Coach Inspires 'Attack' as Team Surges On

November 3, 2016

By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half

When the going gets tough for the Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central volleyball team, all the players have to do is look over to the bench to see a symbol of strength and courage and the will to fight and never give up.

Second-year head coach Karen O'Brien is battling ovarian cancer for the second time in less than two years. She first was diagnosed in February of 2015. The disease went into remission that summer, and she was declared cancer-free – but it returned this summer. She completed her six rounds of chemotherapy treatments last week, which turned out to be good timing with the District tournament beginning for her team Tuesday.

“I'm getting there,” she said. “I still have my tired days.”

St. Mary Catholic Central entered the tournament ranked No. 1 in the Class C state poll, and it is led by senior hitters Merina Poupard and Leah Ritchie and junior setter Lauren Kemmerling.

The Kestrels have won five MHSAA championships since 2003, and the last three came in the past three even-numbered years (2010, 2012, 2014). That is a good sign for 2016, and good omens are welcome – but not taken as anything that is a given.

“We're going to take one day at a time,” O'Brien said. “That is what the cancer has also taught me. One day at a time. It doesn't matter where you are ranked in September or October; it's where you are November 19th.”

Initial diagnosis

St. Mary Catholic Central won all five of its MHSAA titles under coach Diane Tuller, who retired after the 2014 season. O'Brien, an assistant in 2014, took over as head coach in 2015 and praised Tuller for making it a smooth transition.

“I'm very grateful to Diane Tuller for giving me the opportunity to be her assistant in 2014 and showing me the ropes of the Huron League and also of the state tournament,” O'Brien said. “Winning the state title in her last year and her allowing me to continue the tradition that she has started there has been amazing.”

It also has been challenging because of the news she received in February of 2015. But after being declared cancer-free that summer, she had hopes of a smoother 2016. It didn't happen, and the return of the cancer made O'Brien reflect on exactly what she wanted to do and not do.

“When I was diagnosed in July, I sat down with my husband and said, ‘OK, option one is to stop coaching. Option two is to find somebody that wants to take over as head coach, and I would be the assistant. Option three is stay the head coach and find somebody that wants to be my assistant.’

“I really felt option 3 was the best for me so that I had something to look forward to.”

O'Brien turned to junior varsity head coach Lindsay Notario to be a co-coach. It was a fine match as Notario had been the JV coach for several years and knew the players well.

“I was nervous,” Notario said. “I had never been on varsity before, but I knew she wouldn't just leave me hanging. She hasn't missed too much time, and she has really been there for most of the season, so it's been nice that she hasn't missed out on a whole lot.

“Her mind is always on the team. When she does miss, she will call and give me this idea or that idea or a lineup we can work on. She is always coaching me through it, too.”

O'Brien then had to explain the changes to her players.

“I had told them this summer that we were making some coaching changes,” she said. “Lindsay was familiar with the JV kids who would then be on varsity, and I pretty much told them, 'My cancer is back, and I have to go through six rounds of treatment.

“I'll have my good days and bad days, and I will miss some days, but I'll be here all the time that I can.”

O'Brien has been involved in volleyball and sports in general for more than 30 years. She has a full and impressive resume. She is a 1981 graduate of Livonia Stevenson High School and was the first female athlete in school history to earn nine varsity letters (volleyball, basketball and track), and she was first-team all-state in volleyball in 1981.

In college, O'Brien played at Schoolcraft Community College before moving on to the University of Georgia, where she made the all-Southeastern Conference team in 1983 and 1984. She has been head coach at Dundee High School, the University of Toledo and Siena Heights University, and she was an assistant at Eastern Michigan University before coming to St. Mary Catholic Central.

She also is a businesswoman. She owns two Subway stores, one in Dundee and the other in Monroe. All of that has helped give her an escape from her daily battle with ovarian cancer, and her background in athletics has given her a fighting attitude when faced with adversity.

“I think as an athlete, some adversity hits you and you right away go into warrior mode to do whatever it takes to survive and get through this,” she said. “Being an athlete, you are more organized, which definitely helps also.”

Fighting back with Teal Attack

As if keeping a positive attitude and enduring the energy-sapping treatments wasn't enough, O'Brien launched an all-out assault on ovarian cancer. Teal is the official color of ovarian cancer awareness, and she started a “teal attack” in the region.

