*Editor’s Note: Four former players’ identities were not included in this story for confidentiality.
Doane’s volleyball team had 25 players at the beginning of the fall.
By the second semester, only half of those players remained.
Only three freshmen from this year’s recruiting class will return for the next season.
Keeping all players from freshman year until senior year in any sport at the collegiate level is uncommon.
Hannah Vadakin, assistant and junior varsity coach, said the retention rate was not anything out of the ordinary.
Juniors Makenzie Zima and Melinda Stauffer said they quit their sports because of scheduling conflicts. Zima said she also was unable to recover from an injury, which influenced her decision to quit.
But neither quit because of the coach.
Six ex-volleyball players said the coaching played a part, if not the entire role, in their decision to quit.
One former player said she felt that the woman who recruited her was not the same person she played for, which disappointed her.
“I was not in any way expecting for this experience to be easy, and it wasn’t,” she said, “but I did expect to be respected as a player and a person.”
Head Volleyball Coach Gwen Egbert is completing her second year at Doane. Egbert has a long history with the sport.
After competing in volleyball throughout high school and college, Egbert started as an assistant coach at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and then a JV coach at St. Mary’s College. She moved on to coach high schools Papillion-LaVista and then Papillion-LaVista South. Her teams won six Class A State Championships and made it to the championship game 13 out of 17 times. She was named the Lincoln Journal Star Coach of the Year in 2002 and 2012.
Egbert said her coaching philosophy was “teaching life lessons through hard work, fundamentals and teamwork.”
Working as a team was a lifelong skill, whether in personal relationships or in the workforce, Egbert said. She wanted to prepare her team for that future, and she encouraged her players to communicate with her about any issues they had—such as class conflicts, family problems or injuries, she said.
Many of the former and current players said Egbert was the best technical coach they’d had.
But enhancing skills is only half of what it meant to be a coach, a former JV player said.
The former players said they did not feel that they could approach Egbert with questions or concerns.
A former player did not think that Egbert acted on anything brought up to her.
“Every time that something was presented to her, she did listen, but she typically does things her way or the highway,” she said. “Honestly, I would say that most everyone on the team is afraid to tell her how they really feel about certain things.”
Egbert said that most of the girls who left the team were JV and reported to Vadakin. The former JV players agreed that Vadakin was more approachable.
Vadakin said she felt the students’ fear in talking to Egbert was because they were young.
But not every girl who felt animosity toward Egbert was a freshman or junior varsity player.
Sophomore varsity player Jordan Buttermore said she felt a good coach inspired players to play well for the team and for the coach. But that was not the way she felt playing for Egbert, she said.
Buttermore said there was an incident in which Egbert referred to Buttermore as “it” and “that” during a meeting.
Buttermore had broken one of the rules set by the players, and Egbert said she saw this as being disrespectful to the team and went against what Doane volleyball stood for.
“To be honest with you,” Egbert said, “I was probably holding myself back from calling her something worse that I didn’t want to do.”
Buttermore agreed that she learned her lesson, but she felt that she was continually treated poorly after that incident. She said nobody should be treated like that.
“Honestly, I have never been more embarrassed in my life,” Buttermore said. “My parents had never been more embarrassed.”
When Buttermore had her meeting to quit, she brought up this incident with Egbert. She said that during the meeting, Egbert told her she deserved it.
A varsity member also shared similar feelings about Egbert.
The former varsity player said she lost her passion for the sport after playing for Egbert.
“I started the beginning of the year, and I loved volleyball,” she said. “But after my injury it was almost like she (Egbert) saw it as a weak point. And that’s when I started deteriorating. It was a huge, huge thing to just see something that you love get torn down so quickly just because of one person that’s just ripping it all apart.”
The former varsity player said she was in the locker room during the Buttermore incident, and that she didn’t think Egbert took the correct action toward Buttermore.
