By Mike Motz
Sidney Sun-Telegraph 

Coach Lu Spikes New Opportunity

 

Courtesy Photo

Coach Lu Howard is pictured with one of her club teams. She has plans to expand the club volleyball program to other communities.

"If you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life" is a well-known adage that many people never get the chance to test.

Many who do are pushed into such a dramatic change through circumstances usually beyond their control. Lucia Howard is a Sidney resident currently living that adage after a series of events, culminating in the mass Cabela's layoffs, pushed her to pursue her passion – coaching volleyball.

"Coach Lu" as she's known in volleyball circles, has come a long way to put down roots in Sidney and make a go of it with her business, Panhandle Volleyball. She was born in Slovakia, a central European country formed from the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, and emigrated to the United States when she was 18 years old to attend college at the University of Arkansas-Ft. Smith.

An accomplished youth volleyball player, she put her skills to good use while an undergraduate, and her resume reflects upon her hard work. Some of the highlights include Team Captain from 2008-2011, NJCAA National Championship Runner-Up 2008, NJCAA first team All-American 2008-09 and many other achievements.


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But like most people, Lucia was in college to earn a degree, and she completed her undergraduate studies in May of 2011 for her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She then continued her education at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma earning a Masters of Arts in Industrial/Organizational Psychology.

After earning her Masters, Lucia started working in human resources for SPX Corporation in Tulsa and eventually got herself involved in the local volleyball scene, coaching the Broken Arrow 12 and Under volleyball team for two seasons.

For the first year, she was a volunteer with the club, but in the second year her coaching job became a paid position. That's when circumstances beyond her control conspired to bring her to Sidney, and eventually to start Panhandle Volleyball.

"My dog died on July 4, 2016 while I was away visiting back home, and when I returned to Tulsa to deal with that, I started to feel like I needed a change," said Howard.

In the beginning of September of that year, SPX Corporation went through a series of layoffs, and Howard found herself out of a job.

"I was offered another employment opportunity in Tulsa, but I had already been contacted by Cabela's so I decided to meet with them and see what they had to offer," she explained.

Cabela's flew her out to Denver to meet, and she was really impressed with the company and culture, and decided to take a tour of Sidney, which is what ultimately sold her on moving forward and joining Cabela's.

"I was offered significantly more money at another job back in Tulsa, but something kept telling me to move on and come out to Sidney. I loved the small-town feel of the area," she said.

Listening to your gut instinct is often instrumental in making a change in life, especially when it comes to uprooting and relocating when you have no connection to the area you've chosen. Lucia was no stranger to this type of a change, previously uprooting her life and moving to an entirely different country when she was still a teenager.


As she settled into her role as an HR Compliance Specialist at Cabela's, she started to get involved in the local volleyball scene when she saw a Facebook post from the Cheyenne County Community Center looking for a volleyball referee.

"I asked if they had an actual official volleyball club, and they didn't, so I decided to start my own," said Howard.

Although Nebraska has a strong volleyball tradition, the panhandle area was definitely underserved in that regard, and Lucia recognized an opportunity to build a program that would serve the Sidney and surrounding area. As this was happening, the first rumblings of massive changes at Cabela's were starting, but Lucia decided to stick with the company and continue to build the volleyball club.

Sidney High School then lost its volleyball coach, and since Lucia had established herself at the Community Center, a group of parents recommended her to the school administration to take over the program. Lucia impressed the the decision makers so much that she was offered the coaching position, which is extremely rare since she is not a member of the faculty.


After receiving her certification through NSIAA (Nebraska State Athletic Administrators Association), she got to work with the Sidney High School team.

She found that most of the staff involved with volleyball was brand new, and the girls had to be taught a new style if they were going to compete at a high level. By the end of their first season, the lessons were learned well as the team made it to the Sub-State tournament and earned runner-up against teams that had much more well-established programs.

There is a separation between the Sidney High School team and the Panhandle Volleyball club due to various AAU (American Athletic Union) and NSIAA rules, which is why the club focuses on athletes that are not of high school age. However, the Panhandle club serves a valuable purpose, teaching young athletes proper technique and skills that they are able to utilize immediately when they reach the high school level.

As Cabela's completed its' sale to Bass Pro and the corporate staff layoffs were finalized, Lucia found herself out of a job again. But she had laid the groundwork for the Panhandle Volleyball club and decided to keep moving forward and turn her passion for volleyball into a full time career. She's not quite there now and is still surviving on her savings at this point, but the results of her hard work are starting to become evident.

She's assembled a top-notch staff including Nick Dadgostar, a long-time volleyballer who lost his legs in 2009 and is now a member of the US Men's National Team in Sitting Volleyball, Courtney Bremer who is a four year varsity high school standout and former Chadron College player, and Anna Hogan who is a nationally-ranked beach volleyball player, a Ukrainian National Beach Volleyball standout, and has coached since 2011.

Recently, her teams were very successful in the Wyoming Grand Prix event in Casper with the 12U (12 years and under) team placing first in the "B" Division out of 26 teams, and the 14U (14 years and under) team placing third in the "A" Division out of 19 teams.

Panhandle Volleyball offers tournaments for the girls to compete, clinics and camps for the girls to learn and develop their skills, and clinics for people interested in learning to coach.

On June 2, there will be a "Coaches Clinic" in Sidney featuring Andor Gyulai, founder of Volleyball1on1, Jessica Squier who is the head volleyball coach at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, and sports medicine specialist Kyle Brown.

Lucia's goals for the club are focused on expanding the club into western Nebraska, northeastern Colorado, and southeastern Wyoming. In addition to the Sidney Volleyball Club, she's also added another club in Julesburg Colorado, and is in discussions to form another club in Alliance.

 

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