For Jennie Webber Heilman and her Sequim High varsity volleyball team, their collective hope of vying for a state title is a dream deferred, but only for a few months.
The COVID outbreak thwarted SHS’s run at postseason glory for the 2020-2021 season, so Sequim had to settle for a regional win over 3A Central Kitsap in May.
“I’m sure we would have made it (to state),” said Webber Heilman last week. “But there wasn’t any place to go.”
With most of that team intact this fall, Sequim rallied for a second place finish in the Olympic League, a sixth-place finish at districts and another state tourney berth — Webber Heilman’s 10th since she took the helm as head coach in 1993.
Since then, the longest-tenured varsity coach at SHS has established the Wolves as a perennial challenger for league titles and a tough team to side-out. In her 29 seasons, the Wolves have finished below .500 just once — the 2019 season — and has pushed into the postseason at least 25 times.
Her key to success? The way former assistant Becky Stanton sees it, it’s all in the planning.
“She is a master at picking apart the other team’s weaknesses and exploiting those things; it’s one of the best things I’ve learned from her in coaching,” Stanton said.
“Where they’re out of position of defense or offense or not getting a block up … you name it, she’s got it. (It’s) masterful.”
A Port Angles High graduate, Webber Heilman was helping out as a volunteer coach at PAHS and had helped a bit at Crescent when a position came open to lead the Roughriders in the early 1990s. But she didn’t get the job, she recalled, because they were seeking a coach who would also be a teacher.
Instead, she recalled, a fellow player in a Port Angeles city league named Mike Hanson — who was head coach of the Sequim Wolves at the time — asked her to consider coaching Sequim’s junior varsity crew.
That led to a conversation with the Sequim High athletic director Rick Kaps, Webber Heilman said.
“It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a teacher,” she recalled. “He said, ‘Just try it for one year.’
“It stuck, I guess.”
It stuck, indeed, with state tourney-qualifying teams in 1997, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016 and this year, plus other strong squads — an undefeated team (regular season) in 1996 and a 15-2 team in 2001 among them — building her resume.
Since 2000, the Wolves as a program are 280-130, including district and state tournaments and non-league matches. Perhaps as impressive, Sequim posted the strong record for years without the advantage some schools in more crowded urban centers have: club and select/travel teams. Sequim has had some such clubs off and on, but most years Sequim athletes have to travel at least an hour to the Bremerton area or across the Puget Sound to practice and play with what works out to be essentially all-star teams, giving up time with the high school team or missing out on playing another school sport.
Webber Heilman said she’s had a lot of help along the way, including assistants such as Stanton and current assistant Rachel Oden, as well as athletic directors. (Along the way, she’s worked with four ADs: Kaps, Mark Textor, Chris Olson and current AD Dave Ditlefsen.)
“It helps when you feel your AD will back you when you have problems,” she said.
Webber Heilman said she’d stick with the position “as long as it’s fun” — and while there have been some seasons that were a bit of a struggle to be “fun,” it’s been a mostly positive ride.
Now she’s seeing the children and nieces of former players suiting up for the Wolves.
Stanton joined Webber Heilman’s staff in 1995 but had a history with the coach dating back years.
“She played softball against my mom … I’ve known her for a very long time,” Stanton said.
She said Webber Heilman’s drive to win on a personal level — volleyball, softball, badminton — comes through in her coaching.
“She’s ultra competitive in such a great way; she likes to win but not at the expense of people,” Stanton said.
The Sequim head coach seems to earn wins on the court by fueling her team with strong bonds off the court, Stanton said. From doing special tie-dyed T-shirts to posting volleyball-shaped posters on the gym walls with players’ names, Webber Heilman makes sure her player are having fun.
“She really builds her team with connections and relationship,” said Shannon Green, who played for Webber Heilman in the mid to late-1990s.
“She really wanted to be your friend (but) she could keep that coach level,” Green, a setter, recalled.
“I had so much fun. She let us be silly and crazy … but then, when it was time to get serious, it was time to get serious.”
Practices were long and intense, Green said.
“She was totally dedicated and put a lot of time in,” she said of Webber Heilman.
Even if the Wolves aren’t winning on the court, Stanton said Webber Heilman has a way of motivating them to play their best.
“She’ll have them focus on a specific spot or goal; even if they’re down 2-0, she’ll say, ‘We want to get 90 percent serves or three perfect passes or three attacks’,” Stanton said. “She’s good at re-framing their perspective … and having little victories.”
Both of Stanton’s daughters — all-Olympic League setters Taylor and Sydney Balkan — donned the purple and gold and played at state.
“They loved that relational piece, the time she gave to kids,” Stanton said of the SHS head coach. “As a parent I always appreciated that about her.”
Sequim’s best finish under Webber Heilman may have come in 2002, when the Wolves went 14-0, won a district play-in game, took third at districts and finished eighth at state; they were 20-5 overall.
Stanton recalled that the Wolves had 10 seniors on that team.
“It was so hard to get everyone in (to play); they all deserved to get in,” she said.
A number of former players have also become coaches, including Jennifer Reynolds (Port Angeles), Jacquie Smith (Blaine) and Shane Schramling (Bainbridge).
Green now coaches Sequim’s eighth-graders, helping boost a high school program that she played for 20-plus years ago, for a coach she played for.
“When I moved back to Sequim, I thought, ‘I can’t believe Jennie is still coaching,’” Green said.
“You don’t find that (longevity) with coaches. I don’t know how she does it.”