When Jim Freeman took over the Cardinal Gibbons volleyball program in 1991, he knew next to nothing about the sport.
A sudden coaching vacancy forced the then-Gibbons assistant athletics director and former baseball coach to step in and learn on the fly.
“I coached in a state of panic,” said Freeman, now the head volleyball coach at Broughton High School in Raleigh. “I brought people in who did know what was happening. I didn’t have an ego about it. I tried to learn as much as I could, but I was always trying to find great assistants.”
Today, with 23 years of experience under his belt, Freeman is one of North Carolina’s most successful high school volleyball coaches. He led Cardinal Gibbons to 12 state championships while compiling a 426-117 record with the Crusaders. He has also coached at Friendship Christian and St. Mary’s, leading the latter to its first NCISAA state tournament appearance in school history.
Freeman has also found success at Broughton since he was hired last spring. The team earned the No. 1 seed for the East region in this year’s NCHSAA 4A volleyball tournament.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Gibbons is still going strong since Freeman left the program in 2010. The school’s volleyball team is the No. 2 seed in the 3A tournament, and it has won the past five NCHSAA titles in its division.
Freeman’s philosophy remains to surround himself with strong coaches, which is evident in his handling of an emerging Broughton program. During a second-round playoff game against Leesville Road on Tuesday, Freeman made sure he was heard when the team needed it, but a good amount of the in-game talking came from assistant coach Traci Smith.
“It’s an interesting dynamic that I think you probably don’t have in a lot of programs,” said Smith, who was the head coach of the Capitals for two seasons and led the team to last year’s Cap Eight conference title.
Smith, a former player and coach at Appalachian State, knew the time commitment needed to build a strong high school program. Just two years before that conference title, Broughton volleyball won only three games.
Freeman also knows what it takes to build a solid program. When he first took over the Cardinal Gibbons team, only one or two players were playing club volleyball. One extremely talented class came in from a feeder school and helped change the dynamics of the program, he said.
Attracting players who not only care to commit, but are able to invest both time and money to play year-round volleyball has undoubtedly helped build the success at Gibbons and Broughton, Freeman said.
“All these sports teams that are successful, those kids do it all year long,” he said. “I would love to have a romantic view from the ’50s and the ’60s when a kid could play two and three sports, but that’s just not how it is.”
Current Crusaders head coach Logan Barber came into a successful program, but has had to uphold the tradition.
“When I came in, there was already a winning atmosphere, which is a huge help, so you don’t have to try to change the culture or anything,” Barber said. “You can kind of keep rolling with what’s already established. .... The tradition does a lot of the heavy lifting, but if you don’t have the kids and you don’t go out there and do the work, then it’s not going to win you the matches.”
While Gibbons players and coaches try to maintain what was built by those who came before, Broughton is trying to build a legacy for future teams.
The culture of being the top team with a target on its back is still sinking in at Broughton.
“I think we let too many other thoughts get in our head about what would happen if we lost, and that’s always the tough part about having high expectations,” Freeman said after Broughton eked out a 3-2 win over Leesville on Tuesday. “You have to manage them and kind of use them to your advantage.”
Freeman has coached dozens of Division I athletes through his work at the high school club level with Triangle Volleyball Club. He also coached the men’s and women’s volleyball teams at Barton College from 2011 to 2012.
He’s familiar with high expectations.
They undeniably follow Freeman wherever he goes, and Barber said Freeman’s impact on the sport’s landscape in the region can’t be denied.
“What Jim did not only here (at Gibbons), but just for volleyball in the area really can’t be overstated,” Barber said. “He’s a big part of why not only this program is successful, but you can see a lot of good volleyball in this area and its growth over his time here. I’ve seen big differences, and you can see his fingerprints in a lot of stuff that’s going on if you really know how to look for it.”
Freeman maintains that it’s all about the players. They are the ones who go out and take the chances on the court. Freeman strives to coach teams to the point where they don’t need him to interject during matches. That is when you know you’ve coached them well, he said, and that goes beyond drawing up plays on a dry-erase board.
“The kids have to know that you love them,” Freeman said. “If kids feel valued beyond the court or the field, then I think that helps create something they want to be a part of. ... When you make it mean something beyond just the court, that’s another way you help build a certain kind of culture and a certain kind of program.”