WHITEFISH – There is something genuine about the camaraderie among Whitefish volleyball players and the coaching staff. Words like “sisters” and “family” are commonplace, and they are uttered in the most casual manner of sideline chitchat. After all, many of these girls have played together since fifth grade.
And, in keeping with the family theme, they all know who “mom” is. That, of course, would be Jackie Fuller.
At the end of the school day in the fall, Fuller gets to set aside her athletic director responsibilities at Whitefish High School for a couple of hours and focus on her passion: coaching. In her 15th year as head coach of the Lady Bulldogs, Fuller has nothing left to prove. She has won five state championships, eight conference titles and made it to the state tourney 11 times. That’s not even counting her previous accolades at Shelby High School.
But when Fuller says she doesn’t care about her personal statistics, it feels sincere. Fuller coaches because she loves the game of volleyball and, especially, because she loves guiding bright young girls. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t believe that’s true. And you definitely won’t find anyone who’s worn a Bulldog jersey.
“She’s our second mom,” said junior middle hitter and setter Olivia Nagler.
Nagler and many of her teammates have played together since grade school through a community program started by Fuller. By the time they reached high school, they already knew Fuller well and, furthermore, were pretty good volleyball players. Through that tight-knit volleyball community, they have become friends, or “sisters.”
From 2004-2006, Whitefish won three consecutive Class A state volleyball championships. Then after falling short in 2007, the Lady Bulldogs struggled last year en route to a rare losing record and fourth-place conference finish. For a program that has won five state titles since 2001, last year was a tough pill to swallow, or as Fuller says, “a unique year for Whitefish volleyball.” The team’s motto this year is: “The tradition is back.”
“They know it’s on their shoulders to get it back,” Fuller said. “It takes hard work to be successful in everything you do; they want to work hard and they will work hard.”
The Bulldogs opened up the season by losing a five-set match to preseason conference favorite Polson. The Bulldogs held a 2-1 advantage going into the fourth set but failed to finish the match out. Whitefish followed up that loss by defeating Columbia Falls and then finishing eighth at the Northwestern A-Southwestern A Tip-off Tournament in Anaconda.
Whitefish is young this year, though a talented group of three seniors and three juniors will provide leadership. Fuller said the program has 16 freshmen, one who is playing varsity and three more on junior varsity who are almost ready to step up to the next level. Calling the freshmen a “great class,” Fuller said “in order to get to the top of the hill, we will need that youth.”
“They’re our future and the future is going to be good,” Fuller said.
Kelsey McFadden is the lone freshmen on varsity and she obviously hasn’t had any problems fitting in with the older girls. Thus far, she grades her varsity experience as “amazing,” giving tribute to what she calls “a great program.”
“It’s a family; it’s great to be welcomed like this as a freshman,” McFadden said. “I love them.”
The three seniors are Molly Filipek, a defensive specialist and outside hitter; Jessica Slaybaugh, a setter and outside hitter; and Kaitlyn Wehrli, an outside hitter who transferred to the school this year. Wehrli has played well in this young season, leading the team in kills and digs through the first two matches.
At a recent practice, Fuller’s contagious energy was evident. During drills, girls sprinted to their spots on the court and yelled in perfectly timed unison. Then they joined hands as Fuller talked about their duties as Whitefish High School volleyball players.
“It’s a storybook and we’re going to turn the pages, one page at a time,” Fuller said.
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