Renee Saunders is about as homegrown Omaha, Nebraska, as they come.
Saunders was a basketball and volleyball standout at Omaha Marian and played club for River City Juniors. She was named the Female Athlete of the Year by both the Lincoln Journal Star and the Omaha World-Herald.
She went on to play both sports at the University of Nebraska and was a member of coach Terry Pettit’s 1995 national-championship team.
“Terry Pettit was a phenomenal coach,” Saunders said. “I was one of the lucky ones to have been able to learn from him.”
Saunders coached at Omaha South before moving on to her current post as the head coach at Skutt Catholic in Omaha, where she has established a powerhouse program that has won the last two Class B state titles, including this year’s as Skutt went 44-0 in matches and 105-6 in sets.
Accordingly, Saunders is the Lucky Dog Volleyball/2016 VolleyballMag.com national girls high school coach of the year.
Skutt was “a phenomenal all-around well-balanced team,” Saunders said.
“These girls were the real deal. As a team we hit .351. We were well-balanced and we had a deep roster. We had great setting, great hitting, defense and serving. We did a lot of things really solid and that made us hard to beat.”
Saunders, who is 204-44 in six years at Skutt and has appeared in the last three state title matches, pointed out this year’s senior class (which had several four-year varsity players) lost a combined 17 matches during that span, nine of which came during their freshman season.
“It was a really good class that had a lot of talent,” Saunders said. “They play club together or against each other and played in middle school together. They grew up together. They made each other better. They bought into my vision for the program 100 percent. They set their goals high and were willing to work hard to get to where they wanted to be.
“My vision for the program when I took over was to make it the best in the state. We achieved that and now it is to maintain that same standard year after year. I have high expectations for myself, my coaches and my players. These kids were willing to do whatever it took to achieve their goals.”
Skutt was powered by the senior duo of outside hitter Brooke Heyne and setter Allison Schomers, both of whom earned Super State recognition (the highest honor in Nebraska high school volleyball).
But Heyne and Schomers both are quick to point out Skutt wouldn’t be where it is today without the leadership of Saunders.
“She has an endless love for volleyball,” said Schomers, who is headed to the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “Her love spreads to the team. She knows what it takes to get championships and she passes that knowledge on to us really well. She probably played the biggest role this season. She puts the lineups together, coaches us in practice and keeps us calm. Saunders is the rock behind this team. She gets us going and she knows what we need. She brings such an energy.”
Heyne, headed to Kansas State, agreed.
“She deserves a lot of credit,” she said. “This year and last year we grew so much over the course of the year and that started in summer workouts and practices. She has built the volleyball program at Skutt into a great one. She brought in a sand court so we can practice in the summer in the sand. She’s made people very aware of volleyball at our school.”
Heyne added that Saunders’ success as a high school, club and college player makes a difference with the Skutt players.
“She was in our position before,” she said. “She knows about the next level and knows what it’s all about. She can relate to you one-on-one.”
Saunders stressed her bottom-line goal at Skutt is to make sure each player has a memorable experience.
“What makes Skutt special is we make memories for our students and players,” Saunders said. “This year we added video boards to the gym so the girls got to see their pictures up on the board for a truly interactive experience. Last year and this year we made hype videos for the girls before tournaments. This past summer we went to Colorado State for a team camp. Everything we do here is to make the experience great for our kids. This is a special place to work and a special thing to be part of.
“My whole philosophy of this program is built around the concept that we work hard to achieve our goals, but the game itself is fun to play. My players smile when they play. It is not a job or chore. They love what they do and I love what I do.”