Coaching Plum, wearing purple?

As I spoke of in the foreword, this whole story revolves around the collisions and intersections in our lives.           This next chapter is full of so many that mean so much to us to this day.  Best friends, even more accurately new family members were made in the six years Ellen coached at Plum.

I remember, traveling with Ellen that first year she coached the boys, happening on this angry, unhappy young girl, sitting on the lobby floor at York High School.  She didn't have any teammates around her and looked so alone to me.  I instantly wanted to help her.  I could have never imagined that that young girl would become one of my most trusted friends, someone I would seek on my own dark days for advice and council.  Funny how life puts important people in your path, even far before you would ever expect it.

       Jennifer McDowell.  Maybe the most dynamic volleyball player we would ever have on a team we coached.  She had great court sense, terrific hands, and desire I'm not sure I've seen since then.  She commanded the court, and she demanded a certain level of play from her teammates.  She was the kind of leader champions require.

       Chris Houck.  Still the best middle we have ever coached.  Chris wasn't the biggest middle, but she had a near perfect arm swing that was quick and powerful.  With Jenny running the offense and Chris tagging balls out of the middle, things opened up for some really solid outsides. Jill Rascatore, Denise Proviano and Darcy Hammer often got single blocks to beat, because Chris was successful early in matches.  Add to that another solid middle in Monica Zavleski and defensive specialist Cheryl Jonov, and Plum had a solid team coming back for Ellen's first year.  We knew they we're good, but we never could have guessed where this unlikely group would take us.

        It seemed like the regular season went by so fast.  I know we had a few good tussles with Ellen's Alma Mater, Kiski Area.  I know it was strange for Ellen to be on a bench coaching against her old high school team.  It took a little extra time to get used to wearing purple and gold, that's for sure!  The Lady Mustangs won a few tournaments along the way, and competed well against some of the WPIAL's top programs.  Playoffs were going to be fun!

        The girls played all the way to the semi finals, dropping a tough loss to the defending state champions, Norwin.  In those days, the WPIAL took three teams to the state tournament, so the two semi-final losers would play at three game match to determine which of them got the last spot.  I'm working on only my memory of this, so if anyone knows and can correct me, please do.  I believe the other semi-final loser was Mt Lebonan.  The match was at North Allegheny.  Plum lost the first game, rallied from way back to win the second, setting up an all or nothing third game.  I know the third game was a see-saw back and forth affair, with both teams running out of substitutions at the end.  Down one point, with Denise Proviano serving, maybe for the first time all year, Plum pulled off an unlikely come from behind thriller.  We were just so happy to qualify for a trip to Shippensburg, little did we know what was to come!

Strangely enough the PIAA, in 1983 waited to contest the girls state championship until spring when the boys also had their tourney.  In fact, 1983-84 was the last year of that set up.  In the fall of 1984 the girls championship was held separately from the boys.

        So, the challenge became keeping this team focused through their basketball, then softball and track seasons. Ellen employed some unique tactics to do so, sometimes holding practices early in the morning or after other sports practices.  You might think that maybe a team might burn out, with this much activity.  What you will find is this was no ordinary team!

       On weekends we "invented" a travel team, getting in a few open tournaments as states drew close.

CBVB, was the name we took, and to this day very few people know that it stood for Corner Bar Volleyball.(The bar and grill my sister and I owned at the time)  We bought Orange and Navy shirts and shorts, so to distance ourselves from the usual Purple and Gold.  The last open tournament the girls entered they lost in the finals to a team of college players from WVU.  They gave them all they could handle!

It was time for states.  All the hard work this group put in, it was time to see if it was enough.  I remember marveling at practices, thinking that this group worked as hard at their game than any football or wrestling team I was ever on.  The trip to Shippensburg was exciting for these kids.  They had been to Penn State the year before, and didn't have a very good time.  Lost the first two in pool play, and never recovered.  This was going to be different.  These girls were brimming with confidence, and they breezed through the pool play, and into the brackets on day two.

        They really wanted to make a statement for their morning practice time, so they decided to throw on their CBVB uniforms, and go in loud and strong.  I remember wondering if it was such a good idea, and looking at the faces watching them at that practice, I could see it working.  Our girls were totally on, passing money, crushing their hits, screaming after every one.  The other teams kind of stopped what they were doing and watched them, not knowing who they were!  It was brilliant!

        They walked into the finals, against North Allegheny, who had beaten Norwin in the semi's.  It was such a good match.  Back and forth, great plays being made by both teams.  The shame was someone had to lose, but on this day it was not going to be the Plum Mustangs!  The final point set off a celebration and release of tension like nothing I have ever experienced!  Pure joy!  Ellen Toy and the Plum Mustangs, State Champions!

        What a way to start a coaching career, but in fairness, much of the credit has to go to Mike Larko, who took the Plum program and built it into a winning tradition with both the boys and girls programs.  He is and will always be Plum volleyball, but there was something about the way Ellen coached this team, got just a little more out of them.  Maybe it was her youthfulness and her ability to talk to them as someone who had JUST been there, or maybe it was just one of those instances where two forces are fatefully in the intersection at the same time...

I wish so much that I had a few pictures of this team.  If anybody does, please send them to me to be included here!!!

Read more about Jenny McDowell in "There's Nothing in the Coaches Manual" at