Photos by Hillary Ehlen
Jen and Kelly Lopez have success on their minds after their first season together as Bison volleyball coaches.
In 2008, if you were to tell Jen and Kelly Lopez, who were Bison volleyball players at the time, that they would be coaching in the NDSU volleyball program in 2018, they might call you crazy. Each Lopez sister had different plans for the future, Kelly in the world of strength and conditioning coaching and Jen in teaching and high school coaching. However, sometimes the stars align in such a way that remarkable things can occur. In the case of Jen and Kelly Lopez, they aligned in a way that both are now coaches for Bison volleyball, Jen the head coach and Kelly an assistant.
“I think the biggest thing is we were so used to playing with each other that we could feed off each other, and it was the little non-verbal cues that made us successful as players,” said Jen Lopez in regards to coaching with her sister. 2018 was her second season as head coach for NDSU volleyball. “So finding our way, for me, as a coach, to interact with her and learn her tendencies and how we were going to go about commenting or giving feedback or encouraging, was a little bit of a process. It was fun figuring it out and reigniting that same bond we had as players as coaches now.”
- NDSU volleyball player from 2008-2011
- Three-time All-Summit League selection
- Summit League Setter, Player of the Year and Tournament MVP in 2011
- Head volleyball coach at Oak Grove Lutheran High School in 2013-14
- Assistant coach at West Fargo Sheyenne in 2014-15
- Assistant coach at NDSU from 2015 to May 2017
- Named head coach of NDSU volleyball in October 2017
Kelly, who was previously working as the associate director of sports performance at Boise State, came back to Fargo to coach alongside her sister. 2018 was her first season on the bench for the Bison. “For me, we’re both pretty strong personalities at times,” she said about the give and take with her sister. “Kind of understanding when I needed to be the calm to her storm or if she was a little bit more on the reserved side, then it was maybe my time to step in and attack things and take over those conversations.”
When asked to give herself a self-assessment after her first season, Lopez was quick to point out the adjustments she had to make. “It was definitely a learning experience that’s for sure. It went better than I think I ever anticipated as far as just feeling a little more comfortable or at ease. There were definitely moments where I kind of had to take the strength coach and my personality and my coaching style and go, ‘Okay, these guys don’t need someone to jump down their throat; they need someone to kind of coddle or rub their back and let them know that things are okay,’” she said. “I think that was the fun part. Coaching is coaching at the end of the day, and it was just fun being in that atmosphere again. The BBF is just a special place and it made it really easy.”
On the other hand, her boss, Jen, was asked to give her sister a performance review after year one. Needless to say, Kelly seemed to have thrived. “The biggest thing for me and knowing this program is having the staff in place to touch on the aspects of the kids and have that person that is really good at building relationships and understanding needs of kids in order to get them to be the best and perform the best,” she said. “For Kel, that’s definitely an area that she excels at, so it’s awesome to see that your mentor and someone you’ve looked up to for so many years and to see her step into a role that you know she can do so well in. Being her boss, it’s kind of fun to see that whole process and how it evolved in just a little bit of a different way.”
For the outsider, it would appear difficult to turn off the “sister” dynamic and turn on the “coach/ competitor” dynamic for the Lopez sisters. However, they use their playing days together as a guide to move past sisterhood when match time comes. “For us, the professional side of things, we understand what all of this is about, and so being sisters and having that family aspect, we get each other in a different way, but at the end of the day, this is our job,” Jen said. “We’re trying to perform to the best of our abilities to help mentor and coach and groom our players to be better student-athletes. At the end of the day, we know what our goal is and what we’re here to do. So regardless of the conflicts that may arise and the challenges we face, we’re here to our job.”
Kelly looks to their playing days for how they handle match days. She also credits fellow assistant coach Drew Davis for balancing the two sisters out. “Looking back when we did play together, I don’t think we approached going into those matches as players and now as coaches any differently,” she said. “We’re both very focused and I kind of go and get that vibe when Jen needs her time or her moments just to kind of collect her thoughts and mentally prep for the game. I kind of do the same thing. Luckily, we have Drew in the middle that keeps us both at bay, and he brings a lot of lightness to our group of three. I think that helps us out a lot.”
From a playing perspective, the Lopez sisters are two of the greats. Kelly was a two-time Summit League Defensive Player of the Year, and Jen was an All-Summit League performer and Summit League Tournament MVP in 2011. Through the years of 2005 to 2011, when the Lopez sisters were on campus, the Bison won three Summit League Tournament titles. However, the two played with one another in 2008 and 2009, where the Bison captured a regular season conference title each year.
