Valorie McKenzie and the 2018 Horizon high school volleyball team celebrate coach McKenzie’s 900th win. (Photo courtesy of Valorie McKenzie)
PHOENIX – Forty-two years ago in 1980, Ronald Reagan won the presidential election by a landslide with 489 electoral votes. “The Shining,” “Friday the 13th” and “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” hit the silver screen during the same year. And Valorie McKenzie became the volleyball coach at Horizon High School.
Spanning four decades, McKenzie has led Horizon to four state championship wins, won multiple Coach of the Year awards and earned 1,000 wins amid a drastically changing high school sports landscape.
McKenzie entered coaching soon after the Education Amendments of 1972 brought Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or any other education program that receives funding from the federal government, and educational funding equality to schools across the country. Today, in the 50 years since, McKenzie has seen women’s sports grow as a result of an increase in budgets and opportunities.
“When I played college sports, there were no scholarships for women,” McKenzie said. “High school ladies just went to school and would play just to be a part of a sport in college.”
As a result of Title IX, women’s athletics in high school and college have grown in number and popularity. In 2022, the Women’s College World Series outperformed the men’s College World Series in viewership, averaging 1.7 million viewers to the men’s 1.63 million viewers.
The growth of women’s sports has also led to increased college recruitment and club volleyball participation as student-athletes balance the two along with their high school seasons. Long gone are the days of playing 12 games a year, which was the case when McKenzie first took the job at a time before the installment of the libero position. Her girls volleyball players now play over a combined 40 games a year. Despite the increased demand, McKenzie has learned to adapt without compromising her coaching values.
“I’m still very disciplined; the kids still have to be very accountable, very responsible and very committed, but I am too,” McKenzie said. “I make sure that I am exactly what I asked for. I’m accountable, and I’m there and my commitment and passion is always high. That’s what I expect from the kids.”
But with tough love comes her love for the game and, especially, her players. Like any good coach, she demands the best because she sees her players’ potential inside and outside of the gymnasium. Her job may be to coach them as volleyball players, but she cares more about making good people. Both players and parents can see how she impacts her team, and while the coach has adapted to a new era in the sport, her girls have also changed for the better.
Take Kiera Hall, a rising college freshman, for example.
“I’ve certainly seen Kiera grow in her four years at Horizon,” Cary Hall, Kiera’s father and Horizon volleyball “Team Dad,” said. “I think (she’s) a much stronger young woman as a result of both high school and club volleyball and the coaching she got in both, and certainly Coach McKenzie was a big part of that.”
McKenzie came to Horizon when the school opened in 1980, after several years of teaching physical education and coaching softball, track and field, and tennis at the middle-school level. The Huskies were looking for a volleyball coach, a sport that McKenzie had played when she was in high school.
Title IX had yet to come around during her playing days. The Education Amendments were passed and signed into law during her final year of high school in 1972. When she graduated and started coaching in 1976, Title IX was still in its infancy. The balance of power in financial budgets was only starting to sort out between men’s and women’s sports and still had a long way to go.
For years, the uniform of the volleyball teams at Horizon were made of cheap polyester, while the football team received new jerseys more frequently. For 15 years, McKenzie and her team would sweat in a gym with only a swamp cooler to lower the temperature.
But since then, McKenzie has seen finances for boys athletics and girls athletics level out. Each team sport receives new jerseys on a three-year cycle, unless budget constraints alter that timeline. When Horizon renovated its boys locker room, the school renovated the girls locker room at the same time.
“You could see the difference,” McKenzie said. “[Title IX] did kind of level out between how things were handled with the boys sports and the girls sports. I don’t think it’s leveled out at the college level.”
The number of women’s sports at Horizon has increased to 13. For years, her volleyball team had access to the gym for everyday practices. Now, with the rise in popularity of girls badminton, McKenzie has to share the gym.
The lack of education funding in the state has added new difficulties and challenges for McKenzie and her team. A recent U.S. Census Bureau report stated that Arizona ranked 51st among the states and the District of Columbia in funding per student on instruction. The state finished just above Utah and Idaho in total funding per pupil, which funding for student athletics comes from. The onus of raising funds for travel and uniforms often lands on McKenzie and the school’s booster club, a responsibility she had to learn to navigate on the job.
“I never did a fundraiser in the beginning of my coaching career, and now funding is huge. We have to do fundraisers every year,” McKenzie said. “As the sports have changed and the needs have changed, so have the demands, like as a coach to fundraise.”
Now parents also have to take on the role of boosters. Additionally, coach McKenzie has a new dynamic to figure out as she works the boosters to fundraise enough money.
“(Boosters) help fund a lot,” McKenzie said. “They’ll do fundraisers and they get sponsorships. You have banners in the gym now with all the sponsors; that was unknown even 15 years ago. You can’t survive as an athletic sport nowadays if you don’t have sponsors.”
The lack of monetary support from the state shows up beyond the classroom and off the court. Arizona ranks 44th nationally in teacher pay, an increase from recent years but still on the lower end compared to the rest of the country.
“What hasn’t changed is pay; pay is very little,” McKenzie said. “After seven years, you stop on the pay scale. You only get the interest rate on the base of the salary. Really what I’m getting now, 40 years later, and when I got then is maybe $1,500 different over 40 years. Pay has not changed.”
