Even as she stood on the makeshift volleyball court at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri, to watch a mid-week practice, life remained surreal for Kelly O’Connor.
Her job as video coordinator of the Nebraska volleyball team has involved numerous hours breaking down film and stats from practice, games and scouting reports. Most of the time she’s studied one of the top programs in the country.
It’s been a beautiful relationship, O’Connor and volleyball. One that the Sundance native felt indebted to even as she prepared for her first bout with the NCAA Final Four and Nebraska’s Thursday game against Penn State.
“It started out as my passion, something I love to do,” she said. “It holds a special place in my heart and it’s taken different forms in my heart. It’s done so much good for me that I want to give back to the sport.”
Considering she’s now part of a volleyball program that has made the NCAA semifinals three consecutive years, it’s not difficult to believe she spent her childhood in a gym.
O’Connor started playing volleyball as soon as she could remember. Her parents were very supportive. Sheryl O’Connor has been the girls basketball coach in Sundance for six of the last seven years while Jim O’Connor was the longtime track coach and only recently stepped down as boys basketball coach after 23 seasons.
Kelly O’Connor was just a freshman when Sundance won the 2006 state championship. That was the last time the Bulldogs won the state title until this year when Kelly’s youngest sister, Molly, led the team with an all-state season. Both of those teams were coached by Greta Crawford.
“We just had a really good group,” O’Connor said of that 2006 team. “It was really fun. That summer before, everyone came to every camp and every summer activity. We were way more invested than any other year.”
While the Bulldogs continued to play in state tournaments, making the semifinals in all of O’Connor’s remaining seasons, the Bulldogs never returned to the championship. She won two state titles in the discus, but never again in volleyball.
She graduated high school to play volleyball at Great Falls College in Montana. After two years she transferred to Dickinson State because she wanted a degree in teaching and math. Her name remains in the record books at Dickinson State, tied for career triple-doubles.
Perhaps more impactful than her ability as a setter during her senior year was when her head coach asked if she wanted to stay on the team as a student assistant.
O’Connor, upon graduation, was set for a teaching job. She had also prepared for medical school and hadn’t thought of coaching.
Then she remembered getting a phone call from her father.
“Let’s have a conversation about life,” Kelly remembered Jim telling her. That wasn’t something he does, she remembered thinking.
Jim said she should think about coaching for a career. Kelly said she didn’t think of it as a career.
Then her coach approached her more seriously about coaching.
“Did you talk to my dad?” she responded. “That’s weird.”
With a little convincing she accepted. She started applying for graduate assistant jobs, the first she accepted in Hastings, Nebraska. Hastings College was one of the top NAIA volleyball programs in the country.
In her first season as graduate assistant the team finished ninth in the national tournament. Hastings returned to the tournament the following season and won. O’Connor was an assistant coach on a national championship volleyball team.
Hastings College head coach Matt Buttermore had already began telling O’Connor to apply for bigger jobs before the championship. After that season he asked what her goal was.
“I just want to do the best that I can at what I can,” O’Connor said.
She didn’t give much credence when he said he would text an assistant at the University of Nebraska. Only a couple of days later that assistant and now head coach at Illinois, Chris Tamas, called O’Connor to say they wanted to interview her over the phone.
Then came the actual phone call with Nebraska head coach John Cook.
“The very first time he called me I was so nervous,” O’Connor said. “He’s one the best coaches of all-time. He’s getting inducted this weekend into the hall of fame and he’s still coaching. And I was in Nebraska so I felt the weight of what he did to that state.”
She thought the interview went well but she didn’t get her hopes up. She thought Cook had someone else already in mind.
“I didn’t know if it was something I was cut out for or even had a shot of getting,” she said, “but I figured I owed it to myself to try.”
Cook asked her about her Sundance upbringing and other non-volleyball topics. He later invited her for an on-campus interview.
O’Connor immediately felt at home when talking with Cook and the rest of the staff. She started to get her hopes up. Cook offered her the job of video coordinator, which pertained to more statistics and data. If there’s a statistic that has given Nebraska an edge against an opponent, it’s gone through her.
“It’s still unreal,” O’Connor said. “I never would have expected in my entire life to work for John Cook and his assistants.”
In just her first season on staff the Huskers have won 17 straight games entering Thursday’s semifinal against No. 1 Penn State.
A national semifinal is something O’Connor experienced last season but this one is much different. It will be nationally televised and her parents will be watching. As will her little sister Molly, who follows in Kelly’s footsteps to play volleyball at Dickinson State next year.
The Sprint Center may be the exact opposite of Sundance High School’s gym. There were no bleachers of red-clad fans during the practices this week. There was only preparation for the challenge ahead.
“I like to be challenged and constantly growing and this provides that for me,” O’Connor said.
She’s already been part of one national championship program. This weekend she may accomplish that feat again.