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Coach of the Year: Expecting success – Volleyball coach leads team back to region finals, carrying twins

By Richard Greene | Published Saturday, July 2, 2016
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Claire Gay

Claire, Riggins and Emme Gay. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty

For two straight seasons, the Decatur Lady Eagles reigned over their classification in volleyball.

But after celebrating their second state crown, the Lady Eagles graduated two-thirds of their starting rotation, leaving questions of how a new group would compete.

For their coach, Claire Gay there was no question or any less expectations.

“Not many people had high hopes for us,” Gay said. “We heard a lot of ‘you lost four really good players and what are you going to do now?” She told her seniors, “Let’s prove everyone wrong.”

While trying to lead the Lady Eagles back into title contention, Gay and her husband, Nicholas, were building a family. Carrying twins, the veteran coach kept the same expectations of herself – excellence.

“It was tough on my body. It was tough being exhausted,” Gay recalled. “But this was my job and those girls needed me just as much as these babies needed me.”

Gay and the Lady Eagles figured it out, winning a seventh straight district title, running their league winning streak to 64 matches and making it to a fourth straight region final before the remarkable ride ended.

For guiding the Lady Eagles to the Class 4A Region I final, Gay earned the Wise County Coach of the Year for a third time.

“It was a whirlwind. There were days easier than others,” Gay said. “There were tough days; but overall I don’t feel being pregnant affected my ability to coach. With all the distractions that could have been there, the girls were excellent at not letting the talk of the previous years, my situation really affect them.”

Honored with the award, she was quick to also give credit to her coaching staff, including Brandy Mayfield and Lorna Franke.

“My coaching staff was amazing this year. Brandy and Lorna need just as much credit as I do because they had to put up with me and remind me that I was pregnant,” Gay said.

Entering the season, Gay made contingency plans for Mayfield to coach if she needed to step aside.

Her focus when August arrived was building the confidence of a young team returning two players that were on the court for the final point – libero Maclaine Lowery and middle blocker Emily Oxford.

Decatur was breaking in two new setters to run their offense with new hitters on the outside, including former starting middle Dylana Hutchins.

Gay immediately saw a hunger in the team.

“I think that obviously they wanted to withhold tradition, excel and create a new dynamic and new look to what our team was supposed to be this year. They bought in,” Gay said.

Lowery and Oxford saw little change in what her coach expected.

“Her expectations were just as high. Her mindset didn’t change at all,” she said. “She still expected the most out of us.”

“She pushed us even more and let us know it would be OK,” Oxford added.

That included playing a tough preseason just as the prior title team had. The Lady Eagles went to three 5A/6A tournaments and played large schools almost exclusively for the first month-and-a-half of the season.

The Lady Eagles took their lumps during the stretch, starting the season 14-16.

“It was a tough preseason. I didn’t make it easy on them,” Gay said. “I needed to challenge them and by setting the schedule we did, it ensured them that I trusted their ability.

“I didn’t want to back away from a tough schedule. That’s the easy way out.”

She kept telling her team the challenges would pay off and the early-season wins and losses meant less than how they were playing. The message resonated with her team.

But there was one more painful lesson for the team in Abilene just before district. Decatur held a 14-9 lead in the fifth set on rival Abilene Wylie. Decatur couldn’t hold on, falling 16-14 in the final set and losing the match.

“We lost in five. It was a tough atmosphere – two and-a-half hours from home against a team that’s in our region,” Gay said. “It was the first time we were going to play a team we needed to see if we could beat or not down the road. That was a big turning point for us just emotionally. It helped build character in the girls.”

Four days later, Decatur pushed the eventual state champions, Argyle, to four sets in a tightly contested match.

“After [the Wylie] match, they realized, if we just play who we are and play the type of volleyball we need to play to win, then it’s going to work out,” Gay said.

Decatur rolled through 8-4A without dropping a set. The Lady Eagles then beat Alvarado and Graham in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

As the season went along, Gay dealt with the strain of carrying twins, but tried to coach the same as always.

“During the match, you start coaching and kinda forget about it,” Gay said. “You try to put that aside.”

She said her players handled it well, asking questions in practice.

“The girls loved the journey. They felt they were a part of it,” she said.

Mayfield and Franke had to stop Gay from climbing up boxes and hitting the balls to the girls, reminding her she was pregnant.

“She kept as close to the same routine as she could,” Mayfield said.

“With the girls seeing her completely sold out in her condition, it pushed them to do better.”

The Lady Eagles found themselves in a rematch with Abilene Wylie in the region quarterfinal. Unlike their first meeting, Decatur dominated the match, winning in three games to earn a trip to their fourth region tournament.

While her team celebrated, Gay shed tears on the bench.

Unbeknown to her team, she had been scheduled to have labor induced four days later. Because of a medical condition, doctors had to induce labor at 36 weeks and six days – the day of the region final.

“I knew going into the region quarterfinal against Abilene Wylie that was going to be my last match coaching for that season,” Gay said. “As soon as we won, I sat on the bench and cried. I knew. The girls didn’t figure it out yet. I had to tell them in the locker room what was going on.”

She helped with practice the next two days and then sent them off to Snyder.

“They took it with such grace and maturity. It was awesome. We came in and practiced the next two days and I watched the bus drive away. That was hard,” Gay recalled.

Mayfield led the Lady Eagles onto the court for the region semifinal.

“She had everyone prepared and ready,” Mayfield said.

Gay knew she had the right assistant for the job.

“Brandy stepped in and coached two great matches. She was nervous at the beginning of year,” Gay said. “I kept telling her she was fine, you know this game you’ve watched it, you’re prepared. She’s a much better coach than she gives herself credit for.”

With Gay watching a live-stream of the action and texting Franke on the bench, Decatur rallied to beat Monahans in five games.

The next day, Decatur met top-ranked Bushland with a state berth on the line. The Lady Eagles won the first set before Bushland took the final four games to end Decatur’s reign of 4A.

“I couldn’t have been more proud of this group getting to the point they did,” Gay said. “My expectation was to get to the state tournament. One game shy is not a bad season.”

Gay watched the region final from a hospital room.

“It was quite the entertaining situation for the nurses because my blood pressure would skyrocket,” Gay said. “They’d ask, ‘Are you OK?’ and I’d tell them, ‘No, we’re losing. I’m not OK.”

Gay gave birth to a healthy boy, Riggins, and girl, Emme, a perfect close to a memorable year for her and her team.

The twins are approaching nine months old, and Gay is preparing for another season. She is just three wins shy of 300. Her goal in August will remain the same as always – winning a state title. She will have a couple of new fans this year on the journey.

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