Two Friends

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Lisa Stuck and Molly Shahan-West at a club tournament.

This is a fairy tale story of two friends on a journey that begins and ends in the Valley of the Sun: Phoenix, Arizona. Mountains rise up on every side of this Southwestern capital tucked into the Salt River Valley, and the story of Phoenix volleyball mavens Lisa Stuck and Molly Shahan features peaks and valleys of its own, though the most recent chapter of their lives seems more Hollywood than Wild West.

Stuck and Shahan met in second grade at Palo Verde Elementary school in West Phoenix. The two athletic girls played soccer, kickball, and marbles with the boys and soon became inseparable. In those days before Title IX, girls didnt have a ton of access to athletics but Stuck and Shahan did what they could, staying active and involved in sports all through grade school.

Outside of school, Molly was over at our house all the time, Stuck recalled fondly. Her family life wasnt the best, so my parents treated her like one of their own and we were like sisters.

[Lisa] was my sister, Shahan agreed. Her parents helped raise me. My family wasn’t very stable, and sports were my structure and accountability as well as my escape. Lisa was my best friend and her family my refuge.

In middle school, the two friends were introduced to the sport that would become the focus of their lives going forward. The [volleyball] court was outside on the blacktop, and we had no idea what we were doing, but we loved it, said Stuck. I was awkwardly tall, 5’11” at 12 years old, and Molly used to set me the ball and I would pound it.

The two eventually took their talents to Apollo High School where their love of sports had more outlets and their passion for volleyball began to take a firm hold. Both women give a lot of credit to their high school volleyball coach, Thelma Keith, for passing on a love of the game, as well as promoting a good work ethic and teamwork. Those qualities inspired both girls to take their games to the next level after high school.

Stuck went on to Arizona State University where she played volleyball and softball (turning down an offer to play both sports at Stanford). Shahan, who said she wasnt as prepared academically for university, enrolled at Glendale Community College in Phoenix.

For the first time in 10 years, the best friends werent at the same school. It was a tough time, but they saw each other occasionally, even attending each other’s matches when possible.

Stuck quickly made an impact on the young ASU program, helping the Sun Devils to their first 20-win season in 1980 and becoming ASU’s first All-American. Her name can still be found sprinkled throughout the Sun Devil record book and she was the first volleyball player to be inducted into the ASU Sports Hall of Fame. After college, she played at the highest levels available at the time, competing in two U.S. Olympic Festivals, the World University Games, and enjoying a stint with the U.S. Women’s National Team.

Shahan also enjoyed a successful career at Glendale, but after two years she had to decide her future plans.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham offered her a scholarship, and Shahan turned to her friend Stuck for guidance. The two women hiked up a local mountain, a harbinger of the peaks they had yet to climb, and discussed Shahan’s options. I was living on my own and I wasn’t sure about going so far away, Shahan said. It was my friend that allowed me to talk through that decision.

Of course, she did decide to accept the scholarship and says it was the best decision she’s ever made.

Both women entered the coaching field after the conclusion of their playing careers. Shahan started as an assistant at UAB before volunteering with the Colorado State team while working on her masters, and Stuck served as an assistant at UNLV before returning to Arizona to take her first head coaching position at Mesa Community College.

Shahan spent some time coaching at Cal State Fullerton before she too returned to Arizona, where she got marriedwith Stuck as a bridesmaidand the now Mrs. West began her high school coaching career in the Valley.

After five years at Mesa, Stuck took an assistant coaching position at Northern Arizona University before finally scoring the position she holds to this day, the head coaching job at Glendale Community College, the JC Shahan attended right out of high school.

Stuck and Shahan’s impact on volleyball in Arizona is palpable. Stuck just finished her 18th season at Glendale. She has won several Arizona Community College Athletic Conference championships, been named ACCAC Coach of the Year multiple times, and has had several NJCAA All-Americans come through her program.

Shahan’s resume is just as remarkable. In 1995, she founded the program at Desert Vista High School in East Phoenix and is the only volleyball coach the Thunder has ever had. She has been named Coach of the Year several times, goes to the state tournament almost every year, and has produced some of the finest volleyball athletes Arizona has seen.

Both have also had an impact on the club volleyball scene in the Valley.

Usually during the fall when we are in season we will commiserate about our struggles with our teams and use each other as a sounding board, Shahan said. We coach the same age group in club so we usually meet up several times during club, and I see her at national qualifiers.

The two women remain close, and serve important roles in the other’s life.

Lisa is a balanced, rational, and logical person, said Shahan. She’s fair, creative, and motivating. She will always shoot you straight. She never avoids the tough conversations and always handles them will with kids.

Stuck looks up to Shahan in a different, but equally vital, way. I have learned from Molly how to be a survivor and handle adversity. She had so many difficult times growing up, and I was always amazed at how she stayed the course and put herself through college. She couldve gone down a really bad path, but she was always on the right side of things. She is a shining example of how sports can change your life.

