State’s winningest volleyball coach Glenda Wright guides Walker to first Elite Eight tournament
on October 29, 2013 12:10 p.m.
JASPER, Alabama — Jeremy Crigger was principal at Walker High School when the volleyball program needed a new coach.
Crigger attended Hazel Green High School and had watched former coach Glenda Wright consistently keep the Trojans among the best teams in the state.
Wright retired following the 2006 season at Hazel Green and was surprised to get the 2011 call from Crigger. The veteran coach had traveled some during retirement, but was looking for a new challenge.
She found it at Walker, a school with little volleyball success in its history.
“I just enjoy being around the kids, being in the gym,” Wright said. “When you’ve done it more than half your life, it’s home to you. When volleyball gets in your heart it’s there forever.”
Wright is the state’s winningest volleyball coach and ranked third in wins among national coaches. She has guided Walker to unfamiliar territory with the school making its first appearance in the Elite Eight volleyball championships starting on Wednesday at the Birmingham Crossplex.
Play starts at 9 a.m. with first-round matches in Class 6A, Class 4A and Class 3A while Class 5A, Class 2A and Class 1A open play at 1 p.m.
Wright is one of four coaches with 1,000-plus wins in the Elite Eight. She has compiled a 1,403-570 record while St. Luke’s coach Tammy Richardson is 1,322-525. Bayside Academy’s Ann Schilling is 1,244-350 and Montgomery Academy’s Julie Sinclair is 1,181-350.
Class 5A eighth-ranked Walker takes on top-ranked St. Paul’s at 3 p.m. Thursday.
Mississippi native Wright was hired out Key West, Fla., by W.O. Wooley at Hazel Green — “Hurricane Betsy ran me up north,” Wright said — in 1966 when other volleyball programs were scarce. Outside of McGill-Toolen coached by Becky Dickinson in the South, the best programs were in north Alabama.
Noona Kennard won the first three AHSAA sanctioned titles at Bradshaw beginning in 1971 while Dickinson guided McGill to the first of its 19 championships in 1974. Sherry Ammons was producing great teams at Huntsville and Gloria Birmingham did the same at Grissom.
Hazel Green won its first championship under Wright in 1980 when the school was Class 3A — there were four classes starting in 1977 before AHSAA went to six classes in 1984. The Trojans won the Class 3A title again in 1983 and Class 4A for three straight years 1984-86.
Wright’s last of six championship came in Class 5A in 1994.
The early days were quite different. Coaches officiated their own matches, standing on concrete-filled tires with metal stanchions protruding from the middle to hold the net.
There was no Elite Eight.
“I remember they called it a state tournament and we went to Athens College to play and there were maybe 60 schools there,” said the 70-year-old Wright. “Whoever wanted to play came. There were no classes and they drew schools’ names out of a box and that’s who you played.”
One of the greatest changes to the sport has been the proliferation of well-trained and experienced coaches. Wright capitalized on the trend when she hired Karen Atkins as her assistant at Walker in 2012.
Atkins had played against Wright’s Hazel Green team in the 1985 state championship match while at Carbon Hill. Atkins became a head coach at Dora and Curry, facing Wright many times though the years.
Atkins moved into administration as the principal at Townley Junior High School before the school closed in 2011. She planned on finding another profession, but a call from Wright changed that.
“She definitely had a vision for the program and she needed some help top get there,” Atkins said. “She asked me if I was interested and I told her, ‘We’ll see.’
“Anytime I’m coaching, I’m happy,” Atkins said. “That’s just something that’s a calling for most coaches if you’re in it for the right reasons.”
Wright and Atkins are both fierce competitors, but complement each other well.
Walker senior Sidney Cooper began varsity volleyball the year before Wright took over.
“I don’t think we took it seriously before she was here,” Cooper said. “We were more laid back. Our practices now are very intense. Most of the time our practices are harder than what we play.”