That Sudbury Sports Guy: Key club coaching partnerships, home-grown and imported

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Sometimes, the Northern Chill will look in house. Sometimes, they turn to their most heated of rivals.

When it comes to unearthing energetic, young coaching talent, the local volleyball club will leave no stone unturned.

Few can boast an affiliation with the club longer than Carly Mauro. Still in elementary school at the time, the now 28-year-old registered nurse was a member of the Chill U14 girls team back in 2005-06, the year the club was launched.

Her start, however, might have been as inauspicious as they come.

“I was terrible, I was absolutely terrible,” said Mauro (then Santi) with a laugh. “The only reason that I made Chill was that I was left-handed. At tournaments, I don’t think I ever played more than one set a day in that first year. As the season progressed, I think I got a little angry that I wasn’t getting a chance to play.

“But it wasn’t like I was upset to the point where I wanted to quit. It was more like a hunger to get better, to improve.”

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In the case of Mauro, the game of volleyball latched on to her before she latched on to the game, at least from a skill development standpoint.

“My mom used to play in the Sudbury Ladies Volleyball Association,” she said. “Growing up, Sara Jo and I used to go and watch her, every Monday night.

“I just loved the sport so much, even though I was terrible at it.”

Within just a few years, putting in the work in at both OVA- and Kabuum-sanctioned camps, not to mention club and school practices, Mauro carved out her spot on the court. And when her playing days were done, as she moved on from Lockerby Composite to the nursing program at Laurentian University, the eldest of three children in the family was not about to leave the court.

After serving just one year as an assistant coach with the NCVC, Mauro got the keys to her own team, despite not yet having her teenage years behind her.

“Getting the respect of the parents was tough, to start,” she recalled. “I was always one to plan practices, to plan things out for parents.

“I think some of the parents may have been a little surprised how structured everything was. I think they may have been expecting me to show up hungover for practices on Sunday mornings.”

Yet her role models were many, in those early years, from coaches that she had played for, including Craig Thompson, Michael Margarit and Stephen Beausoleil, to a North Bay legend alongside whom she coached for a pair of Ontario Winter Games.

“I learned so much from John Jeffries,” she said.

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“I am forever grateful for the knowledge that he has shared with me. He’s really given me a different way of looking at the game.”

Now in her ninth year as a coach with the club, Mauro has gleaned a much better feel for where her comfort level lies in the role.

“As much as I love moving up with this team (the U15 Chill girls, 2020-21 edition), I’ve also realized that my passion is really at the younger age groups,” said the mother of one, preparing to celebrate the first birthday of her daughter, Everly, in the next few months.

“I love developing kids at a young age. To me, a solid foundation is so important, later on. It leads to so much more success.”

Bringing it all together is the fact that it’s very much a shared experience, with Mauro spending the past three years working hand in hand with her younger sister, Sara Jo, on the sidelines.

“I’ve had some amazing people to coach with, but this is the best partnership I’ve ever had,” she said. “It’s like she can read my mind. I don’t know, it’s almost telepathic, it’s freaky.”

If Carly Mauro is the poster child for homegrown coaching development, then Kristen Sheffield comes to the club as the equivalent of raiding your neighbour’s garden to put together the best stew imaginable. For as much as there is a great deal of mutual respect between the club volleyball communities in Sudbury and North Bay, athletes representing both groups have waged some incredible battles over the years.

Ironically, much like Mauro, Sheffield, a native of the Gateway City, owes a great deal of her love of volleyball to coach Jeffries, who along with the likes of Mark Hopper and Danny Gosselin converted the former basketball talent to that other court sport during her time at Widdifield Secondary School.

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“It was really the coaching program at Widdifield that switched my focus,” said the 30-year-old current intern anesthesiology resident with the Northern Ontario School of Medicine and HSN. “Our high school team acted more like a club team than a high school team. We would travel every weekend, go down south to play tournaments.”

Kristen Sheffield

It was also likely safer for Sheffield to play volleyball than basketball.

“To be quite honest, I’m quite competitive and aggressive, so having a net between me and my opponents was beneficial for me,” she said with a laugh.

That inner drive eventually led her to play four years with the Waterloo Warriors, which, as fate would have it, also provided her first experience with a female head coach, an experience that helped shape the approach that she takes with the athletes that she now mentors.

“I think that there is a place for having a strong presence on the court, being more authoritative,” said Sheffield. “However, every athlete is different and there are athletes who do not respond well to that. There is a time and a place for that style of coaching, versus knowing when to take a step back and take a softer approach with the athlete.”

It’s a balancing act in which female coaches, generally speaking, are done no favours thanks to societal norms. “Within the coaching world, if you’re a man, the respect from the athletes is yours to lose,” she said. “If you’re a woman, the respect is yours to earn.”

That is not a challenge Sheffield is about to avoid. She realized quickly that the game still called her name. Just months after graduating from Waterloo, those feelings were clear.

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“Every September, for every year of my life for as long as I can remember, it was time to get into our routine, back into training. That first August/September, when I didn’t have anything going on, I had this incredible void.

“I had all of this free time, and nowhere to channel or focus my energies. I didn’t know what to do with myself.”

Jumping aboard with Vision Volleyball in North Bay that winter, Sheffield made her way to Sudbury shortly thereafter, completing her masters in science and biology at Laurentian before adding medical school to the mix, all while defending her thesis.

“That was a terrible idea,” she confessed.

With the Chill, she quickly connected with Heather Walker, working mostly with the 17U and 18U squads in recent years. “Her and I think very like-mindedly about the game of volleyball,” said Sheffield. “We’re in sync in all of our decisions.”

Just another key coaching partnership that the Northern Chill Volleyball Club are more than happy to groom.

Randy Pascal’s That Sudbury Sports Guy column runs regularly in The Sudbury Star.