(Editor’s note: This is the next of a series in which the Times Herald and Bradford Era will present the best season/team accomplishment for every school in the Big 30. The staffs at both papers made a selection for each school based on consultation with current and former coaches and athletic directors. Today: Portville.)
Her credentials are as impressive as any coach in the history of Big 30 sports.
In nine seasons at two schools, Kelly Unverdorben’s volleyball success far exceeds extraordinary.
Two years at Ellicottville and the last seven at Portville have produced a glittering 189-14 record that translates to a gaudy .931 winning percentage. And, oh yeah, over her first eight seasons, Unverdorben’s teams won five New York State titles, one for the Eagles (2012) and four in five years for the Panthers (2014, ‘15, ‘17 and ‘18). And even last fall, Portville lost in the state finals, Unverdorben’s 24-0 team falling twice to eventual NYS Class C champion Valhalla, first at the end of pool play, then in the title match.
Most schools are lucky to have one such state crown, Portville owns four. So how does Unverdorben choose the most special one?
With a quartet of candidates, Unverdorben selected her 2018 NYS title team for the best of all reasons.
“It’s so hard because they’re all special and they all have a different type of thing that made each one of them special,” she admitted. “It’s like with your own kids, how do you say that one’s your favorite? You just can’t.
“I guess what would make (the 2018) team pretty special is that they’re probably the most family-like to me because I obviously had a daughter on the team (Brooke Decker, who ironically didn’t complete that season due to a knee injury), I had a niece on the team (Haley Unverdorben, who actually graduated a year earlier) and when you have a daughter (playing), her classmates are at your house and they spend a lot of time there starting in kindergarten.”
Unverdorben added, “It’s not like I was just around those kids during their junior high and high school volleyball seasons … I had been with those kids forever, being at my house, taking them out for ice cream. Ericka Carlson and my daughter Brooke, when they were just under eight years old, started playing on a 12U team and Sierra (Keim) and Sydney (Colligan) came along right after and they were nine, 10 years old playing club volleyball at such young ages.
“(Beth) Miller, I kind of talked her out of soccer. She was at my house one day, hanging out with Brooke, and I talked her into playing club volleyball for me.”
She pointed out, “I was just with them all the time, coaching them in club and in school. Volleyball was huge to them because they bought into everything I was asking of them — playing club volleyball or beach volleyball, which was a large part of their success, weight training, speed workouts — as much as they probably hated it at times and hated me for it, they (still) worked hard.”
THEN, TOO, as with all of her Portville volleyball teams, Unverdorben had no height in a sport that values it.
“Another thing that made (the 2018 team) pretty special is that they were so small,” said Unverdorben whose tallest player was her 5-foot-7 daughter, Brooke. “They were not 6-foot volleyball players and in volleyball you can’t coach height. You need a lot of height and we didn’t have any … there was none.”
Indeed, the only time she had a big team was in 2011 and ‘12 at Ellicottville, the latter of which won an NYS Class D title.
“It will go down as one of my favorite teams, maybe because they were my first state championship team,” she said. “When we were at states, I can’t tell you how many officials came up to me and said, ‘This team would beat any team in this building … double-A, A, B, C,’ and I believed they would have. They were big, strong, competitive and they were fighters.”
But since taking over at Portville in 2013, height hasn’t been an option for Unverdorben, making those four titles as either a C or D school all the more impressive.
Of that 2018 team, she admitted, “When I think of them my heart is so full, it brings tears to my eyes even now realizing, ‘Wow, I’m never going to coach those kids again.’
“(Two years) before that we had gotten beaten by Eden in the Section 6 final. And when they gave me the runner-up medals to put on the kids, I could not hug them, not because of anger, but because I did not want to have a breakdown on that stage. I could feel the pain that they were feeling … they were just crushed and were in tears.”
Unverdorben recalled, “I gave it some time and come January, I said to them, ‘Do we ever want to feel that way again … especially your senior year?’ So they worked so hard to make sure that didn’t happen again.
“It wasn’t a fun feeling and when I think of those kids, I think of that. They got shot down and they rose above and didn’t let it happen for the next three years (in the sectional finals).
Usually when you get knocked down that hard, a lot of people don’t get back up. You teach kids, ‘If you can dream it you can do it’ and I think that really came out with them.”
THE 2018 TEAM was Portville’s fifth state championship — the Panthers also won in 2008 — and fourth under Unverdorben. It finished 23-0, didn’t lose a set in the postseason and was ranked third in the Northeast, of all school sizes, in the USA Today poll.
But the streak started in 2014 when Portville won back-to-back titles over Section 1’s Haldane, both decided in five sets via a 26-24 score in the final one.
“That team had seniors Shaina Griffin, Taylor Lee and Madalyn Simon and juniors Lydia Lukomski, Cammie McCracken and Shayla Williams,” Unverdorben recalled.
“That team I say is why the younger group was so good. I had come to Portville a year earlier and I think they left the program better than they found it. They taught that 2017 and 2018 crew who were eighth graders sitting on the bench watching that 2014 team win a state championship in five sets that were intense. They ran with that and said, ‘That’s what we want to do’ and I think that’s why we’ve had success the next five years.”
Starting the next season.
“Lukomski and McCracken were awesome,” Unverdorben said of the 2015 squad. “They led their team and I’ll never forget them because there were so many people after (the three 2014 seniors) had graduated who said, ‘Well, they’re done, they’re not winning again.’
“But Lukomski and McCracken were not about to let that happen, they said, ‘We’re here, too, and we’re going to shut everybody up.’”
For the second straight year, Lukomski was MVP of the NYS Tournament.
Along the way, Unverdorben, a 1987 Portville graduate, gave up both her baking and hairstyling businesses, and focused totally on coaching. She runs the 22-team Octane club program as well as the OC beach volleyball club. And, in addition to coaching the Panthers, Unverdorben is also in charge of her alma mater’s strength & conditioning program for all sports.
During her tenure, Portville has sent a dozen players to college programs from Division I to III.
And after the crushing sectional loss to Eden in 2016, Unverdorben’s 2017 team won her third NYS title at the school, beating Section 9’s Millbrook in the finals the first of two consecutive years.
“After we won in 2017,” she recalled, “people said, ‘You lost a quarter of your team (to graduation, including Haley Unverdorben), you’re not going anywhere.’”
But Miller, state tournament MVP in both ‘17 and 18, Keim, Carlson, Colligan, Decker and star freshman setter Kylie Blessing begged to differ.