When Robert Dean moved from Texas to Booneville in 2007 to teach science and be closer to his parents, he had no idea what else he would end up doing.
Dean was handed the coaching assignment for Booneville’s then-first year volleyball program. He had to learn the sport along with his team, but once he had a grasp, Dean built the team into one of the top small-school programs in Western Arkansas.
Then, he did the same thing for a fledgling robotics program at Booneville High School. Under his leadership, the “Rocky Balboabots” have participated in the FIRST Robotics World Championships in all three years they have been in existence and have earned numerous awards.
Dean announced recently that he is stepping down as the LadyCat volleyball coach after 10 years. Candy Goff will be the new coach, moving over from the girls’ basketball team.
“It was just time,” Dean said. “When I came here, I expected to coach for five years.” He said that he started having fun and the team started winning, so he decided to stay on.
He ended up doubling that expected tenure, and in that time Dean has led the team to eight straight state tournaments. And the pieces are there for that streak to extend for many years to come.
“I hate leaving behind all this talent,” said the coach. “But the program is in great shape,” adding that the 2017 senior high team is capable of having the best season in the program’s history. Dean also said that there is excellent junior high talent moving through. “The table is set (for the next coach),” he commented. “This is the best team we’ve ever had.”
He brought up the concept of “crossing bridges”. The first one was simply winning one game out of a match. It moved on to such things as winning a match, having a .500 record, winning district and so on. He said that the only bridge left uncrossed is winning a state championship.
Over the years, Dean gained the respect of his team. Through car washes and other activities, he has taught the value of working for the money necessary to go to top volleyball camps such as the Licking camp in Branson.
And the girls never failed to have fun along the way. Dean kept the team loose, yet was quick to point out what needed to be worked on to make the team even better.
The Nickname Game
Dean has always used nicknames for his players, going back to his days as a football coach. “I’ve had kids (who played for me) who are grandparents now, and they are still known by the nickname I gave them,” he said. “My nicknames usually distinguish the person.” He gave the example of two of the players on the 2017 team, both named Haley. “If I called for ‘Haley’, there would be several players come up. But there’s ‘Slim’ (Haley Simpson) and ‘Buggs’ (Haley Carter), and they instantly know which one I need.”
Many of his players have been known within the program by nicknames that he has given them. Some are obvious, like “Blondie” (first Ashley Paul and currently Aleeah Blansett) for their hair color, or “Lefty” (Macy Geddes) by virtue of her dominant hand. Paula Wilkins was given the nickname “Dora” for her striking resemblance to the cartoon character Dora the Explorer.
And then there’s “Sox”. When Hannah McClung came to a volleyball camp toward the end of her sixth-grade year, she sported a pair of mismatched, brightly colored socks that came nearly up to her knees. From then on, she was “Sox”, and she turned into a three-time All-State libero with over 2,000 digs to her credit.
Giving People a Chance
There are many examples of girls who otherwise might not have been athletes who, under Dean, turned into excellent volleyball players. One such girl was Nicole Wallace, who played from 2009 to 2013.
Wallace, given little chance to play after spending her eighth-grade year on the JV team, worked hard during the off-season and by the start of her freshman year was the starting junior high libero. She kept that spot during her sophomore season and after McClung arrived, continued to be an excellent defensive specialist.
“(I am) forever grateful for the opportunities he gave me and for guiding me through some of the hardest times in my life,” said Wallace. “I’m proud to this day to say he was my coach.”
She added that Dean was always tough on her, but gave her hope that she could be everything she wanted to be. “When I walked onto that court the first day I never thought that I would be anything more than a sideline supporter, but within just one summer I was rocking that white uniform (of the libero).” Wallace also said that without his constant pushing her to be the best she could be, that wouldn’t have happened.
Robotics: Another success
In 2014, Dean took charge of another Booneville first-year program, this time in the field of robotics. This came about because of a long-standing friendship started when he first moved to Booneville. Keith Smith of Rockline Industries moved in to the RV park by the police station at the same time Dean did. “He loves volleyball and is very supportive of the team,” Dean said of Smith. Smith asked Dean to work with the fledgling robotics team and Dean decided to support him because of Smith being a friend who has supported volleyball.
He assembled a student team to design and build robots to perform various tasks in competition through the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) program. In 2015, the “Rocky Balboabots” won the Top Rookie Team award, and have participated in the FIRST Championships every year of their existence.
In this year’s competition, ironically in Houston near where Dean had been a football coach, the team was part of an alliance that made it all the way to the finals in their division. Team member Lexi Danekas was one of only three participants to be nominated for the national Dean’s List award for the program, and the team won the Inspiration in Engineering award which guarantees them another trip to worlds in 2018.
Players find success after volleyball
One of the things Dean is proud of is what his players have done after their volleyball career is over. “I stay after them on grades all the time,” he said. The result is that many of his former players have gone to college, gained their degree and are starting careers. “Kid after kid that’s been out long enough has been successful in college.”
Sarah Hotubbee, Shayna Pierce, Chelsea and Lauren Westwood, Morgan Simpson, Rebecca Rockenhaus, Paula Wilkins and Kristin Scantling are just several of many who fall into that category. “A large number of former players have gotten a college degree,” he said.
A simple philosophy
“I did not change the philosophy that I had coaching football for 30 years” when he took over volleyball, said Dean. “Keep it simple. We run one offense and one defense, and we work at it until we run it good.” He added that ideally, a team would have to legitimately beat one of his teams because they won’t beat themselves.
“Coaching is coaching, no matter whether it’s football, volleyball or robotics,” he said. And he has always met with success. Many of his jobs have been either startup programs or programs that have struggled before he came aboard. In each case, he had his teams in the state playoffs within two or three years.
Dean finishes his LadyCat coaching career with a record of 130-118-7 for a .524 winning percent. But that included 5-24 in his first two years. In the last two seasons, his teams went 45-20-3 (.684) and claimed a share of the 3A-West district championship—the first for the senior high volleyball team—in 2015.
There are 31 players on this year’s senior high team, and Dean says they have the ability to compete with anyone. “If you’re going to beat us, you have to be one of the top teams in the state.” Especially in the last few seasons, the teams which have been beating the LadyCats have generally gone on to make deep runs at the state tournament, if not win it outright. And Booneville has had its share of success against such teams, including a 2015 win at Paris, who went on to win the 3A state championship that season.
“It’s tough leaving with the ones coming back,” said Dean. Almost in echo of this, as I was wrapping up the interview, Blansett unleashed a vicious hit during a game of Queens, where the winning team stays on the floor. The LadyCats return six starters and several role players from last year, along with Carter who sat out last season.
But there is a time for everything, and he felt it was time to step aside. His plans are to “travel and wander”, as he puts it. He also plans to put in some time volunteering with robotics and generally start a new phase of life.
One can be almost certain, though, that he will look in on the LadyCat volleyball team from time to time.