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Leyton volleyball succeeding with Wauneta family values PDF Print E-mail
Written by Wauneta Breeze   
Thursday, 20 March 2014 00:00

Jodi Craig, far left, stands with her team after defeating Hays Springs in D2-6 district title game this fall. The win was part of a 30-2 season and earned Leyton its third straight trip to the state tournament. (Courtesy Photo | Sidney Sun-Telegraph)

By Diane Stamm

The Wauneta Breeze


There are probably many new teachers starting off at small schools who look at their first jobs as stepping stones. This was the case for Wauneta-Palisade High School alumnus Jodi (Smith) Craig when she began teaching at Leyton (Dalton and Gurley) High School.

Still at Leyton 16 years later, “Well…the bigger and better things came to me and I haven’t looked at leaving since,” says Craig.

Craig “jumped in with both feet” after the teacher she student taught under in the spring of 1998 decided to move. In the fall of 1998 Craig found herself in the positions of business education teacher and head high school volleyball coach. Currently, she is also head girls track coach, speech sponsor, junior class sponsor and teaches some PE courses.

She says her high school coach, Gary DeWester, shaped her attitude about the game of volleyball, teaching her and her teammates respect for the game and each other.

“A lot of my coaching techniques and philosophy started with what I learned during my high school experience.”

Coaching against veterans, Craig says she’s grateful for all the personal and professional support she’s found along the way.

“I have been able to learn so much by watching good teams, good coaches and attending coaching clinics where I could pick the brains of very talented coaches.”

Whatever her tactics, Craig has found success, racking up a 208-42 record over the past eight seasons.


Growing up in Wauneta

The daughter of Kenny and Barb Smith, Craig says she loved growing up in Wauneta and graduated from Wauneta-Palisade High School in 1992. Although the schools co-oped, it was the last year each school had separate valedictorians and salutatorians.

Craig participated in volleyball, basketball, track, one-act play production, speech, choir, band and jazz band while at WP, saying “I had the philosophy that if I wasn’t involved I might miss something!”

The thoughts of a degree in education came to mind thanks to the “high quality teachers” she was fortunate to learn from while at WP.

Craig graduated from Chadron State College with her teaching degree and has been at Leyton ever since.

Even though she may be 150 miles from home, she’s never far away from the family values she learned here.

—Respect at all times.

—Success is not given, it’s earned.

—Work isn’t optional.

—Can’t isn’t acceptable.

—Family suppers every night, no matter what.

—When you play, play to win.

Craig says even though she didn’t always win, she went in with that intention.

“This is what I want my students and athletes to have; the inner drive to do their best.”

She adds, “Even if they don’t win every time, the outcome is usually positive and will provide them the perseverance to overcome at the next competition.”


Finding success

In her first year as head coach Craig credits beginner’s luck. Her young team finished with an 8-12 record and a trip to the State Tournament where the team lost to eventual State Champion, Giltner, in the first round.

It took another 10 years for Craig to build a western Nebraska powerhouse worthy of a trip back to the State Tournament.

Success started coming for the Warriors in the mid-2000s.

Following a 7-17 campaign in the fall of 2004 season, the wins started piling up. Leyton was 15-11 in 2005-06 before reeling off seasons of 23-3, 25-5, 29-5, 26-7, 20-10, 25-7, 30-2 and 30-2.

Do the math. That’s a record of 208-42 and includes eight straight conference crowns.

Craig took over the junior high program in 2002, a move she believes directly impacted the school’s success at the high school level. Being able to start the junior high team members with the correct fundamental skills and teaching offensive and defensive strategies decreased the learning curve of the athletes once in high school.

“It’s not like basketball,” Craig says. “There just aren’t as many opportunities to play volleyball as a youngster, so I provide as many as I can to get them interested.”

To help solve the problem the team plays in a league over the summer and attends camps. Craig also tries to find a college coach to come to Leyton and run a two-day camp for just her team. Because the school doesn’t hold an athletic banquet, Craig hosts a volleyball banquet each year.