“After my first round of chemo in 2015, it was like, 'OK, what can I do?'” she said. “I knew one person with ovarian cancer.

“I didn't know the signs and symptoms and didn't know what to look for. I was not well-educated, and I wanted to use athletics as a way to bring awareness and raise funds for ovarian cancer, so teal attack started. Basically in 14 months we've raised about $80,000 at sporting events.”

In that time, more than 40 sporting events have been teal attack games, where T-shirts are worn and sold, donations are accepted and the word is spread about the signs and symptoms. Spreading the word is just as important as the funds to O'Brien.

“Everybody thinks that ovarian cancer is an old lady's disease, and it's not,” said O'Brien, who, at 53, is far from an old lady. Neither was 8-year-old Mariel Almendras of Ann Arbor, who at age 5 was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2008 and died three years later. 

“It's just about educating, and I have become much more educated in the last year and a half,” O’Brien said. “It is what teal attack is all about, teaching women about the symptoms.

“The outpouring just in Monroe County has been unbelievable. Monroe High School, Bedford, Ida, we had a huge golf outing in Dundee that raised $15,000 on its own.”

As co-coach, Notario has seen a lot of teal attack up close.

“Teal attack has been amazing,” she said. “She alone brought awareness to the whole county of Monroe, and at every game she is always going over and talking to coaches and trying to spread awareness.

“Every day of September, she would wear something teal as it was ovarian cancer awareness month. People would mention that they liked the color of her shirt, and she would say it was about ovarian cancer awareness and make them aware.”

O'Brien teamed with the Michigan Ovarian Cancer Alliance (MIOCA), and there is a link to all the teal attack events on the web page – – along with a way to donate. Her dedication to the fight against ovarian cancer while fighting it herself has impressed many around her.

“It has been phenomenal,” said Chad Myers, athletic director and dean of students at St. Mary Catholic Central. “Her thing is to try to make more awareness about it and do the best that she can possibly do.

“On top of that, she has so much passion for teaching these girls and teaching volleyball. When you think you are having a bad day and then you go into the gym and see her pushing the girls and giving it everything that she has, (it) puts things in perspective. The girls are very excited to see her come back and coach.”

The next step

With the conclusion of the treatments, O'Brien can focus on St. Mary Catholic Central's drive for its sixth championship. But she doesn't want any “Win one for Coach” attitudes.

“They see me on my good days, and I think part of the way through the season they wanted to play for me, and I told them they need to play for themselves,” she said.

St. Mary Catholic Central opened the District tournament Tuesday with a three-set victory over Britton-Deerfield. The Kestrels downed Blissfield in a Semifinal on Thursday and will face host Ottawa Lake Whiteford at 10 a.m. Saturday for the District title.

“The cool thing about the team is that we don't have a go-to hitter this year; we have a bunch of really talented girls,” Notario said. “No matter who is up there, we don't have to worry about the ball getting to a specific person.”

Notario said the girls text her occasionally with questions about how O'Brien is doing, but for the most part it is not a common topic.

“Karen is kind of a private person, and I did not want to overstep any boundaries,” Notario said. “She talked to them when she felt the need to talk to them, but every now and then I'll get a text asking if she is doing OK. I do have little talks with them when she's not around to make sure they are taking care of their health.”

As far as O'Brien is concerned, the players and their families have given her a lot of support.

“I truly believe in faith, family and friends, and I've had the support of all three really since February of my first diagnosis,” she said. “The community and the school have all been very supportive.

“My volleyball parents bring me and my family meals during my first couple of days of chemo. I have a son who is 16 and plays football and now is going into basketball, and my husband coaches football and now will go into coaching basketball, and those meals have been awesome.

“I have lots of good people around who support and help me. It's been such a help.”

If O'Brien and the Kestrels win the Class C championship in two weeks, it would cap an incredible inspirational story. But she isn't ready to look that far into the future – although she does want to continue to spearhead teal attack.

“I believe I'm headed in the right direction, just finishing up the chemo,” she said. “I am glad the second chapter is done.

“I look at teal attack as something that I really want to promote throughout the state. We've had matches in North Branch and Berrien Springs, and I would really, really like to get a lot more in the state of Michigan going.

“It's not all about raising money; it's about raising awareness.”

