Coach Karin Keeney has led Hebron High School Volleyball to five Texas state championships since the program started in 1999. Although winning now seems like second nature to this team, Keeney knows that sustained success at any level is anything but guaranteed. From one of Texas’s premier high school coaches, here are six essential tips for building a program that demands success and stands the test of time.
In 1999, Hebron High School opened its doors. Within five years, Hebron Volleyball had won its first Texas state volleyball title.
How did Coach Karin Keeney and her fledgling program pull off such a meteoric rise? Starting from scratch, with every team on campus initially competing at the JV level, there were no shortage of growing pains.
“It was awful, to say the least,” Keeney said of Hebron’s challenging debut. “Every team on campus got killed.”
By 2003, however, the program was ranked in the state of Texas. Though Hebron Volleyball made it to the Texas state playoffs, the team suffered a crushing loss in the first round.
“Something just clicked in me,” Keeney remembers of that decisive loss.
“That’s never going to happen again. And I think it clicked in my kids, as well. The following year they said, ‘Coach, that’s never going to happen again.’ So we went back and won it in 2004.”
WATCH Coach Keeney's Program Spotlight video above
Now in her 20th season as head coach, Keeney has transformed Hebron Volleyball from a ragtag JV squad into arguably the top volleyball program in the state of Texas.
But Hebron’s incredible success didn’t come out of the blue. Keeney credits her program’s success to a variety of factors on and off the court, from top-notch physical conditioning, to community buy-in, to a relentless commitment to excellence.
Here are six key lessons we can learn from Coach Karin Keeney and the overwhelming success of the Hebron Volleyball program.
1) Conditioning and cross-training is essential
“Volleyball is a very physical sport when it's played at a high level,” Coach Keeney notes. “Yes, it’s about power but that power has to be sustained over five sets.”
This special attention to fitness helps the Hebron athletes expand their skill sets beyond the obvious volleyball specific techniques. While sport-specific training is important, general athleticism will set their team apart, giving them that extra edge in a close game.
Though maybe not obvious, Keeney breaks down why conditioning is so essential. In an intense set when it all comes down to training, players are pulling out all the stops to make their opponents run.
“That's a lot of miles on that court.
If you have trained athletes and skilled athletes that's one thing but if you have a very athletic kid who’s trained, that can take your game to a whole different level. We're looking for those athletes who are skilled at their trade.”
Keeney knows that athletes who trust their training perform at a higher mental and physical level. Relying on their conditioning, Hebron’s highly trained athletes gain an extra edge on their competition.
2) Discipline breeds champions
“We work hard in this program,” Keeney explains. “We teach the kids that nothing is handed to us. There are no guarantees when you work hard, but it sure makes it a little easier.”
Discipline holds players accountable for success. Winning doesn’t come as a result of sheer luck—it comes from consistent hard work. When training is so directly tied to the success of the team, it motivates players to find small (and large) ways of improving their gameplay.
“Some of the kids will ask me,
‘Coach, is it ever good enough?’
‘Nope, it could be done better.’
When you work that hard on the court, the kids start to want something for it.”
Of course, discipline is more than just a tool for winning a couple of sets. It’s at the core of what makes Keeney’s team consistently good. By emphasizing work ethic, Keeney also instills confidence in her players. Giving them the tools to take risks and chase the next big goal.
“Girls especially who participate in anything of a disciplined nature, whether it be the band, extracurriculars, anything, teaches confidence.
It teaches them to rise to the occasion. It teaches them that they're better than they think they are.”
3) Bring parents into the team community
When Hebron High School Volleyball started in 1999, Karin Keeney was tasked with the challenge of creating a community out of thin air. With none of the resources or tradition of an established school, the new coach knew she had to rely on the people around her.
“One of the things that came out of necessity was our parents work everything for us.
They worked the clock, the book, the gate. They do it to put money back in the Booster Club.”
Before the parents got involved, Keeney found herself frantic before games. Recruiting teachers to help out and losing valuable coaching time to the logistical side of running a team.
“Eventually, my Booster Club, which is made up of the parents, said:
‘Hey, let us take this, you coach the kids.’”
An arrangement born out of necessity became a secret weapon for Keeney. Now that the parents had a vested interest in the program, Keeney had a community of dedicated people supporting the team.
