There’s a new sheriff in town and make no mistake about it, she has an arsenal of qualifications.
She has extensive knowledge and love of the game, she is a teacher and motivator, she is a communicator, she has a crystal-clear vision of how to win and she is committed to building a successful volleyball program at Litchfield High School, the latter of which has been a struggle for the Lady Panthers in past seasons.
Meet Abby Carlson, a 2008 graduate of Belleville Althoff Catholic High School and a Missouri State University alumni. She played volleyball all four years at Althoff and added to her volleyball credentials at Missouri State University, where she was team manager and traveled with the team.
Upon graduation, she returned to her alma mater where she taught and coached freshman volleyball. The remainder of the coaching staff included her sister, who served as the head coach, and her aunt, who was the assistant coach.
The family trio guided the Crusaders to the state tournament three times in five years and in 2016-17, they achieved the pinnacle of success as they captured the Illinois High School Class 3A state championship after finishing third the previous year. They placed second in 2017-18 in Class 3A and were a super sectional contender in 2018-19 in Class 4A.
Carlson remained at Althoff for seven years before accepting a position with the Litchfield School District in 2019. Currently she is the district’s career services coordinator. She held the assistant coaching position for the LHS volleyball program last year and also coached the LMS eighth grade volleyball team. Her husband, Dan, teaches high school social studies and has also taken on the task of rebuilding the LHS football program.
Carlson credits her mother and her aunt as the two biggest influences in the development and love of the game.
“My mother has such a passion for the game,” she said. “She played at the collegiate level and she coached us when were young.”
Carlson said both her mother and father continue to support her and attend as many games as they can. Her progression and development as a high school player is credited to her aunt, who was head coach of the Althoff Crusaders all four years she played. In addition, both of her sisters played volleyball at Missouri State University and went on to coach at the Division I level.
When asked about a long-term goal she has set for herself as a head coach, Coach Carlson replied, “I would like for the LHS volleyball program to be at the top of the South Central Conference. It is more about moral wins, taking on the big teams that have dominated the conference. We took a couple of the top teams to three sets last year and it is my belief that we can and will capture some of those signature wins as we progress in building the mental and physical aspects of the game.”
When asked about team goals, there was no hesitation in her reply.
“I want LHS to have a highly competitive volleyball program and in order to accomplish that goal, we must do it correctly. There is a flow to the game of volleyball and right now we don’t understand that flow but that is where coaching comes into play. It is our responsibility as coaches to impart an understanding of what is takes to be successful,” she said. “If we approach the game in the right way, the wins will come but coach also knows it will take a period of time to build that mind-set.”
Coach Carlson pointed out that some of the girls in the program have had three new coaches in four years which has all but eliminated any consistency in the program. Hopefully there is change in the wind as the entire coaching staff is young and Coach Carlson believes she and her staff will bring an element of energy and excitement to the athletes and to the program.
“When our athletes step on the court, it is important they have the desire to win and know how to win,” she said.
One of the components she believes will be beneficial to the ascent of the volleyball program is the fact that she and Kari Dragoo will coach seventh and eighth middle school volleyball, with the main focus on where it all begins, the development of proper individual basic skills.
Dragoo has coached at the middle school for the past few years and beginning this season, she will serve as the high school freshman coach, where the continued development of fundamental techniques and individual skills is crucial.
Coach Carlson and Mitchell Hughes flip flopped their high school coaching roles from last year and he will be involved in the development of game schemes for the junior varsity squad while she will guide the varsity team and oversee the overall high school volleyball program. At the end of last year’s shortened spring COVID volleyball season, there was a glimpse into the future of LHS volleyball under the direction of Abby Carlson. The best six players are going to be on the court as witnessed by the insertion of two freshmen within the lineup.
“In order to build a culture of winning, our players must understand what it takes,” Coach Carlson said. “It is a commitment to attend practice, work hard on the court and in the classroom, play as a team and compete at the highest level in the role that you are called upon to fill, regardless of longevity or grade level.”
Last year’s volleyball roster contained approximately 25 players and she is hoping for about the same number this year.
“I have a great group of girls who want to learn and I believe they have embraced the process,” Coach Carlson said.
Although the official start of high school volleyball practice does not begin until Aug. 9, “open gym” sessions have been available to former and potential players two days a week for two and a half hours a day since June. The season officially opens for the Lady Panthers on Aug. 26, when they host Nokomis.