Chip Mundy served as sports editor at the Brooklyn Exponent and Albion Recorder from 1980-86, and then as a reporter and later copy editor at the Jackson Citizen-Patriot from 1986-2011. He also co-authored Michigan Sports Trivia. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Karen O’Brien and her husband Dan are all smiles after her last chemotherapy treatment last month. (Middle) Senior Merina Poupard puts up a block during a match this season. (Below) Poupard (middle) celebrates the point with teammates including Abby Jackson (2) and Lauren Kemmerling (11). (Match photos courtesy of Kortney Poupard).

2023 WISL Award Honoree Glass Continuing to Create Leaders On Court & Off

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

March 2, 2023

Hailing from one of Michigan’s smallest communities, Laurie Glass has made an impact that continues to connect all over Michigan.

But her impact on women’s athletics began long before a career that has seen the longtime Leland volleyball coach become one of the winningest in her sport in state history.

As a high school junior in 1976, she recruited seven classmates and a coach to form Leland’s first girls sports team – for basketball – and the same group then played volleyball that winter. She was a senior and major contributor when, during their second season, the Comets won the 1978 Class D volleyball championship.

More than four decades later, Glass is a Michigan legend in that sport – a winner of 1,218 matches with Leland and Traverse City Central and three Finals championships with the Comets. She’s also a nationally-recognized voice in volleyball and women’s athletics as a whole – and this year’s MHSAA Women in Sports Leadership honoree for those many and continuing contributions.

“Because I’m a teacher and coach, that’s my desire to help the youth be the best they could be. And if I can impact a coach or impact another district or program, that means I’m affecting more youth in a positive way,” Glass said. “So for me, it’s just the ripple effect; it gets a lot bigger when I’m starting little drops in other places. So I can affect the hundreds of kids that I’ve seen go through Leland, or I can impact the larger audience by impacting coaches or impacting kids in other places that can then impact other people. It allows me a wider audience for wanting to help young women to be their best young woman self in however way I can make that happen.”

Each year, the Representative Council considers the achievements of women coaches, officials and athletic administrators affiliated with the MHSAA who show exemplary leadership capabilities and positive contributions to athletics.

Leland finished 49-13 this past season and reached the Division 4 Quarterfinals. Glass has a record of 1,218-393-122 over more than three decades as a varsity volleyball coach, having led the Comets for a combined 29 seasons over three tenures, the first beginning with the 1989-90 winter season and later picking up with her most recent return for Fall 2010. She also coached Traverse City Central for four seasons beginning in 1991-92.

Glass passes the championship trophy to her team after the Comets won the 2015 Class D title.Glass led Leland to Class D Finals championships in 2002, 2006 and 2015, and runner-up finishes in Class D in 2014 and Division 4 in 2018 and 2019. She was named to the Michigan Interscholastic Volleyball Coaches Association (MIVCA) Hall of Fame in 2006, and selected as national Coach of the Year in volleyball in 2014 by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Coaches Association. She’s a three-time MIVCA Coach of the Year and was named Michigan High School Coaches Association (MHSCA) Coach of the Year for volleyball in 2015. She also was a finalist for National High School Athletic Coaches Association (NHSACA) national Coach of the Year in 2014. 

Glass has spoken multiple times at the MHSAA Women In Sports Leadership Conference and several times at the MIVCA Coaches Clinic, and among various other engagements was the featured speaker at the Nebraska Athletic Association Coaches Clinic. She will receive the Women In Sports Leadership Award during the MHSAA Division 1 Girls Basketball Final on March 18 at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center.

“Laurie Glass is recognized most on the statewide level for leading one of the most successful volleyball programs in state history. But she is known among her peers most for the way she teaches not only volleyball but life skills to her athletes,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “Her leadership creates more leaders, be they the athletes who have the opportunity to play for her or the coaches who learn from her and receive her mentorship.”   

Glass’ roots are in one of the most accomplished athletic families in Michigan high school history.

Her father Larry Glass coached Northwestern University’s men’s basketball program from 1963-69, and later took over the Leland girls basketball program and led the Comets to a 388-110 record and three straight Class D Finals championships (1980-82) over two tenures from 1977-91 and 2000-05. Laurie’s sister Rebecca McKee played basketball at Leland and Michigan State University, and her brother Michael Glass played basketball at Lansing Community College before also becoming a high school and college coach.