“The parents started working all the games and then you know they got very invested which meant they got invested in their children which meant their children were really invested.”
However, this change didn’t come out of the blue. Realizing that building a successful team meant building a community, Keeney began to open herself up more to the parents.
“I am more visible to the parents now than when I first started. I think as a young coach, you kind of try to keep your parents away from you. But as I've gotten older, I've realized that the more visible you are to your parents the more they're willing to do what you need them to.”
4) Surround yourself with strong leaders
Not letting ego get in the way of a win, Karin Keeney explains that hiring a solid coaching staff with the same vision for the program is essential.
“I don't sit on a pedestal and my assistants are beneath me. We're a team.
We have created a culture of family. I think that's the biggest thing. We all work together and our kids view us that way.”
Keeney works to build up trust between members of the coaching staff. Finding like-minded people who share her priorities––both in terms of technique and mission––is essential for having a strong team who can perform at their highest ability.
“I'm not an iron-clad ‘my way or the highway’ kind of coach. There are some things I don't bend on but it’s important to hire people who believe in those same things.”
Building a coaching staff means de-centering yourself for the sake of the team. While this can be tricky, Karin Keeney knows that if it means another state title for the team, she’s willing to do it.
“Some people get intimidated by that. It doesn't intimidate me at all.
You've got to hire people who are good and then you've got to figure out what they're strengths are and put them in those positions.
Use them for you know they are good at and let them be good at it. Leadership means recognizing those strengths and the people who are around you and utilizing them for their strengths.”
5) Turn your losses into lessons
Despite her program’s rocky start, Karin Keeney and Hebron Volleyball kept pushing. In fact, it was her team’s rocky start that fueled the program’s rapid rise to the upper echelon of Texas high school sports.
Keeney might have been satisfied with her team’s qualifying for the playoffs in 2003, but then she wouldn’t have seen a state championship in the following year.
Even after Hebron’s first state championship in 2004, it was hardly a straight road to success.
“We went back to the state championship in 2005 and we lost in the finals in the fifth set fifteen to eleven. It was the worst loss I've ever taken in my life and I can see every point of that match.”
Many coaches would view qualifying for state as a success, but Keeney knew she could achieve more. Focusing on the things she could improve on, Keeney worked on improving her game.
That's something that's fueled me. I never want to go to the state tournament and come out second again. I'd rather be last. I'd rather never go again.”
Keeney motivates her team by always setting goals just out of reach. With nothing to work for, Keeney knows that players won’t have the ambition to keep improving. Whether it’s improving technique, adding extra conditioning, or putting in that one additional hour of practice, Keeney always gives her players something to work toward.
“There's always a better way to do it no matter how much you achieve. Fewer games lost, whatever, it can be done better.
It took us a while and then we went in two thousand and then we went to six A and then we went and we won three in a row in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
I'd like to do that again. I'd like to get back there at least one more time before retiring.”
6) Create an expectation of excellence
Perhaps one state championship can be attributed to a number of factors––anything from an elite athlete leading the team to victory to the competition in the league––but holding onto that success is another thing entirely.
A program like Hebron, known for its winning record, is created through meticulous planning and an overarching vision for the program.
Karin Keeney emphasizes the role of tradition in her journey to multiple state championships:
“I think that success sustains itself through traditions. Through the expectations that your program sets.
When your kids come through the program, they see the trophies, the accolades, the things that kids have done before them on the walls. They understand what they're getting into. They hear the stories, they see the papers, they come to the games.”
Karen Keeney has created a legacy. With years of successful seasons under her belt, young kids grow up wanting to be a part of the legendary program. Keeney, however, reminds them that it’s not all glory and winning.
“When they get here they're a little shell shocked at first what it takes. They don't understand the work behind the success. But once they do, they buy in—even to the conditioning—because that is what makes us different.
Every year, the players don't want to be that team that fails. They don't want to be that team that doesn't bring home something to add to the wall or to the trophy case.”
On Hebron Volleyball’s road to dominance, Coach Karen Keeney has experienced the crushing lows of defeat and the exhilarating highs of victory. Her strategies for creating an ambitious, relentless team environment and sustaining success are proven again and again through her continued victories. More than a coach with a few tricks up her sleeve, Keeney knows what it takes at every part of the process to build up a truly powerful program.