Photos by J. Alan Paul and special to Bison Illustrated
Former Bison volleyball star Kelly Lopez enjoyed her time out West before returning to Fargo to coach alongside her sister for NDSU.
Kelly Lopez was caught between a rock and a hard place. Her sister Jennifer had just been named the head coach of NDSU’s volleyball program in October. Kelly, a Bison volleyball alumni, had been working in Idaho as the associate director of sports performance for Boise State University since 2014. Her only professional experience had been in the world a strength and conditioning, a field she had gotten her undergraduate and master’s degree in. Yet, she thought it was time to come home.
“It never really crossed my mind, I thought I would be a strength coach until I die,” Lopez said. “And then I really had to sit down and think about it. It was a huge decision because I had been doing strength and conditioning since I graduated and I loved doing it. Was I ready to give this up? I think having a strong volleyball knowledge and being an alum made the decision a little easier. It was a hard decision, but it was really easy too. I just asked Jen when she needed me.”
That was in January of this year. Now, Lopez has been out on the road and in the gym, rounding out the Bison volleyball team for their 2018 campaign. What was once reticence and hesitation has turned into something of a second career for Kelly Lopez. She has now found a comfortable position where it all started.
Growing up in nearby Glyndon, Minnesota, Lopez was always around North Dakota State volleyball. “My sister and I had come to the volleyball camps since we were little tykes,” she said. So when she was choosing which school to further her academic and athletic career, the Bison were afforded an advantage. Despite being offered by Power Five schools like Penn State, Minnesota and Ohio State, she settled on the Bison. The proximity to her hometown played a part, but she was also impressed with head coach Zaundra Bina.
“The relationship I had with Zaundra was great. Her recruiting process was so good, it was never rushed, never pressured,” she said. “What she was doing with the transition from Division II to Division I, I believed in her and what she was about. I had known Sheila Parrish from playing together in some summer leagues. So the familiarity I had with the program was big and it was home.”
For Lopez, whose father worked outside of Glyndon, a local school was pertinent. “We would see him on the weekends normally. I started to think if I went Big Ten, he could only see me a few times a year,” she said. “I felt the best decision for me and the best fit was NDSU. It’s not always about going bigger, it’s about family and friends and relatives who are able to come to the games. I realized how much that meant to me.”
It ended up being a perfect decision for Lopez, who immediately made an impact for the Bison. While NDSU went 5-31 in 2005, Lopez’s first season, the team only gathered momentum moving forward. The Bison went on to win 17 games in 2006, 20 in 2007, 24 in 2008 and 23 in Lopez’s senior season in 2009. The incredible 2008 run, which included a Summit League Tournament championship, is still Lopez’s favorite memory from her time as a Bison player.
“Looking back and seeing the process it took to get there. Going from 5-31 my first year here, coaching changes, philosophies, just how that change occurred and the process it took to get where we got,” she said. “It became a lifestyle for us, it was a lot of hard work, but looking back that has to be the most memorable moment.”
By the end of her playing days, Lopez racked up 1,382 total digs, which is still in the top-ten in school history. Also, her 3.49 digs per set mark is fourth best in NDSU history. She also won the Summit League Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008 and 2009. However, her time at NDSU was not done yet.
After graduating with an exercise science degree, Lopez assumed the position of assistant strength and conditioning coach from 2012 to 2014. That was when she began to look at other opportunities outside of the Red River Valley. This led her to Boise State in 2014 as the associate director of sports performance. The decision seemed like the right move at the time.
“It got comfortable here (Fargo) for a while and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Growing up here, living here, going to school here, graduating school here, it was time,” she said. “I think my move out there, I needed to see something new and get away. At the end of the day, we still implemented our Bison roots in Boise too. It was probably the biggest personal and professional growth that I have done. But I think that better prepared me for when I came back.”
Those Bison roots took shape in her time at Boise State. While the athletic philosophies were somewhat different, Lopez and the strength and conditioning staff were able to implement a Bison-like culture for the Broncos. “The key at Boise State was creating a culture and we wanted to sustain winning, but it’s hard to do that,” she said. “You have to maintain relationships and get on board and show a lot of the sports that we cared about them outside of the hour they were in the weight room. It was monitoring meals, sleep and rest days. It goes beyond the weight room.”
Despite the similarities between NDSU and Boise State, Lopez did see one glaring difference within the Boise State culture. One that was a far cry from the Bison culture. “Sometimes athletes are just ‘kids’. In the Midwest, we are known as blue-collar, it’s just what was instilled in us,” she said. “Not saying some of the student-athletes at Boise weren’t, but they just come from different parts of the United States, so I think philosophies and viewpoints are different.”
While it was a challenging decision, Kelly Lopez was ready to come back home. Back to where she dominated on the court and in the classroom. One thing she was lacking was true volleyball coaching experience. In Lopez’s words, “it’s still coaching, but it’s completely different.” Now that she has a full offseason of work under her belt, she spoke on what the steepest learning curve was. Given that she was coming from a broader sports background to a more specialized form of coaching.
“Being able to open up and be willing to make relationships with kids,” she said. “I have been fortunate to have some great relationships with student-athletes, but now I get to know them on a much deeper level. I have to build those relationships. I’m in charge of our defensive scheme, so my defensive specialists and liberos, those are my girls. Beforehand, they were all my kids, but now I get to know them and have personal conversations with them.”
Now that she has worked in different athletic programs, Lopez understands how important Bison pride is. “It means everything,” she said. “You can go to other places and you won’t find the type of support you have here. Having left and come back, it’s made me appreciate it that much more.”
As Kelly Lopez heads into her first full season of coaching at NDSU, one has to look at the journey she has had. From Glyndon to Fargo to Boise and now back to Fargo, she has never let the Red River Valley out of her sight. It certainly is her forever home, no matter where she may end up next.
Be sure to look for the print edition of our special Alumni issue on magazine stands or in your mailbox later this month.