracted a very experienced group of applicants," Wagner said.
"Coach Gregorak was in a position to apply for a job in a place that's been special for her, and I'm the beneficiary. I've been fortunate over the years to have assistants who are at the top of their field."
Gregorak got into college coaching accidentally, though not totally against her will and not while fighting her DNA. After graduating from Montana State in the spring of 2007, she was set to pursue an MBA at Montana when Wagner came calling. He had an interim position open, and he knew just the person to fill it.
Gregorak accepted and mere months removed from playing the game was a Division I assistant coach.
"I was lucky to get to coach with Jerry when I was 22 years old," Gregorak says. "I was given the defense, the outsides and the liberos. It was pretty much, Here you go, but it was awesome.
"I learned so much because he gave me so much freedom to do what I wanted. I went out recruiting on my own, and he trusted me and the recruits that I brought to his attention."
Gregorak, whose mom Laurie is the coach at Rocky Mountain College and a member of the Montana Coaches Association Hall of Fame for her 19-year coaching career at Roundup High, had the interim tag removed from her title following the 2007 season.
Montana went 10-6 in Big Sky Conference matches in 2008 and `09, Gregorak's second and third seasons with the Grizzlies. Montana tied for third in 2008, the team's best finish since 1994, and finished fourth in 2009 while making the league's postseason tournament both years, back-to-back appearances that hadn't happened since 1999-2000.
A decorated back-row player at Montana State, Kelly, who finished with 1,720 career digs while playing for the Bobcats, coached libero Brittney Brown to Big Sky Conference Top Newcomer honors in 2008 and Libero of the Year accolades in 2009.
It was shortly after being named to the American Volleyball Coaches Association's "30 Under 30" list in early 2010, the coaching organization's annual ordination of the nation's best and brightest 20-somethings in the profession, that Gregorak zigged when everyone was expecting her to zag.
She left not just the program but also the sport to see where her MBA might take her.
"Leaving was the right thing to do at the time," Gregorak says. "I needed to go explore and figure out what I wanted to do. I wanted to try the other part of life, and when I was finally out of volleyball, I found I missed coaching. I missed it a ton."
Which led to the North Idaho College job and heading a program in the best junior-college volleyball conference in the nation. The results don't lie: In her year away from the college game, Gregorak didn't lose her touch.
After a 3-5 start their first season together in 2011, Gregorak and the Cardinals rallied to win the Scenic West Athletic Conference and finish ninth at NJCAA nationals. Gregorak was named the Region XVIII coach of the year.
Last fall NIC opened the season 16-0 and rose to No. 1 in the national rankings. The team finished second to eventual national champion College of Southern Idaho at the Region XVIII tournament and placed eighth at nationals.
Overall Gregorak led NIC to a sterling two-year record of 51-15.
"Coaching at NIC was the best two years of my life. It was such a great experience, and I learned a lot about myself," Gregorak says.
And to say that she simply moved from one coaching job to the next is to gloss over the personal, and that's often the best part.
"When I was previously here as an assistant, Ty was two doors down from me, and we were always really good friends. When he went through what he did, we kept in touch," she says.
"We dated the whole time I was at NIC, so we were going back and forth for two and a half years. Ty was very supportive of me coaching one more season, because he knows what it's like to love what you do.
"But after this last season, it was time." When asked about the serendipitous turn of events that had her away from coaching for only a short period of time, she adds, "I kind of had a feeling it would all work out."
Gregorak now finds herself in the unusual position of joining a program where everything already feels comfortable, both for her and for the players she'll be coaching.
It was Gregorak who first spotted Brooke Bray, who last year was a second-team All-Big Sky Conference middle blocker, and Gregorak was instrumental in bringing in this year's senior class, which features Bray, Kayla Reno, herself a second-team All-Big Sky selection in 2011, Kortney James and Megan Murphey.
Gregorak also coached Janele Vogt at North Idaho College in 2011 before Vogt transferred to Montana.
"Kandice found me my freshman year of high school and ended up sitting in the stands next to my grandpa at the state tournament," Bray recalls. "She recruited me my sophomore and junior years, and when I found out she was leaving during my senior year, I was bummed, because she was heavily involved in bringing our class to Montana.
"Any time a program has a new coach come in, even an assistant, it can be a scary thing. You don't know what kind of changes are going to be made or how practices are going to be different, so having Kandice at practice has been really comfortable.
"It's nice having someone familiar in the gym and someone who we know is going to make us a lot better. We all feel honored to have her back."
The task facing Wagner, Lawrence and Gregorak during Montana's spring season? Rebuilding a team that was better than last season's 6-23 record and last-place finish indicated. Most of the parts will be returning, as the Grizzlies aim for their first trip to the Big Sky tournament since 2010.
"There are so many positive changes we're making this year, and I think adding Kandice is only going to make things better," Bray said.
"We have new coaches and some really good freshmen who are going to be coming in. It's just a new mindset."
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