With the offseason approaching this spring, the current Bison volleyball team has plenty to be excited about. They lose only one senior, and while the departure of McKenzie Burke is a huge loss, the Bison return the rest of their roster, a roster that has copious amounts of experience from top to bottom. This is due to NDSU having to play several sophomores and true freshmen in 2018. It seems as though they will be a seasoned group come fall 2019.
“We definitely have those kids that are bought in and have that wide-eyed mentality where they’re willing to learn or do what it is you ask.” – Jen Lopez
“The fun part and we’ve talked a lot about this, is that this spring is an exciting time for this program. We have a lot of young kids, and we didn’t have as many on the roster last spring because we had graduated so many,” said Jen. “For us to come into this spring and really be able to strip back everything in this program that we know we want to better at and now we have the individuals to do so and build it back up is kind of our focus. We have kids in the right place and staff in the right place to allow us the opportunity to do that, and I know it’s something we’re really excited about. To be able to train, teach, mentor and develop leadership and all of the aspects that fit into and make a great program, we’re excited to be able to this spring with the returners.”
Kelly shares in the sentiments of her sister. She sees the excitement in girls’ eyes, which she says excites the coaching staff. “Spring is the biggest time for growth, not only in the weight room for our girls but obviously on the court too. Us as a staff, I think our biggest thing is just going to be culture. We have a lot of really great programs at NDSU: football, track & field and softball, in particular, have something going on within their cultures and their programs that our kids are going to continue to learn from,” she said. “I think taking some pages out of those program’s notebooks and figuring out how we can apply it to our sport. We have the kids in place. During our meetings, the kids are excited, they can’t wait for spring and they almost wish it was tomorrow. That’s been an encouraging part because I don’t think that’s necessarily always been the way.”
If you go and watch NDSU volleyball, the first thing you will notice is how committed the players are to the coaching staff. For only a second-year coach to have her entire team bought into the culture and mindset, it says something about Jen Lopez. Both the Lopez sisters are in agreement that their girls are bought in. “We definitely have those kids that are bought in and have that wide-eyed mentality where they’re willing to learn or do whatever it is you ask. For us, that’s the exciting part because whatever we bring to the table for them, they’re willing to do and they’re willing to try and they want to do it because it’s something that they choose,” said Jen. “With a lot of things, it starts from the top down, the excitement we create on a daily basis for them and what we’re trying to do to better the program, we have to be just as invested as they do. They need the models and someone who is showing them the way. There are things we’re continuing to learn ourselves, but they’re willing to go along with that and they want it just as bad as we do, if not more.”
- NDSU volleyball player from 2005-2009
- Two-time Summit League Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 and 2009
- Assistant strength and conditioning coach at NDSU from 2012 to 2014
- Associate director of sports performance at Boise State from 2014 to 2018
- Named NDSU volleyball assistant coach in January 2018
For Jen and Kelly Lopez, coming back to NDSU was important to them. Any coach across any sport wants to be involved in their alma mater in some capacity. The Lopez sisters had different paths in mind as they departed North Dakota State as student-athletes. Yet, here they are, ushering in a new, exciting era of Bison volleyball. The two sisters reflected on how important being at NDSU is to them.
“For me, having gone away in a different role and coming back, I’m just that much more grateful for everything. Everything is just heightened, so whether it’s the fans at the games that are still coming to our matches from when I first started playing here in 2005 to meeting a lot of our boosters and donors and understanding finer details of what our Team Makers do to provide scholarships,” Kelly said. “I was one of those kids, and just what our admin and strength and conditioning team goes through. It means a lot to give back to a community that provided so much for me, but for her too.”
Jen had to pause and think before answering the question. It’s clear that NDSU means so much to both of them. “I went into teaching thinking I was going to shape lives and make all these impressions upon young kids and coach at a high school level. There are things that come along throughout your career and things you learn from and grow from, and NDSU was that opportunity for me,” she said. “I think just the cherry on top was the fact that we do have so much invested here, both of us do. You know the staff, you know the people who have been around and are a part of the programs, the fans, the community support, coaches from other teams, coaches that you played against when you were a player and the familiarity of it. It’s a special place, and you can go anywhere to coach, but I think it’s a little more special being from somewhere that means so much when this is home. I think it makes it a little bit different.”
The Lopez sisters are here to stay. They have instilled a fresh perspective and culture into the program they grew up in. In such a small sample size, it’s sometimes hard to properly assess how well a coach is doing. Jen and Kelly Lopez are invested, their players are invested and they are all passionate about moving Bison volleyball forward. Those facts alone make the Lopez sisters a budding coaching tandem at North Dakota State.