“I think it’s appropriate to take her (Buttermore) out of the room, away from us, and talk with her,” the former varsity player said. “But then the fact that she (Egbert) brought us all in and screamed at her (Buttermore) again was totally out of her bounds, I think. She (Egbert) would turn to the team and be like, ‘Do you think this was right?’ And so she (Egbert) would want us to jump on her (Buttermore), as well. She (Buttermore) didn’t need everybody attacking her all at once. To have everybody surrounding you, just attacking you—I think it’s bullying. I think she (Egbert) is a bully.”
Freshman former JV player Tiarra Kruml was injured during most of the season with a stress fracture, putting her in a walking boot. She said she felt that Egbert did not believe in injuries.
When her boot was taken off, Kruml immediately began sprinting drills, which she said made the injury worse, eventually putting her back in the boot.
Egbert said injuries were frustrating for coaches because it meant the players were separated from one another, and it changed the dynamic of the team.
“I would say I’m not good with injuries,” Egbert said. “I’m not good with that because I don’t like to see them hurt, and it’s hard because then they are separating themselves from our team.”
Egbert said she pushed players to perform if they could. If they felt they could not play, she saw it as an opportunity for another player to step up and participate, she said.
“Basically if you’re injured, you have to make a decision,” Kruml said. “If you want to keep going or if you want to quit and save your body.”
Kruml said she decided to quit after Egbert pulled her into a meeting during lifting, leaving the impression on Kruml that Egbert did not want her on the team any longer, and that she would not be able to gain Egbert’s respect.
Kruml came to Doane for an education, she said, and volleyball was a second priority.
But on the team she felt the priorities went volleyball, academics, family. The six former players interviewed all said they felt the same way.
Varsity player junior Breanna Fye said that this was not explicitly stated, and she did not feel that those were the priorities.
Egbert said her priorities for the team were family, academics, volleyball.
Egbert and the two assistant coaches sat in on a group interview with current team members.
During the group interview, players said they had grown closer as a smaller group.
They said their priorities were academics, volleyball, family.
Junior Megan Fletcher said the environment before practice was very positive with music, smiles and encouragement between teammates. She said that energy flowed into practice.
Sophomore Erin Keetle said she gained confidence from working with Egbert and the team.
“Looking at myself as a former player, there’s all sorts of coaches and there’s all sorts of players,” Egbert said. ”You’ve got to adapt to what you’ve got.”
Doane volleyball alum Ashley Axmann played for Egbert her senior year. She said she believed Egbert was a great coach and could take the program to the next level.
“Those who are able to handle her (Egbert), and trust her and give her everything you have, will grow in ways they never thought possible and become amazing athletes and players,” she said.
Axmann said Egbert taught her to never give up and to be fearless.
“It didn’t matter to Gwen (Egbert) what age we were,” Axmann said. “She wanted everyone to be the best they could be and kept pushing them until they achieved that. We couldn’t give up. Thanks to Gwen, I felt a lot more confident. I thought I really grew as a leader, player and person.”
During the team interview, Keetle said the team did not feel that interviewing the women who quit was an accurate representation of their team.
But another former volleyball player said she felt the interviews would not be completely honest because the women were afraid of Egbert.
“I think they are going to be nervous about what she (Egbert) thinks,” she said. “She has an impact on our lives even if we don’t like to admit. So I think people are going to be afraid to tell you the whole truth. They’ll tell you part of it, but I’m sure there are worse things that have happened that they are not willing to tell.”
Egbert said it broke her heart when women quit. She said she cared for all her current and former players, and that she just wanted her team to be successful.
The former varsity player said that Egbert was a great technical coach.
“She knows her stuff, and I think that’s really important to have in a coach,” she said. “But coaches should also build women. That’s what a college coach is for: to build people, build confidence, build character; and I didn’t see that in her.”
Buttermore said that, from her experience, she learned how strong she was as a person. She said Egbert had the potential to be a great coach.
“She’s a really good coach and I think the girls are getting better,” Buttermore said. “(She) needs a better way of doing it, I think.”
Athletic Director Jill McCartney had no comment for this story.