Little Hawks on the Big Court

East Volleyball teams are collaborating to create a workshop for elementary kids in hopes of building the program beyond its GMC leadership.


Elementary players practice setting the ball.

Mary Barone


Amid the chaos of balls flying over the net and kids chasing one another, East girls’ varsity volleyball coach Jen Dreher prepares herself for the two-hour clinic ahead of her. While it takes patience to coach the fundamentals of volleyball to 85 elementary-age kids, she knows the future of East’s volleyball program lies within the crowded gym.

Since Aug. 18, Dreher and boys’ varsity volleyball coach Bryant Kuhlman have led clinics once a week for students grades three through sixth to hone their volleyball skills. Dreher and Kuhlman used their momentum from the Hawks Summer Volleyball Program, where more than 200 children participated, to carry the clinic into the school year.

“For some kids, summer camp was their first time ever touching a volleyball,” Kuhlman told Spark. “I started playing volleyball in sixth grade but my goal is for kids to be introduced to it at an even younger age. [The summer camp] was a building step for where we’re hoping to take the program.”

Kuhlman’s main focus is on bringing more boys into the program. Historically, the high school boys’ team has had a successful run. From 2016-2019, East varsity boys volleyball held an 8-0 record. In the 2020 season, senior Grant Hubbard held the boys’ Greater Miami Conference (GMC) annual record  with 273 kills and came in second for aces with 62. The boys ended their year 6-2.

Kuhlman expects the team to rally together after Hubbard, their star player, graduated last year.

“Last year we had so many kids that were either playing volleyball for the first time or freshmen that were coming back,” Kuhlman says. “I really look forward to the whole team really growing and continuing to get better from where we were last year.”

At the Sept. 8 clinic, boys made up just under 20% of the attendance. While the boys’ high school team has yet to be sanctioned by the Greater Miami Conference (GMC) at the high school level, East Athletic Director Richard Bryant has faith in the future of boys’ volleyball.

“[Elementary schools] could have some semblance of a competitive [boy’s] team by this spring,” Bryant told Spark. “Even if it’s not good at first, getting the boys out there on the court will do nothing but grow our programs.”

Kuhlman plans to enroll several elementary-aged teams in the Cincinnati Premier Youth Volleyball League (CPYVL) before its March 19 registration deadline.

“We are trying to help these kids develop an IQ for the game,” Kuhlman says. “We are laying the foundation for these kids to funnel into the junior high school level down the road.”

Typically, parents crowd the bleachers to watch their little Hawks work on their volleyball skills. Union Elementary parent Shannon Fausnaugh’s nine-year old daughter has participated in the last two youth clinics.

“I love the clinics because [my daughter is]  learning a lot more— and I’m learning new stuff just from listening in,” Fausnaugh says. “The number of coaches and players here is great because they are able to give every kid the attention they need to develop.”

East volleyball players from both teams have been staying after their own practices to help with the clinic. Dreher appreciates the help as it expands the attention that each participant receives.

“The players that help out are able to help our little Hawks a lot with technique and their confidence,” Dreher says. “They give the kids a picture of where they hope to be.”

Varsity outside hitter Erin Cooney has attended three out of the four clinics. She says she enjoys passing on her love of the sport to the kids and getting to know them.

“[Coach Dreher] brought a different atmosphere to the table when she joined the team,” Cooney says. “She really cares about rebuilding the program by putting more focus on the younger kids.”

Students come together to finish off the clinic with a team break.

Dreher is the fifth coach to take on the girls’ varsity volleyball team since 2014. Bryant says that with a change in leadership at least every three years, it is difficult for the program to find consistency. The girl’s varsity volleyball team’s most successful season run was in 2012 under head coach Casie Garland, ranking seventh in the state and holding an overall record of 8-1.

Last year, the varsity team ended their 2020 season with a 7-2 record under the leadership of head coach Janna Stephens. Stephens left the team in November for personal reasons.

East Athletic Director Richard Bryant offered the position of head coach to Dreher in March 2021. Out of six candidates that were interviewed for the position, Bryant says that Dreher stood out for her passion and energy.

“[Dreher’s]  been on the job for three or four months, and she is following through on everything she has promised,” Bryant says. “She said she was going to start a youth program for us to compete at the highest level and I couldn’t be happier with the strides she’s taking to reach that goal.”