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The Anatomy of a Dynasty: It Starts with the Culture for Clarion HS Volleyball

The 1999 Clarion volleyball team was the start of the current dynasty. Photo from the 2000 Clarion Yearbook

CLARION, Pa. – The numbers are staggering.

Twenty-three years, 19 KSAC titles, 15 District 9 championships, three PIAA titles.

Add in a pair of PIAA runner-up finishes and three District 9 second-place finishes and really the only appropriate word is “dynasty”.

The Clarion High School volleyball team has turned into a dynasty under 23rd-year head coach Shari Campbell.

Since Campbell took over the program in 1999, the Lady Cats have gone 426-64 winning PIAA titles in 2012, 2020, and 2021. As for KSAC and D9 titles, it would be easier to list the years Clarion hasn’t won than it would be to list the years they have won. But over the past 12 years, the Lady Cats have 10 KSAC and 10 D9 titles to go with three PIAA titles, a pair of PIAA second-place finishes, and three PIAA Final Four appearances.

The 2012 Clarion Volleyball team won the first PIAA title in school history

Numbers are one thing. They tell part of the story, but only part of it.

The how it happened and why it continues is just as interesting and important.

D9and10Sports had a chance to talk to current and former players about how the dynasty came to be and how it has been sustained through an entire generation.

The overriding sentiment among everyone is that it starts with Campbell and the culture that has been created.

And that makes sense.

A really good local program in the early 1990s with five straight league titles from 1990 through 1994, including the program’s first D9 title in 1993, Clarion had struggled in the four years that proceeded the current run of success going 36-39 before Campbell was hired.

It would take 11-plus years for the Lady Cats to lose their next 39 matches.

“I believe 100 percent it has to with Coach Campbell coming in and doing a complete 180 on KSAC volleyball,” said Emily (Sandora) Gasior, who was a JV player in Campbell’s first season in 1999 and a varsity player the next three seasons including D9 titles her final two. “I believe the reason my team was good was that she took the six of us who had athletic ability and made us into volleyball players. So much so that three of us from my graduating class went on to play collegiately.”

Emily (Sandora) Gasior during her playing days at Slippery Rock University. Photo courtesy of Slippery Rock Athletics

Erika (Bevevino) Cathcart, who was a senior on Campbell’s first team, said her class would have done anything to win. A lot of them had played for Campbell, who also had a short stint as the head coach at Clarion-Limestone prior to Clarion, in club volleyball and knew how good of a coach she was.

“The female athletes at Clarion at the time were desperate to win,” Cathcart, who went on to be an assistant coach with the program, said. “We were always 500ish in volleyball, our basketball team was terrible. We weren’t that strong in softball or track either. Most of the seniors had played club for Shari. We wanted her so badly to coach us. That year, we would have done anything she asked us to because we just wanted to be a winning team. We bought in, and that was all that was needed. We went 16-3 my senior season and no one wanted to ever go back.”

Lindsay Banner, a freshman in Campbell’s first season who played for the Lady Cats from 1999 through 2002 before going on to a successful career at Clarion University, credits the seniors and captains that first season with starting the process towards greatness.

“When Shari first arrived, the seniors and captains of her first Clarion varsity team bought into her high-octane version of volleyball,” Banner said. “The learning curve was very high. It took long hours focused on truly learning fundamentals that are now instilled in fifth grade.”

Cathcart believes the early buy-in by her class was a key building block to today’s success.

“For a program like this to be so successful, you have to have a coach that really knows how to teach how to win and you have to have players that completely buy into it,” Cathcart said. “You could have the most knowledgeable coach ever, but if your players aren’t willing to put in the work and trust what the coach is telling them they need to do, you aren’t going to have the success. C-L had Shari first, and they didn’t buy-in. Luckily, we did that very first year and we’ve never looked back.”

Ellie (Burns) Proksell, who was on the first-ever PIAA championship team in 2012, also believes getting that early buy-in was key.

“Years ago, when she started the program, she got a group of athletes to buy-in and trust the process,” Proksell said. “The best part of that is she didn’t stop there. She has done what many successful coaches have done and looked at her athletes not only in that exact moments but five, 10 years, down the line. She is always preparing for the future of the program. While other coaches are thinking, ‘what is the best lineup for me this year,’ she is thinking ‘what is the best lineup for Clarion volleyball five years from now.’ Thus, she is preparing and working with elementary and middle school athletes while others are working with what they have in the moment.”

Gasior said the developmental program Proksell mentioned is a huge key to sustained success within the program.

“My team didn’t have the ability to play before JV/Varsity,” Gasior said. “Now, they start volleyball so much younger and it gives the girls time to develop and mature in their game. This is all thanks to Coach.”

Lindsay Banner (right) went on to play at Clarion University and graced the cover of the school’s media guide as a senior in 2006.

Starting at an early age helps the players develop fundamentals, and Banner said that has been a key to the success of the program.

“I think one of the key factors that have led to Clarion volleyball’s success is the focus on fundamentals of the game and doing so at a young age,” Banner said. “Having such a solid understanding of and ability to implement the fundamentals of the game allows players’ volleyball IQs to grow as they grow through a program that starts in elementary school. By the time players are in the JV and varsity gyms, the focus is on playing the game at such a high level. While fundamentals remain a core of what they do, they can spend their time focused on situational aspects and the true intricacies of the game. Finally, it’s the work the girls put into the game in the offseason. There truly is no offseason: Lifting, Agility Training. Club.”

That hard work is something Sammi Beichner, a current assistant coach who was part of the second “generation” of players during the Campbell Era, credits for the success.

