Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

July 15, 2013

GC Volleyball: Graceful landing — Grace takes over CHS program

Mike Phillips
Corsicana Daily Sun

Corsicana — The kids in Mineola had a saying: “All things are possible when it comes to  Ashley.”

That’s what they said.

They even had their own acronym for it — APWICTA.

That’s how they felt about their volleyball coach Ashley Grace, who is one of those “you gotta believe” coaches who taught those kids how to believe in themselves and then turned the program around.

Now Grace is at Corsicana High.

No acronyms just yet. But then again, she just got the job.

“She’s a program building coach,’’ said Corsicana AD Billy Harlan, who is ecstatic to have Grace run the program. “She just wants to win. For me, it’s a chance to hire smeone who has a proven record who is also a great person. It’s a no-brainer.’’

Grace takes over the varsity volleyball program after leading the JV team to a 17-4 record last year after coming back home — after making her own circle back to the Golden Circle, where she is closer to family and where she hopes to take Corsicana to new heights in volleyball.

“It’s great to be back home, close to family,’’ said Grace, who grew up in Kerens and coached at Mildred.

She could have stayed at Mineloa, where she took a program that hadn’t won a district title since 1976 and left three years later after the team had been ranked No. 15 in the state.

“It was hard to leave,’’ said Grace, who wanted to move back to this part of Texas in part because she had two young children and wanted to be closer to family.

Grace, 33, grew up in Kerens, and took her first coaching job at Malakoff Middle School, where she coached volleyball and softball. Two years later, she took the job as the varsity volleyball coach at Mildred.

A year later when Mildred Athletic Director Joe Drennan took the AD job at Mineloa, he wanted to bring Ashley and her husband, Cody, who was also a coach at Mildred, to Mineloa with him.

“It was kind of scary leaving family and friends,’’ Grace said. “But it worked out great. They hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2005 and hadn’t been in 15 years before that. I wanted the program to turn around and I wanted to build the program from the ground floor up.’’

She did.

Mineola had a winning record in her first year and missed the playoffs by a fluke game when the fifth-place team beat the best team in the district on a night when the star player was out with an injury, knocking Mineola from fourth to fifth.

“After that happened, we talked about not ever letting another team control our destiny,’’ Grace said.

Mineola reached the playoffs in Year 2 and in Year 3 the Lady Yellow Jackets won the district title and were ranked 15th in the state with a young squad that included four sophomores and a junior in the starting lineup.

The ground floor was rising every day.

Grace’s team might have made a deep run in the playoffs but they ran into No. 1-ranked White Oak in the Area round of the playoffs, and after winning the first game (the only 2A team to win a game against White Oak) they fell in five games.

After the season ended, Grace gave birth to her second son and her husband Cody was offered a job as an assistant coach at Corsicana High.

“It was hard to leave Mineola,’’ Grace said. “But it is so hard when you have children and you live away from your family.’’

Her volleyball kids came to her house to say good-bye.

“They all came, and they cried.’’ Grace said. “I cried , too’’

Grace, who began her career as an athletic trainer and then became a coach because she wanted to help youngsters on and off the court, had no idea what she kind of job she would get when she and her husband moved to Corsicana.

“I didn’t know what I would do,’’ she said. “I really didn’t want to leave Mineola. It was very tough, but I knew it was the right thing to do for my family.’’

She took a job coaching volleyball at the middle school, and a year later she was coaching the Corsicana JV team. Now she’s back at the varsity level.

“We’re excited,’’ said Briana Biltz, a senior and returning starter on the team. “I’ve been excited ever since school got out.’’

Grace brings a new style, a different defense and an energy and approach the kids love.

“I feel like it’s a new beginning for the program because of the new coach,’’ said MaKenzie Lee, a senior and returning starter. “I like her mindset. It’s the mindset we needed to win.’’

That’s the idea — to raise the level of expectations and the level of play.

“She used a slightly different defense (with the JV team),’’ Biltz said.

It’s a defense the varsity will run when the season starts next month.

“I feel like the defense she was running will help us,’’ Lee said. “I feel like it will help our weakness.’’

Grace brings more than just a strong resume of success and a different gameplan strategy to Corsicana.

“Everything she does makes sense,’’ Lee said. “We understand the game more. We never asked questions before, and now we do.’’

That’s just part of Grace’s personality as a coach.

“She’s very approachable,’’ Biltz said. “She wants us to come to her and ask her questions.’’

Harlan said he was happy to have Cody and Ashley at Corsicana, where his new volleyball coach has already shown the ability to organize and promote the sport.

“She was teaching PE at Drane Middle School last spring and asked me how would I feel if she got together a sixth-grade team,’’ Harlan said. “She got 12 kids together and got them in a league. She had spring and summer camps for the players.

“She wants to build a foundation. She wants to put in her own system and go from there,’’ he said. “I’m excited.’’

Harlan pointed out that Grace doesn’t need to rebuild a program. Corsicana went to the playoffs two years ago, but he has faith she will his new coach will have an impact.

Corsicana finished fifth in the District 16-4A race a year ago, just missing the playoffs, but Grace has high expectations for her kids — and not just as athletes.

“After college, I worked as an athletic trainer for the Hillcrest Baptist Center in Waco, and I also contracted out to five or six schools,’’ Grace said. “After being around the schools I realized I wanted to be a coach. I wanted to be more involved. I wanted to be a role model and teach them life lessons as a coach. There’s a big picture. Ultimately, our goal as coaches is to teach them and mold them to become successful adults.’’

That’s what Grace brings to Corsicana — the whole package.

Talk to the kids. You can almost feel the ground floor rising...