Athena volleyball coach Vlasich comes home to Claremont, builds dynasty

Kurt Vlasich, head coach of the CMS women’s volleyball team, recently became the program’s winningest head coach. (Ian Poveda • The Student Life)

Kurt Vlasich, head coach of the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps women’s volleyball team, recalls early memories of playing sports for local youth teams, just miles away from the 5Cs.

“I love the fact that my two little girls go to the elementary school that I did,” Vlasich said.

Vlasich has been coaching the Athenas since 2011. He’s racked up three conference titles in his seven years and a national championship just last year. He took the program lead in career wins earlier this season, and the Athenas are well on their way to another SCIAC title.

While he’s had great success at CMS, Vlasich’s own childhood is filled with memories playing tennis, not volleyball. He didn’t discover his love for the sport until his junior year of high school.

His first encounter with the sport involved filling in for a friend in a local game of beach volleyball. He can pinpoint the exact location of the event — Memorial Park, just a few blocks away from the 5Cs.

Vlasich’s “Claremont family,” now in its third generation, has been involved in the community for a long time. His mother worked as the Claremont Unified School District nurse, and his grandfather, an obstetrician, delivered “half the families in Claremont.” During his junior year of high school, his father even helped form the volleyball program at Claremont high school.

“I dropped the tennis racket, started playing volleyball, and eventually walked on at Pepperdine,” Vlasich said.

While playing at Pepperdine, he was coached by Marv Dunphy, the Hall of Fame head coach for the U.S. National Team, which won a gold medal in 1988. Vlasich attributes his sense of identity to the family dynamic and pride he cultivated during his time at Pepperdine.

“Learning from somebody like [Dunphy] and getting a chance to be a part of a tradition that is Pepperdine volleyball is really where this all started for me,” Vlasich said.

The legendary coach also inspired Vlasich to pick up coaching.

“I’ll never forget sitting down with [Dunphy] my senior year and talking about the ways to give back to the volleyball community,” he said. “I realized, one of the things that we should look into doing as young ambassadors for volleyball is to teach somebody else.”

Vlasich’s gratitude for the mentors and support systems in his life are not limited to his years as a player. He also expressed his appreciation for his colleagues at CMS, assistant coaches Morgan Coberly, Shayla Chalker, and Jack Coberly.

“I always feel like I am blessed to have the three assistants that I do,” Vlasich said. “It’s so fun because the four of us are totally dialed in, we understand everybody’s role, what to do and when, and it just makes the moment so much easier to manage.”

He credited Coberly with helping cultivate team spirit for the Athenas.

“I think the best thing we have going in [the team spirit] department is [Coberly] … He has a very organic approach. We call him the Zen master,” Vlasich said. “I think you always have to read [the players’] body language and understand what they’re going through. You try to keep them engaged, but not stress them out.”

Vlasich’s deep understanding of the team is precisely what has allowed him to recruit and foster strong players throughout the years, solidifying CMS women’s volleyball as one of the top teams in Division III. To Vlasich, compromising on players’ athleticism or academic skill is not necessary.

“I think there’s always this perception of Division III that you can have a high academic student-athlete but the academics are going to far outweigh the athletic portion of it,” he said. “I just felt like that’s not true; I don’t think you should have to compromise on either one … Why can’t you find the really good athlete that’s also a really good student? Because they exist. You just have to work a little bit harder to find them.”

At the end of the day, Vlasich values the importance of putting in extra work for the best outcome. As both a coach and father, balancing work and family — and having the support of loved ones — is incredibly important, he said.

“I love the support that I get from my family,” Vlasich said. “I love the support I get from my wife … We’ve got two little girls in our schedules, so we can literally go an entire day without seeing each other until 10 at night. And you know, that’s going to put some strain there. But the way she handles it is incredible, and it just allows me to not carry that stress with me.”

Sometimes, he even brings his daughters to work. His older daughter watches the women’s team practice and looks up to them, even incorporating the techniques she’s observed from the college team into her own club volleyball practices as well.

“She’s only ten years old, and she wants to be one of them already,” Vlasich said. “That’s just a really special thing to see.”

Vlasich never predicted his return to Claremont, or his extensive career in volleyball, coaching one of the top teams in the country. But, he has found a true home here.

“Just the fact that I get to be a part of it, really means the world to me,” Vlasich said. “Most days I go home, and I feel like I’m part of a team, and not in charge of a team. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

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