Over the weekend, Easton Valley head volleyball coach Denise Larson hit a huge milestone: 500 wins.
Larson has been with the Preston/Easton Valley programs for 32 years now and had no idea where this career move would take her. In fact, she wasn’t even aware that she was this close to 500 wins.
“Honestly, I never thought about milestones of accrued wins,” Larson said. “I do LOVE to win but really think only about one season at a time.”
Larson, who is from Southeast Iowa, came to Preston High School for her first teaching job. As part of that, she got to take the reigns of the volleyball program.
“I was scared as could be,” Larson said about coming to Preston three decades ago. “But thankfully was blessed with an amazing assistant coach-Butch Bormann-who supported me and helped me through those first learning years. And I have been lucky ever since to continue to have the best assistant coaches...truly the key to a smooth season.”
Larson has coached many a winning season since then with talented athletes coming through the ranks of Preston year after year.
Of course, there’s always stuff to learn. Even for the coaches.
“What I have learned could be a book in itself,” Larson said. “Learning is an ongoing process – absolutely everyday! I have learned through trial and error, through successes and failures. Many things I have learned came as hard lessons, always humbling experiences.”
That included a transition. Preston and East Central High School combined in 2013, eliminating the Preston Trojans and forming the Easton Valley River Hawks.
She kept the same coaching philosophy throughout: it’s about more than volleyball
“At the end of the day or season, success is not just what is in the win column, but measured by what you take away from the sport to help you in your life,” Larson said. “And hopefully, at the top of the list, is a lot of great memories and friendships.”
That’s part of what sets her apart for some of her former players. Kelcie Bormann, who played for the Preston Trojans from 2007-2011 as their setter, really points to Larson as a big reason volleyball was so much fun.
“Never once did she ever give up on us,” Bormann said. “We worked so hard on team bonding and she always had creative ideas to make girls enjoy being out for the sport. Even though the work was hard she would make it fun. There wasn’t a single day I didn’t love to be at practice.”
Bormann amassed well over 1,000 assists in her career at Preston, while the teams she played with went 104-39.
“Coach Larson is one of a kind,” Bormann said. “She is and will continue to be such an amazing coach because she sets such high expectations for us no matter what.
“Playing for her for four years, we would have yeas where we were supposed to be one of the top teams and years where we weren’t supposed to be very good. No matter the case, she always pushed us to be better than we were the match before, the set before and the volley before.”
Bormann went on to a collegiate softball career and then to become a teacher and coach herself, and still points back to her time in Preston.
“I have been blessed in my career to have amazing coaches throughout,” Bormann said. “But Coach Larson will always be one of the coaches I looked up to the most.”
There have been times Denise Larson has considered stepping back from the head coach duties. She says that something always stops her.
She’s been playing volleyball since she was in eighth grade herself, her high school team making state tournament appearances multiple times. She really can’t imagine her life without it.
“Every year as one season unfortunately ends and my heart is a bit broke, I always find myself soon thinking about ‘next year’,” Larson said. “What the theme may be, how are we ever going to replace the seniors and put together a strong competitive team and how much I enjoy being in the gym.”
There is one common thing she points back to when she thinks about the success she’s seen: her athletes.
A few years ago, they created a chant that’s repeated by the River Hawks over and over again. It ends with the phrase “We are one team” and that’s how Larson sees it.
“Credit really goes to the hundreds of kids I have coached,” Larson said. “The wins belong to them...their hard work, dedication, and perseverance year after year.”