Laurie also coached and parented arguably the most accomplished volleyball player – and perhaps top female athlete across all sports – in Michigan high school history. Her daughter Alisha Glass-Childress graduated from Leland in 2006 with national records for career kills, aces and blocks, and the first two still top those respective lists. Alisha, also an all-state basketball player, went on to star on the volleyball court at Penn State and as the U.S. Olympic team setter in 2016 in helping that team to the bronze medal.

Larry Glass’ lessons still ring true as Laurie passes them on to another generation. One of her favorite sayings from her father was “you can’t take money out of the bank until you put money in” – in essence, a coach can’t expect athletes to accept criticism or a hard ask if that coach first hasn’t invested in them. Another of her dad’s themes involved making sure players learned fundamentals at young ages and improved on them at all levels, whether they won games or not during those early years. As one of his middle school coaches, that stuck with her, and it remains a basic component of her coaching.

“I’ve always said that we compete with teams that are way more athletic, have all the things on paper that should beat us. And the fact that we know how to be a really good team is what allows us to beat people who on paper should be better than us,” Laurie Glass said. “I’ve always valued the time spent on culture and team because that’s the advantage we hold. We’re never going to be the tallest or most talented – Alisha being the anomaly, of course.”

Laurie Glass has served on the MIVCA Executive Board, including as president, and is a member of the MHSCA and American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA). Locally, her program annually hosts the Forever Dig Abby match in honor of former player Abby Gross, who died after a fight against cancer in 2015. Proceeds most years go to benefit another community member battling the disease, and this past season went to a fund for efforts related to ovarian cancer.  

Glass has served nearly 35 years in education and retired from her duties as a behavior intervention specialist and special education teacher in the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District in 2019. She has returned to the school setting, however, and is in her second year as a behavior intervention specialist at Leland.

Glass earned a bachelor’s degree in special education with an endorsement in emotional impairment from Western Michigan University in 1988, and has done master-level coursework in education administration and technology. She also is a certified instructor for the Crisis Prevention Institute. Glass first attended Grand Valley State University and played a season of volleyball before transferring. (NOTE: Glass also coached the Kalamazoo Central varsity for two seasons during the mid-1980s. Those records are unavailable currently but will be added to her overall record when research is complete.)

Past Women In Sports Leadership Award Winners

1990 – Carol Seavoy, L’Anse 
1991 – Diane Laffey, Harper Woods
1992 – Patricia Ashby, Scotts
1993 – Jo Lake, Grosse Pointe
1994 – Brenda Gatlin, Detroit
1995 – Jane Bennett, Ann Arbor
1996 – Cheryl Amos-Helmicki, Huntington Woods
1997 – Delores L. Elswick, Detroit
1998 – Karen S. Leinaar, Delton
1999 – Kathy McGee, Flint 
2000 – Pat Richardson, Grass Lake
2001 – Suzanne Martin, East Lansing
2002 – Susan Barthold, Kentwood
2003 – Nancy Clark, Flint
2004 – Kathy Vruggink Westdorp, Grand Rapids 
2005 – Barbara Redding, Capac
2006 – Melanie Miller, Lansing
2007 – Jan Sander, Warren Woods
2008 – Jane Bos, Grand Rapids
2009 – Gail Ganakas, Flint; Deb VanKuiken, Holly
2010 – Gina Mazzolini, Lansing
2011 – Ellen Pugh, West Branch; Patti Tibaldi, Traverse City
2012 – Janet Gillette, Comstock Park
2013 – Barbara Beckett, Traverse City
2014 – Teri Reyburn, DeWitt
2015 – Jean LaClair, Bronson
2016 – Betty Wroubel, Pontiac
2017 – Dottie Davis, Ann Arbor
2018 – Meg Seng, Ann Arbor
2019 – Kris Isom, Adrian
2020 – Nikki Norris, East Lansing
2021 – Dorene Ingalls, St. Ignace
2022 – Lori Hyman, Livonia

PHOTOS (Top) Leland coach Laurie Glass confers with one of her players during the 2019 Division 4 Final at Kellogg Arena. (Middle) Glass passes the championship trophy to her team after the Comets won the 2015 Class D title.