On the evening of Dec. 16, the O’Connor family was scattered across three states.
Jim and Sheryl, longtime educators and coaches at Sundance High School, finished hosting a basketball tournament in time to rush home and turn on ESPN. Molly, their youngest daughter, hung out with friends after playing in the tournament. Kacie, Jim and Sheryl’s middle daughter, was preparing for a pivotal basketball game in South Dakota with her teammates at Wayne State.
All of them had their phones nearby and ready for updates.
Kelly, the oldest child in the family, was about to be on national television as the video coordinator of the Nebraska Cornhuskers volleyball team, which was set to play for the national championship in Kansas City, Missouri. Less than two hours after the opening serve, the match was over. Kelly, and the rest of the Nebraska team, were national champions.
After the championship ceremony, Kelly went back to her phone to find texts and missed calls from the rest of her family. That wasn’t unusual. The family talks all the time.
“We probably FaceTime four or five times a week,” Jim said.
The far-flung family is united by their shared love of athletics. That passion helps to keep them close despite the distance that separates them.
“My sisters are my best friends,” Kelly said. “It’s nice, the support and the love they show. They see things that sometimes I don’t and it’s fun to have a relationship with them, whether talking about their sport or my sport.”
That relationship has been two decades in the making.
Jim took over as head boys basketball coach at Sundance starting with the 1992-93 season. At that time, Kelly was just 4 and Thomas, the only boy of the family, was an infant. So Kelly grew up in the Sundance gym, occupying herself with sports. She immediately fell in love with volleyball.
Under longtime head coach Greta Crawford, the Bulldogs won their third volleyball state championship in Kelly’s freshman year. After standout seasons in her remaining high school years, Kelly continued to play volleyball in college. Kacie, who was just 10 during Kelly’s freshman campaign, watched and idolized her older sister.
But Kacie’s path diverged from her sister’s. She bucked the trend of playing volleyball, instead competing in basketball and golf, where she was named Wyoming Gatorade Player of the Year. She was also able to excel in track under the coaching of her father, and won three state championships in discus. In 2012, she set a Class 2A record with a throw of 151 feet, 8 inches. The record stands to this day.
Kelly was in her final year of playing volleyball at Dickinson State when Kacie committed to play basketball and compete in track at Wayne State in Nebraska. It’s an NCAA Division II institution with relevant basketball and track programs.
Wayne, Nebraska, was also a seven-and-a-half hour drive from Sundance. That was the farthest any of the kids would live away from home.
But Kacie’s mind was set.
“Basketball is my first love and they were a championship program,” Kacie said.
Kacie had only been in Wayne for a year before Kelly took a graduate assistant coaching job at Hastings College. It was a three-hour drive but it was also a comfort. She could always call her older sister, but now she was able to visit her on weekends again.
Meanwhile, their youngest sister, Molly, was writing her own legacy back in Sundance. She found her footing as a freshman before becoming a force for the Bulldogs in multiple sports.
Kacie thought of her younger sister and how she wanted to pass on wisdom she had accrued, the same way Kelly had done for her.
“Kelly was always a role model to me (and) I always wanted to be just like her,” Kacie said. “I try to repay that to Molly for volleyball and basketball. It’s just awesome to have that same common knowledge for us.”
The two have tried to talk daily. Kacie checks in on Molly, catching up and talking volleyball and school. When Sundance was swept by two-time defending state champion Wright in the state semifinals last year and Molly was disappointed in her performance, Kacie was there to provide reassurance and motivation.
Molly also talked with Kelly almost daily. Those conversations became even more frequent as Molly was earning college interests in volleyball. One of those schools was Dickinson State, which Kelly transferred to and where she finished her playing career.
Jim knew they had lengthy talks about Molly’s impending decision. He also knew Kelly loved her time at Dickinson State.
“Our kids have always thought of it as a quality place,” Jim said. “I’m not going to say Kelly didn’t play a part, but Molly is her own girl and she felt like Dickinson is the right place for her.”
Conversations between Kelly and Molly intensified over the summer as Kelly prepared for her new job at Nebraska. Hastings had just won the national championship the year before and the head coach knew it was time for Kelly to move on.
Kelly chose the Nebraska job over an assistant coaching job at a Division II school in Colorado. Naturally, she talked with her family about her options. Jim remembered some of the conversations he had with Kelly and when he knew what her decision would be.
“If you’re serious about coaching as a career then the Nebraska job is going to open way more doors for you,” Jim said. “Once she was offered the (Nebraska) job, I don’t think there was anything we could have told her to make her not accept it.”
Kelly was now at one of the country’s premier programs and a mere two-hour drive away from Kacie. That allowed them to spend weekends together again when the homesickness inevitably kicked in.
Kacie watched her older sister coach at four Nebraska volleyball games before basketball season consumed the schedule. Jim and Sheryl endured the nine-hour drive to Lincoln twice to see their daughter on the sidelines.
They were there when Nebraska won the Big Ten Conference championship. The two drove out to Wayne on Nov. 24, to see Kacie score seven points in a 16-minute start as Wayne State cruised to a victory. The next morning, Jim and Sheryl drove down to Lincoln and watched the Cornhuskers sweep Iowa to win the conference title before driving back to Wayne that night to see Kacie play in another Wildcats’ win.
They then drove back to Sundance to be ready for school the next day.
Two weeks later, Molly was ready to sign her letter of intent to play volleyball at Dickinson State. Kelly was ecstatic. They talked all throughout the season. As Molly and the Bulldog volleyball team moved through the state tournament, Kelly watched online and relayed her insights in their nightly conversations.
Kelly pointed out where to look for weaknesses in the defense and how to exploit them. Molly took her sister’s advice and it worked. Sundance won the state championship and Molly was named an all-state selection.
It was the first state title for the Bulldogs since Kelly’s freshman season.
With the season over and Molly’s college decision made, there was nothing left but to sign on the dotted line.
“We talk a lot about her decision and I’m super proud of her,” Kelly said. “It’ll be fun for her to go play where I played, that will be cool.”
A harsh reality faces Jim and Sheryl once Molly graduates.
“We had an O’Connor girl involved with activities for 12 consecutive years and that will come to an end,” Jim said. “It’s been a fun ride.”
Jim has remained active in Bulldogs athletics as the activities director four years after his final season as head boys basketball coach. Sheryl has begun her eighth season in the last nine years of coaching girls basketball.
They have a winter to figure out how they’ll juggle it all next year, Jim said, as they have no plans of slowing down at Sundance. Their volleyball attention will be spread between South Dakota and Nebraska.
They’re all thankful to be spending Christmas together. Kelly and Kacie have only returned to Wyoming for bits during winter break and in the summer. Kelly swung through Wayne to pick up Kacie on the way back to the family home for the holidays.
Together, they’ll talk about the future: The remainder of Molly’s senior year, Kelly’s ambition to be an assistant coach before running her own program and Kacie’s goal of making the NCAA Tournament in basketball and returning to the NCAA National Championships in track.
While none of them were able to be in Kansas City to celebrate Kelly’s second national title season, she was never alone. With supportive sisters and parents to double as coaches, none of the O’Connors have any shortage of support.
“My family is really important and I try to talk to them every day,” Kelly said. “Because they’re my parents and coaches, I can throw ideas off them and treat them like a soundboard.”
Added Kacie: “It’s a special relationship we have.”