Most people think of sports as being assembled in an ascendant hierarchy. Athletes and coaches work their way up from playgrounds to schools to college to the professional ranks.
Jody Brown sees it differently.
He sees his new job as volleyball head coach at Chapel Hill High School in some ways as a step up from his days at Florida Atlantic University.
“I actually am enjoying the high school level more than college,” Brown said last week. “This is a very good place. The facilities at Chapel Hill are fantastic. We’ve got a lot to work with.
“I’ve got to tell you, I’m really very pleased to be here.”
Brown’s move north from Florida worked out perfectly for family reasons. His wife, Michelle Brown, arrived in Chapel Hill in May 2103 to become an assistant provost at the University of North Carolina, where she works with the Student Support Program for Student-Athletes.
The Browns had been in Chapel Hill for a very short time before meeting former Chapel Hill High volleyball coach Sherry Norris. Their son, 9-year-old Kaja, was a student at Seawell Elementary, and Jody Brown visited his lunch table several times, sitting near Seawell physical education’s “Coach Sherry” more than once, never realizing she was also Chapel Hill volleyball’s “Coach Norris.”
“I only learned who she was when she retired,” he said.
Norris announced her retirement last spring, immediately after guiding Chapel Hill’s girls’ basketball team to an undefeated season and a second state championship. She had more than 1,200 wins combined in high school basketball and volleyball – a state record 732 wins in volleyball alone.
Brown got the Chapel Hill volleyball job in quick order and quickly found the atmosphere suited him perfectly.
“One thing about college: everyone who comes in to your program is going for that starting role,” he said. “Here, I’ve had a lot of young people tell me that, of course, they want as much playing time as they can get, but they also want to learn so they can improve.
“I’ve been very impressed by the team unity here. It’s refreshing. It really is.”
Another thing Brown heard a lot about was last spring’s Class of 2014.
Chapel Hill graduated five top-flight players off last year’s 22-9 team, including captain Madison Gunning and NCAA Division I signees Perry Ramsey (N.C. State) and Catherine Romaine (Bucknell), both of the latter being taller than 6-0.
“Everyone told me that we graduated a lot of great players,” Brown said. “I don’t pay a lot of attention to that. I can only control what I can control.
“We may not have a lot of size this year, but we have a lot of are intelligent kids. The volleyball I.Q. of these kids is fantastic. I’m a better volleyball teacher than a volleyball coach, and the ability of these kids to learn is impressive. Whether we’re talking about how to play a position or our team system of play, these kids get it.”
Brown has been helped by the presence of assistant coach Anna Holleman, who played under Norris on one of her state championship teams and has served as an assistant for Norris at Chapel Hill.
“She knows all the right people to talk to and how to get things done,” Brown said.
Brown hopes to make good use of the Tigers’ speed and mobility this fall, like that he’s seen in returning junior middle hitter Lucie Arricastres.
“She picks up everything so quick,” he said. “Her sense of attack is great. She’s a player who makes you think: ‘We’ve got to get her the ball as much as possible.’”
Brown also likes Jadey Macdonald’s nimbleness and versatility. “She’s probably one of our top liberos,” he said.
MacDonald and Helen Gaynes are the team’s lone returning seniors. So it’s a good thing Chapel Hill has so many up and coming ninth-graders and sophomores, like sophomore letter-winner Katie Huge at setter and first-year player Kyra Crider, who has played outside hitter for N.C. Volleyball’s 15-up Cardinal club.
“We have a lot of ninth- and 10th-graders who will be pushing to get onto the varsity,” Brown said.
“This will be a transition year, but it ought to be a good year. Coach Norris has done a really great job teaching these kids how to learn the game. No matter how good we are, we’ll get better throughout the year.”