In her 10th year, Skutt Catholic head volleyball coach Renee Saunders has been named one of two National High School Coaches of the Year by the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) for 2020, an honor she shares with Loretta Vogel, head volleyball coach at Mercy High School in Farmington Hills, Michigan
The honor represents the top award given by the AVCA, a national organization with a mission of advancing the sport of volleyball with AVCA coaches at the epicenter of leadership, advocacy and professional development. Honorees are chosen by a committee of their peers in the organization. Saunders and Vogel will be honored during the AVCA Virtual Convention, set for Dec. 16-19.
Saunders says she knew she wanted to be a coach after her first coaching experience as a freshman in high school.
“I helped coach my little brother’s 6th grade basketball team and I was hooked,” she said.
Even before then, she says sports have always been a huge part of her life and her identity. Starting as a young girl she was involved in many sports over the years, including gymnastics, figure skating, archery, baseball, softball, basketball, volleyball and track.
Born and raised in South Omaha, Saunders played volleyball, basketball and track at Class-A Marian High School, while playing club volleyball and softball. In 1995, her club volleyball team won the Club National Championship. The same year, Saunders played for the U.S. Junior Olympic Volleyball Team in Puerto Rico.
In 1995, she was named the Nebraska Female Athlete of the Year for both the Omaha World Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star. Saunders was also recognized as all state and super state in volleyball and basketball and listed as a top 50 recruit for both sports.
Her athletic versatility lead to her career as a rare dual-sport athlete at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she played both volleyball and basketball. Notably, the volleyball team won the national championship when Saunders was a freshman.
Playing multiple sports and every position in volleyball set Saunders up for success as a coach.
“I have played every position in volleyball,” she said. “That experience has made me a better coach because I understand how they all work together and what it takes to be good in each.”
Saunders had her first head volleyball coaching position at Omaha South, where she spent nine years, before joining Skutt Catholic in 2011, as head volleyball coach and to teach health and physical education.
Her coaching career began long before then. She coached various camps and clinics throughout high school and was first put in charge of a team at Goodrich Middle School while in college. She spent four years as an assistant varsity coach at Lincoln East High School and helped at Lincoln Northeast High School for a year while student teaching.
In 2020, Coach Saunders’ SkyHawk volleyball program started the season ranked #1 in the nation and finished 35-1, earning its 6th Class B Nebraska State Championship win. The record for her 10-year tenure with the program is 339 wins – 65 losses.
In 2017, following the SkyHawks 44-0 season and the team’s second straight Class B state title, Saunders added a distinction no one else in Nebraska can claim — a former Omaha World Herald and Lincoln Journal Star girls high school athlete of the year becoming the Omaha World Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star’s girls prep coach of the year. The same year, she was inducted into the Nebraska Sports Hall of Fame in recognition of her athletic career.
According to Saunders, the best part of the job is the relationships.
“I love to train the game, but I also love to mentor and help form my players into amazing people outside of the gym,” said Saunders. “I believe in a growth mindset for myself and that allows me to help my players grow and reach their full potential.”
Her coaching and teaching philosophy is summed up in her favorite quote: “Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
“I believe that you have to develop relationships with the players and those relationships cannot be forced,” Saunders said.
She says building genuine relationships with players opens the door to endless possibilities.
“From our training to our expectations off the court, we want to make them into well-rounded young women who feel they can conquer the world and be leaders of whatever they choose to do!” Saunders said.
Culture is an important part of the the Skutt Catholic volleyball program. High standards are set with coach and players supporting each other in rising to them. Saunders encourages the team culture by placing value on all players, while focusing on team-building and relationship-building off the court.
From the team prayer before each game to the annual varsity camping trip before each season, traditions play a big role in fostering the SkyHawk volleyball team culture and a sense of family.
“We try to foster a culture of love and accountability,” she said. “If we have a good balance of those two things, then great things can be accomplished!”