The Ridgeland High Volleyball team’s five starters crossed near the bottom of the court and circled back to the net for the pregame handshake on Oct. 3. The girls, dressed in hot pink jerseys in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, then headed to the sideline and one by one high-fived each of their other teammates.
Allyson Brooks stood at the end of that line radiating nervous energy. As each girl reached her, she slapped both their palms in a low five. The team retreated to the center of the court to finish their pregame ritual and she turned, her long ponytail sweeping across the shoulder of her pale pink cropped pantsuit, and made her way to her seat.
“We are actually tied right now with Neshoba Central for the number one spot,” Brooks told the Mississippi Free Press on Oct 3. “We’ll know more after tonight to see (who wins) the tiebreaker to see who is going to take the district champ title but we’ve had a really great season, especially with them dealing with a coaching change. Those girls have responded really, really well.”
The Lady Titans jumped out to a commanding lead over the Columbus Falcons and the game soon came to a 2-0 end. The team celebrated with hugs and smiles as parents and fans joined them near the floor.
“The group of seniors that I have, with me coming in and trying to build culture, have really helped me a lot,” Brooks said. “They are my little assistant coaches. It’s been hard without an assistant coach, teaching four different preps and getting my Ph.D.”
Brooks has found support in a new initiative designed for coaches. She is a member of the second cohort of the Mississippi Excellence in Coaching Fellowship, also known as Tomorrow’s 25. The program is sponsored by the Mississippi Association of Coaches, the Mississippi High School Activities Association and the University of Mississippi’s School of Education. The goal is to invest in the lives and careers of leaders in high school and middle school athletics. The 10-month fellowship runs from August to May with monthly meetings which alternate between virtual and in-person meetings. Program leaders hope participants will have a greater influence on their teams, schools and communities.
“Our organization believes in the transformational power of the coach, and we could not be more excited about how this fellowship will benefit our coaches and ultimately our student-athletes for years to come,” MAC Executive Director Johnny Mims said in a January press release.
Dr. Hunter Taylor, a clinical assistant professor at Ole Miss, is the founding director of the program. He drafted the program’s curriculum from research and his own coaching experience. Taylor spent 10 years as a men’s basketball coach on the college, high school, middle school and international levels. He has authored two books related to sports and is the co-host of The Coach & Doc Podcast, which shares best coaching and leadership practices with its listeners.
“I’ve seen a lot of different things and get to interact with the right folks that believe the same things and want to see impact happen in our state,” Taylor told the Mississippi Free Press.
Fellowship candidates are nominated by coaches, administrators and superintendents. Those names are then placed before a selection committee compiled by MAC and MHSAA. The committee along with the executive directors of those two organizations score each candidate using a rubric.
Each cohort consists of 25 coaches from various schools and across different sports. Taylor said that bringing such an eclectic group together doesn’t happen often in sports and is important to the program’s success.
“Obviously if ten different sports are represented, we’re not doing a ton of sport-specific discussions,” Taylor said. “So we’re not going to talk about how to run the press or how to teach hurdles. We’re talking about how can we develop a student athlete’s leadership, resilience, empathy and responsibility. Then we’re trying to instill those four things in our student athletes through the sport that we coach.”
Brooks agrees. At 24, she believes she is the youngest in the group both in age and in coaching experience. The group’s diversity lends a wealth of knowledge and experience to the monthly lessons.
“I have really enjoyed like getting together with people that’s been in it for 10 plus years because there’s a lot they can teach me and even though I’m young there’s a lot that I can teach them,” Brooks said. “So we’re learning a lot from each other.”
Guest coaches from the state’s colleges and high schools also address the group during the program. These experienced leaders relay their experiences, perspectives and offer tips. Jackson State University Coach Tomekia Reed spoke to the group during their September meeting detailing the importance of developing team chemistry and relationships off the court.
“Just to be in the room with a bunch of people that love the same thing that I love has been really great,” said Brooks. “One thing that a person from the last (cohort) told me was to just soak it all in. It’s a lot of information but it’s truly helped them in their passion for coaching and I hope that it can do the same for me.”