Statewide, Arizona has seen many teachers burn out and leave the state or the profession because of lack of support or lack of pay. More and more school districts in the state are relying on emergency certified teachers as the state faces a shortage of qualified teachers. Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said in an interview with KTAR-FM that she is concerned about the burnout as “all of our neighboring states are offering teachers significant raises, whereas here in Arizona we’ve remained stagnant over the past couple of years.”
McKenzie is a rare breed in the current state of Arizona education. For the veteran educator and coach to not just stay within the profession for 42 years but to stay in Arizona “speaks to her passion for the students and to the volleyball program at Horizon,” Cary said.
Club volleyball serves a different purpose than high school volleyball and remains mostly parent-driven due to the need for parent involvement. In club volleyball, players can focus more on advancing their technical skills. This is also where they can jockey for college recruitment and exposure. The amount of money and hours dedicated to club sports can sometimes make them a slog.
College recruiters will mostly scout players at club games in the spring, when college programs are in the offseason. But McKenzie will see college recruiters attend select tournaments and attend regular-season games if she has a talented team or players.
With such a senior-heavy roster last season, McKenzie had to learn how to accommodate her players without changing her team rules. The coach still stands by not starting a player who misses practice, but now she will often cancel a Friday practice so seniors have more time for weekend college visits.
“I tell my players and my parents that I’m not out to get your daughter a college scholarship,” McKenzie said. “I am out to coach 12 girls to be the best players they can be and to be the best people they can be.”
McKenzie works to be fair in the time and resources she spends on each player. She won’t go out of her way to help her star players.
“If a college coach calls me if they want video, if they want stats, I will do everything I can to help that,” McKenzie said. “I have tried not to change my philosophy of coaching because of college recruiting.”
If a player works hard and has a good attitude, McKenzie will vouch for her. Players like Kiera, who graduated and will play at NAU this coming fall, are a great example. Under McKenzie, Kiera worked to become a leader. She became a captain in her senior year at Horizon. The role forced her to step out of her comfort zone and become a more vocal leader.
“Freshman year I was really quiet,” Kiera said. “She would always tell me, ‘You need to talk to your teammates.’ Talk to them about this and that. It was hard for me to do that, especially as a freshman. I was one of the youngest on the team and was learning how to do all of this.”
SMU, Yale and NAU each recruited Kiera. The NCAA has specific rules for recruiting, so teams are prohibited from reaching out to players until the summer after their sophomore year. Once that day hits, the floodgates open.
“Once that date came when they were able to talk to you, they were trying to set up Zoom calls and tons of emails, everything,” Kiera said. “Then you’d just be communicating with tons of coaches. It’s stressful.”
Coaching at the same school for over 40 years means coaching lots of kids. It also means lots of familiar faces and familiar last names.
Tammy Murphy first met McKenzie after moving from Wisconsin to Arizona as a senior in high school, thanks to an invite to a summer volleyball tournament. Despite moving across the country, Murphy had no problems at her new school after an instant connection with McKenzie from the first time they met. Murphy’s experience with McKenzie is why her daughter, Kendal, followed in her footsteps to play for McKenzie at Horizon.
“Before every game, she would give us a poem that she would write,” Murphy said. “It was a poem about our opponents and what we were going to do to them. It also had a little gift with it. We were playing the (Shadow Mountain) Matadors, and she gave us little bells to put on our shoes so that when we were walking in school, it would remind us of what we had coming forward.”
A lot has changed between Murphy and her daughter’s high school career. McKenzie’s ability to adapt to the game and connect with each generation has remained constant and led to her success. Even McKenzie’s own daughter has provided the building blocks to developing relationships with a long list of players. McKenzie coached her daughter, Courtney, in 2003. For the first time, she saw her coaching from the perspective of a parent, and she decided to make some changes.
“We’d come home, and I’d see her doing her homework and having to study for this exam and just trying to juggle all the demands of her life as a student-athlete,” McKenzie said. “It made me re-evaluate. Do I need that three-and-a-half-hour practice? Maybe it only needs to be two and a half hours. Maybe these kids do need to go home and have an extra hour for studying or for just being them.”
After 42 years and an ever-changing sports culture, McKenzie is still committed to the game and coaching. During the pandemic, McKenzie coached via Zoom because her husband was immunocompromised. She has attended clinics twice a year, which, as she points out, is a lot of clinics over a 42-year career. She still calls herself a strict disciplinarian to this day, and former and current players certainly agree. She demands the best.
“Coach has always been fair, (it) doesn’t matter if you’re a starter or a backup,” Murphy said. “If you are late for practice, you run. If you are late to a game, you miss the first set.”
The longtime coach’s attitude in the gym makes it easy for the girls to keep their passion, too. Kendal has played volleyball since she was 10 years old. She has seen many coaches in her career, some who have killed the volleyball spirit. Murphy has seen McKenzie do the opposite for her daughter; she reignites Kendal’s love for the game.
“She shares her love of the game with our girls and keeps the girls accountable,” Murphy said. “She’s helping not just make our daughters into better volleyball players, but she’s making them into better people and better citizens.”