This would be a great story, if it ended there, but the tapestry of these two women’s lives became even more tightly woven in the fall of this year, as their two programs headed into the postseason.

Shahan’s Desert Vista High School team had become a state powerhouse, going 40-3 over the season and earning a top berth in the Division I playoff bracket just days after Shahan won her 500th match as a coach. Across town, Stuck’s Glendale Gauchos were at the end of a season in which they saw early success bend to a bit of a losing streak, dropping eight of their last 11 matches in league play.

Shahan’s Thunder pounded their first two opponents in straight sets to get to the state finals. During this time, Stuck’s squad limped into the regional playoffs as a fourth seed, managing to pull off an upset over the No. 1 seed on the first night and then toppling the No. 2 seed the next afternoon. The night Shahan swept her state semifinal match Stuck’s team finished their Hollywood-worthy regional performance with a win over the No. 3 seed, earning a berth into the 2014 NJCAA Division II national tournament which, by coincidence, was being held in Phoenix.

While Stuck prepped her girls for nationals, Shahan went to war in the state final. The Thunder lost the first set 21-25 but rebounded in the second and third sets winning 25-21, 25-18. Sensing how close they were, Shahan tried to temper her team’s excitement but to no avail. They went down 0-10 and lost the fourth set to set up the tiebreaker.

The Thunder didnt disappoint, winning 15-5 for the school’s, and Shahan’s, first championship. I should have bought a lottery ticket that day, said Shahan. My kids played a clean set and they kicked it into gear.

I was just so excited for my kids. I cant even describe it, she continued. We had a tough match and had to overcome a lot of little adversities that we couldnt control and by god, they got it done. I think I would have been curled up in the fetal position for a week if they hadnt won it. Ive been in the finals twice before so I know how hard it is to get there and to win it. The stars have to be aligned just right.

Five days later, Stuck’s 10th-seeded Glendale Gauchos disposed of the seventh seed Kansas City Kansas in straight sets in the first round of the national tournament. We knew teams would be looking at our overall record and seed and possibly overlook us, said Stuck. We adopted the underdog approach and I was hoping that would help [the team] stay relaxed.

Next up was the No. 2-ranked Central Community College of Columbus, Nebraska. Once again making Hollywood take note, GCC won the quarterfinal 15-13 in the fifth. The Gauchos then found themselves matched up against defending NJCAA champion Cowley County of Arkansas City, Kansas.

The Cowley match was brutal, Stuck said shaking her head. Glendale lost the first two sets 30-28, 26-24, but came back and won the third set 25-19 and then a wet suit-tight 27-25 fourth. In the fifth, with both teams battling fiercely, GCC fought off match points and elimination to grind out a 20-18 win.

Only the No. 1-seeded Parkland College from Champagne, Illinois, with a gaudy record of 54-2 and still bitter from losing in the final the year before, stood between Stuck and a chance to share the coaching pinnacle with her friend Shahan.

In the championship match, GCC came out nervous and tight and lost the first two sets by more than 10 points each. Going into the third set, I told [my players] there was a reason they were in the final, said Stuck. They had earned that right and to start playing that way. Take the game to Parkland like we did versus Cowley and Central.

Her team managed to fight off the nerves and give the Parkland players a few misgivings of their own, coming from behind in the third set 25-23 and then using that renewed confidence to pull off a 25-10 thumping in the fourth set.

We knew the fifth set would be close, Stuck said. We were just waiting for a break to pull away by a few points. We just kept saying, every point, every rally. They knew they had to bounce back quickly from mistakes, and they did.

At one point, Parkland led 10-9 but a tip from GCC and an attack error gave Glendale their first lead since 4-3. At 14-12, a Glendale outside swing trickled off the block and onto the hardwood giving Stuck her first NJCAA title. When the last point hit the ground it was pure, raw reaction and emotion, she said. I grabbed my assistants and we hugged for a long time. I couldn’t hold back the emotions at that point.

And up in the stands, wiping away tears of her own, was Shahan. When Stuck spotted her childhood friend, they high-fived and hugged, a lifetime of friendship, valleys, and now, mountain tops passing between them.

I cant tell you what a moment it was after winning that championship to see Molly with my folks, said Stuck. It was such an emotional moment.

The Glendale coach then reflected on her title run. I had been fortunate to have won national championships as a player in volleyball and softball, but never as a coach. That was a goal I have had ever since I got into coaching. So many coaches have tried and tried and had great teams but not been fortunate enough to win a title. I have spent my entire adult life coaching, and I thought I might never win that championship. I think it’s really ironic that Molly won hers and I won mine in the same year. Im so very happy for Molly. It couldnt have happened to a more deserving person.

Two friends, amidst the valleys and mountains, will see each other again soon, this time across the net from each other as the club season begins. Most in the stands or even on the court will not know the bond these two have shared, lived, and journeyed through but it’s a fairy tale we can all agree lives on happily ever after.

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