After helping Providence High School to two previous state volleyball finals, Karen Bradbury got her biggest coaching win last year, defeating Wilmington Hoggard to earn the Panthers their fifth Class 4A state championship.
Although Bradbury had won three titles as a Panthers assistant, it was her first as the head coach. And, well, this one was different.
“It felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders,” Bradbury said. “Finally winning it was just an amazing feeling.”
But this past July, after winning the state’s largest classification with a 28-2 record, Bradbury resigned as the Panthers’ coach and was hired to be the athletics director and volleyball coach at nearby Carmel Christian School.
She said she is happy in her new role at Carmel Christian, where she, in many ways, is building a program from scratch.
“I am excited to be here,” she said, “under Christian leadership.”
But she also admits that her exit from Providence still cuts deep.
Bradbury said she’d been displaced from Providence before the volleyball season and was reassigned to teach health and physical education at Garinger High. She’d been commuting back across town to coach the Panthers volleyball team, and she no longer wanted to do that. She said she also felt that her former school didn’t handle her situation with respect, especially since she’d been there since 2001.
“I thought it was crooked and dishonest,” Bradbury said. “It was tough because Providence was home for me. My kids (Ginger and Heidi) went there. Providence was my home, and then they come and put me at a school so far away, and I’m thinking ‘What did I do wrong?’
“You just second-guess things, but it was a political situation. I will miss the girls the most. That’s the hardest part. I think (my displacement) was because I had a girls sport that doesn’t attract as much revenue as basketball, football and baseball, and that’s what it is all about. I had the lies sent to me (from the Providence administration) big time.”
Providence athletics director Phillip Schundlemire said the school didn’t want to lose Bradbury as a coach and that she resigned from her coaching position on her own after Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools made citywide budget cuts.
“She was reassigned to Garinger, I believe it was, due to the cuts that CMS made to the staff,” Schundlemire said. “Those cuts were out of the hands of the administration and the principal at Providence (Tracey Harrill). It was handled professionally and both parties left on good terms.”
Bradbury adamantly disagreed with Schundlemire.
“I double-questioned everything they did motive-wise,” she said. “It was nothing but dishonesty, and that was the hardest part.”
This year, Bradbury finds herself less than a half-mile down Pineville-Matthews Road from her old school. In addition to being a coach and athletics director at Carmel Christian, she’s also teaching health and P.E.
“After how I was treated by CMS, I am so excited to be treated in a Christian manner with good values,” she said.
Bradbury’s looking forward to building the volleyball program, which is beginning its first varsity season. The school will add its first senior class next year, so the Cougars roster is filled with players ranging from eighth to 11th grade. Some players even are home-schooled kids.
Bradbury said she’ll face challenges, especially during the first year, as she has a small population to draw from and the girls lack the experience level she encountered with her Providence teams. But she embraces the challenge.
“I didn’t come over here to move into an easy situation,” she said. “No. 1, I came here for a new challenge, but it was more about the environment. There are great ethics, great people to work with, and everything is starting new – the (athletics director) position and the school are new, and the volleyball team is at the ground level, so this will be fun.”
While Bradbury’s getting used to her new digs, some of her players are getting used to her and her coaching style.
“She’s very intense, but she’s a really good coach,” said Cougars junior Ashlyn Uribe. “She is very easy to get along with and is very approachable, and she wants us to do well. You can tell that.”
Sophomore Katherine Southard said the Cougars’ workouts have been a lot tougher and more intense than last year, when both Southard and Uribe played for the JV team.
“She knows what she is doing as a coach. The biggest difference is we are running through rotations and learning plays,” Southard said. “We know that we’re not going to win every game, but we are expecting to do well.”
Bradbury demands that each player, regardless of skill level, learn the correct way to develop her skills.
“One girl asked if she could serve underhand,” Bradbury said, “and I told her, ‘Not unless you are the coach and are sending a free ball in. You will stand back behind the line and serve overhand because eventually you are going to have to do it that way. I understand you probably won’t get most of them in now, and you may not get most in all season. But you have to work at it the right way.’”
Bumps in the road
Neither Bradbury nor her players are expecting miracles in the first season, but the coach is anticipating improvement along the way and is pleased with how the team has already progressed.
At the start of fall practice, Uribe said Bradbury had the players focusing more on conditioning than they had in the past and that as practice has progressed, so has the intensity.
“We have been working on much more advanced techniques and have been going through more rotations,” Uribe said. “Everyone has a position and knows where we should be on the court. Last year, we just kind of rotated, but now there is a lot of structure.”
As the Cougars learn more skills, Bradbury is going to keep adding more to the players’ plates.
“Once we learn to walk, we’re not going to go back to crawling,” she said.
Future at Carmel Christian
Bradbury said she already feels at home at Carmel Christian and plans on staying for a number of years.
The Cougars currently have one gym on campus, but as the number of sports offered at the school continues to expand, Bradbury said she’d like to see bigger facilities added to keep up with the growing student population and larger teams.
For now, she said she’s happy to be a part of a growing program and content to do all she can to teach the fundamentals of the sport in which she’s had so much success.
“I want people to begin to understand a system,” Bradbury said. “Just passing the ball over the net is not what I am looking for. But as we continue to grow as a school, I want to build this into a winning and competitive program.”
Bradbury said she feels the resources are in place to make Carmel Christian volleyball a successful team, and she wants to start this year.
As a recent JV practice ended, Bradbury was telling the players to keep working on their skills and that they could move on to more advanced concepts. As they broke to go home, the players started singing “Happy Birthday” to their new coach.
As Bradbury thanked the players for the impromptu celebration, she had a big smile on her face, happy to be at her new school full of promise.
“This is my new home,” Bradbury said. “I think it is going to be fun for me.”