She says its a great way to keep interest for volleyball alive all year around and reminds the players how important they are to the team, as well as keeping interest alive heading into summer camps and leagues.

“It’s all about getting their attention, sparking their interest and keeping them involved in our volleyball program.”

For younger kids, Craig holds mini-camps each year for fourth through eighth graders, which the high school team is required to help with as a way to keep them invested in the program and a reminder of where they started and how far they’ve come.

Another piece of the puzzle comes from the lessons learned in high school at Wauneta as she also began instilling a love for the game and the responsibilities involved in being a part of the Warrior volleyball program. Craig also credits the old adage of success feeding success.

“As our teams continually improved and earned above .500 records, it sparked the interest of the girls. They wanted to be a part of this success, even if they weren’t on the varsity court.”

In a school with an enrollment of 55, putting it right at the top of Class D2, Craig usually has around 26 girls out for volleyball, leading Craig to seek out extra C team games to make sure everyone sees game action.

“I am fortunate to have girls who have a passion for the game and want to play. For the past 10 years, girls have come to me and asked for open gyms, camp info, and let me know where they’d like to go during the summer. I coach track in the spring and have girls asking to set the volleyball net up at least once a week to play. They enjoy the time with each other and the chance(s) to create and develop their success early.”

Although the Warriors have made it to state five out of the last six years, including three in a row, the luck of the draw has not been there.

Four out of the last five trips to Grand Island, Leyton has faced a team in the first-round which has advanced to the championship game.

“We generally have a good record and a decent amount of power points, but never seem to draw well,” she said. “I will never take away from the fact that the better team usually wins. We have run into some very good teams at the state tournament, but that’s what we expect. We wouldn’t be there if we weren’t amongst the best, but the other teams have earned their way there as well.”

She adds that playing in the western part of the state does have its drawbacks.

“The caliber of teams we are able to play within our geographic area makes a difference. Teams from Eastern Nebraska are able to travel short distances and play a variety of high quality teams. We have high quality teams on our end of the state also, but we tend to play the same teams several times within the season and have to travel long distances to do so. It’s just a difference in geographical location and the opportunities therein that maybe make or break us when we get to the state tournament.”

Craig said that although there are good teams in the Panhandle, familiarity makes it hard to prepare for the teams the Warriors play at the State Touranment.

This past year Craig was recognized as Regional Coach of the Year by Scottsbluff Star Herald, but says it’s important to add that it isn’t just the players and coaches that have made Leyton a success, with the managers, assistant coaches and community support rounding out the recipe.

Besides crediting a good booster program, Craig says the businesses of Dalton and Gurley are very supportive, providing meals for Leyton teams before post season games, prizes so everyone at the mini camps takes something home and donations when the team travels to camps.

In the end, it comes back down to Craig and the team.

“I treat the team the way I was raised. We are a family; we do things together. Cell phones are not allowed at practice, games or the team table so we can converse and enjoy each other. There are times we must practice before school to accommodate for other school activities afterward, but there are no gripes or complaints. We know in order to be successful these forms of character must be portrayed.”


Settled in

Now finishing up her 16th year at Leyton, Craig has firmly settled in to the area.

Married to Justin Craig in July of 2011, the couple owns a small acreage near Dalton where they make their home with Justin’s children Logan, a third grader, and Kaitlyn, a second grader.

“I am ‘mom’ to them and all three are my biggest supporters. Justin is the backbone of my success, always with an encouraging word. Logan cheers the loudest at Mom’s volleyball games and Kaitlyn is my best helper.”

Craig concedes, that though they are happy where they are at, “Justin would like to move down by Wauneta where the hunting is better.”

Her ties to Wauneta remain strong.

“My Wauneta family, Mom, Dad and sister, Maressa, still provide me venting opportunities and advice when needed,” she says.

And some things never change, “Of course Dad always has words of wisdom!”

Last Updated on Wednesday, 19 March 2014 17:41