“Clarion volleyball has become the powerhouse it is by the day-in-and-day-out hard work the players and coaches put into the program,” Beichner, who has been with the program 15 years (4 as a player – 2003 to 2006 – and 11 as a coach), said. “Year after year, each team is determined to reach their goals and knows the work they need to put in to achieve them. They know how to work together as one.”

Getting the buy-in for the hard work that is needed is all part of the culture Campbell has created within the program.

Shari Campell presents Payton Simko with her PIAA gold medal after winning the 2021 PIAA 1A championship. Photo by Nathan Girvan

“Having been in the gym in 1999, Shari’s first year at Clarion, and back to assist in the gym from 2005 through 2007, there is certainly the benefit of establishing a culture in which the work ethic, killer instinct, and grit are self-perpetuating as a result of the tradition that’s been created,” Banner said. “Shari had the cultivate a culture of girls learning to play for themselves and their teammates rather than playing because their parents wanted them to or it was just an extracurricular sport.”

Once the culture was established, it took off from there.

“When you are part of a successful program after the foundation is laid, the culture, focus, and expectations shift,” Proksell, who has been an assistant coach for a pair of PIAA Class 4A titles at North Allegheny the last two years, said. “Over the past 15 years, I truly believe Coach Campbell has worked extremely hard and devoted endless time and energy to making Clarion volleyball a dynasty. I can say that as a high school and club coach myself, it takes time and effort to create a culture that lives and breathes volleyball. High school athletes do not always buy in to the process, and that is what I feel Coach Campbell has done an excellent job of.”

One of the amazing things that have taken off is how one group of players passes down to the next the expectations of the program.

“Rather than (Campbell) having to hold girls accountable, she now has a gym of girls that hold one another accountable,” Banner said.

Clarion with its 2020 PIAA Championship trophy. Photo by Chris Rossetti

Korrin Burns, Ellie’s sister, who won PIAA states in 2020 and 2021, said the success that came before her pushed her to want success for herself and her teams.

“It’s more of a legacy of watching older girls come through the program, learning from them,” Burns said. “Our freshmen are learning from our seniors, so we expect big things from Clarion.”

Taylor Alson, a sophomore middle hitter on this year’s team, pointed to the leadership of the older players as part of the reason for success.

“The seniors right now, they’ve just done such a great job with leadership and everything,” Alston said. “I think learning to continue that and to keep it going, our ultimate goal is to come back (to the state championship match) every year. I think if we keep that going, then we will be good.”

Campbell, for her part, deflects the credit to her players and assistant coaches.

“It’s a culture,” Campbell said. “It’s something I established when I started, and I had kids who wanted it. They bought in. It happened early.

“I also contribute it to having a great coaching staff. Erika Cathcart coaches with me forever, and Tracy (Durish) has been with me for a while now. I’ve had past played show have coached. Sam (Beichner) has been with me, I don’t know how many years, like 10 years or more. So, not having coaching changeover is super, super helpful especially when developing young kids. I’m surrounded by great people, and our school is super supportive. It makes it easy.”

The 2021 PIAA Championship team. Photo by Chris Rossetti

The program being like a family (and sometimes actually being a family) has played a large role in the success as well.

“We are one big family,” Beichner said. “I started out in this amazing program as a player for Shari for four years and now have coached with her for 11 years. Each year, on the court, I learned confidence, strength, perseverance, guts, and how to be a strong woman. And now I have the privilege to continue to grow in this sport with Shari and to coach all the players that step on to the court with us.”

Many of those players are siblings who have passed the torch from one daughter to the next.

Current assistant coach Sammi Beichner (right) during her playing days with her sister, Kelsey, and her dad, Kevin, after a volleyball game. Photo courtesy of Sammi Beichner

“Clarion has been very fortunate to have had families of multiple children that are around the game from a young age and who are able to be involved and invested in this culture from that young age,” Proksell, who was one of four sisters to play for the Lady Cats, said. “For example, the Fillman sisters, the Bailey sisters, the Sintobin sisters, the Girvan sisters, the Constantino sisters, and even my own family. My family alone, we have had a Burns kid in the Clarion gym since 2008. I’m sure I missed a few family duos, and I apologize for that. I even think of coach’s daughters, Brenna (who was the setter on the 2020 state title team), Hadley (a freshman on the 2021 state championship squad), and Adawin Campbell. They have been in the gym since they were babies. They were pushed in ball carts from the time they could sit up on their own.”

 

The commitment from those on the edges of the program like parents, grandparents, and spouses also have played key roles in the success.

“Our parents have a lot to do with this as well,” Gasior said. “Their dedication to driving us to and from practices, games, weekend-long tournaments, them believing in us and cheering us on day in and day out really helps the athletes.”

Ellie (Burns) Proksell with husband, Ethan, and sister, Korrin, after Korrin helped Clarion to the 2021 PIAA Class 1A title. Korrin (2) and Ellie (1) were part of all three Lady Cats’ PIAA titles. Photo courtesy of Elli Proksell

Beichner pointed to the support of Campbell and Campbell’s family that goes beyond just coaching.

“Shari is the main centerpiece that holds the big Clarion volleyball puzzle together, among those pieces are also her family,” Beichner said. “The support we receive from her husband, Jim, is amazing along with Jim’s mom, Martha, and Shari’s parents. The amount of time and heart Shari puts into the program is unmeasurable.”

Jim and Shari Campbell with daughter, Brenna, on Brenna’s Senior Night in 2020. Brenna grew up in the Clarion gym along with her younger sisters. Photo courtesy of the Campbell family

 

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