Girls volleyball: Longtime Amherst coach Kacey Schmitt reflects on career after announcing retirement

Amherst Regional girls volleyball coach Kacey Schmitt delivers instructions to her team before a practice last season in Amherst. Schmitt announced her retirement from the program last month.

Amherst Regional girls volleyball coach Kacey Schmitt delivers instructions to her team before a practice last season in Amherst. Schmitt announced her retirement from the program last month. STAFF FLE PHOTO

By HANNAH BEVIS

Staff Writer

Published: 12-25-2023 2:02 PM

Kacey Schmitt never meant to coach the Amherst Regional High School volleyball team for longer than a season. Frankly, she thought she’d be done after a couple weeks. 

She was talked into the job by then-athletic director and friend Tom Cullen, and somehow just never got around to leaving. After over two decades at the helm of the team and a storied coaching career however, Schmitt has decided to retire from coaching the school’s volleyball team.

It was, of course, an incredibly difficult decision for her to make – Schmitt had been running the program since 1999. But a torn rotator cuff that will require surgery made it difficult to run practices as she got older. She also hopes to spend some time resting and traveling with friends, which isn’t easy to do when you’re constantly on a bus heading to the next match each fall. 

“I just think it's getting a little bit harder. It's a long night, you get on the bus at 3:30 and you get home at 9:30. But more than anything, it was just the physical aspect of it,” Schmitt said. “(This year) I had 10 seniors and we made it all the way to the [MIAA Division 3] Final Four, and I felt like we had just a really great season all around. So it seems like that almost was what tipped the scales, too – I felt like if I'm going to leave, this is a good year to leave on.” 

Schmitt found volleyball later in her life, but once she discovered it, she was hooked. She went to high school in the ’60s, before the creation of Title IX provided girls and women with equal opportunities in sport, and playing on a volleyball team wasn’t even an option for her growing up. She majored in physical education at UMass, and took a skills class on volleyball that was taught by the coach of the school’s club volleyball team. That class was all it took – Schmitt fell in love with the sport.   

Schmitt joined the UMass club volleyball team, and found an adult team when she graduated so she could keep playing the sport. She started coaching softball at Amherst and was having a great time – and then in the fall of 1999, Cullen came to her shortly before the season started with a plea – he needed an interim volleyball coach. 

“I’ll never forget this. He called me up, it wasn't that long before the season started and he's begging me and [said] just start [the season] – this is exactly what he said to me – ‘Just start them,’” Schmitt said wryly. 

Schmitt had a couple stipulations – she needed to find childcare for her son, and she refused to miss any of her daughter’s field hockey games at Holy Cross. Cullen agreed, and so Schmitt took a ‘temporary’ position that ended up lasting the whole season – and then another, and then another. She was up front with her players at the start, letting them know she had to learn some of the more technical parts of the game, but they adored her coaching style and enthusiasm. It was a perfect fit. 

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Amherst won a Western Mass. title her first season, just the beginning of her long and successful career. She won four Western Mass. crowns and never missed the postseason after 2001, finishing her coaching career with a 351-149 overall record for a .702 winning percentage. 

But coaching both a softball and volleyball team took its toll. While Schmitt loved her roles, she decided to retire from softball in 2015 but ultimately chose to stay in volleyball for a while longer – in part because it was an indoor sport. (Of course there were other factors – rainouts and schedule cancelations made finding childcare difficult, for one.)

“Then it got too cold, windy. (I decided to) stick with volleyball,” Schmitt joked. “Trying to hit gappers to the outfield with a driving wind in your face, I was like, ‘OK, I'm done.’” 

Kidding aside, what made her keep coming back to volleyball year after year, from the very beginning, was the relationships that she built with her players. It was part of what Cullen saw in her when he first asked her to step in as an interim volleyball coach. By that point, Schmitt was already coaching the softball team and Cullen saw how well she communicated with her players, balancing a competitive drive with a coaching style that made her players want to give their all. 

“She finds a particular balance of fun and focus really well because at the end of the day, it is volleyball and we're not just here to win or lose, we're here to have fun, to play the sport that we love,” Amherst senior and libero Liza Beigel said. “She really understands that.” 

Her impact on her players and Amherst’s program will be felt for many years to come. Even as players graduate, the lessons and memories they took from their time in the volleyball program stay with them. And as hard as it was for Schmitt to say goodbye to something that has been a part of her life for so long, those memories are something she’ll take with her, too, into retirement. 

“The years just go and I remember a lot of the seasons and obviously I remember a lot of the girls… but overall, you just remember that it was fun,” Schmitt said.