By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Leasa Griffith was introduced to Bronson’s Jean LaClair while officiating one of LaClair’s volleyball tournaments.
She received further insight into LaClair’s care for her athletes when, a few years later, LaClair asked Griffith to serve as a Legacy Official mentor to a Bronson player.
With LaClair leading as athletic director, Bronson moved this school year into the first-year Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference. So did Mendon – where Griffith is co-athletic director – and that’s given her another opportunity to appreciate LaClair’s mentorship firsthand.
“I look to Jean whenever I have a question, or even if I just want to run an idea past someone. She is always readily available and gives me great advice,” Griffith said. “I honestly cannot think of another person who deserves to be recognized by the MHSAA for a ‘Women in Sports Leadership Award’ more than Jean LaClair.”
LaClair will receive the MHSAA’s 28th WISL Award during the Class A Girls Basketball Final on March 21 at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center.
The honor, given annually by the MHSAA Representative Council, recognizes the achievements of women coaches, officials and athletic administrators affiliated with the MHSAA who show exemplary leadership capabilities and positive contributions to athletics.
“I never would’ve thought I’d receive this award,” LaClair said. “I just go out and do my job to the best of my ability every day. The people before me have done magnificent things. I’m just doing the daily grind of my job.”
She downplays as well the numbers that come with her reputation as an elite coach. LaClair is best known for leading high-achieving athletes for more than two decades as one of the winningest varsity volleyball coaches in MHSAA history.
Her accomplishments speak volumes on their own.
She has built a career record of 958-327-85 over 21 seasons as a varsity volleyball coach at Midland Dow, Pinconning, and for the last 15 seasons Bronson High School. She ranks 10th on the MHSAA career victory list for volleyball coaching wins and led her 2009 Bronson team to the Class C championship.
She also has served as Bronson’s athletic director since fall 2000 and hosted a variety of MHSAA tournament events in addition to sitting on a number of MHSAA and Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association committees. LaClair was a speaker at MHSAA Women in Sports Leadership conferences in 2006 and 2008 and also has been a registered MHSAA official for 14 years.
“Jean LaClair is a role model for her athletes, and also for administrators who look to her for expertise and mentorship,” said John E. “Jack” Roberts, executive director of the MHSAA. “She is a respected voice who offers valuable knowledge and guidance to those at every level of educational athletics. We’re delighted to honor her with the Women In Sports Leadership Award.”
LaClair is a 1984 graduate of Midland Dow High School and 1989 graduate for Saginaw Valley State University, and she also earned a Master’s in sports administration from Central Michigan University. She began her varsity coaching career at Dow during the 1987-88 season and coached through 1990. She led Pinconning’s varsity from 1996-97 through 1999, then came to Bronson as the athletic director only that fall. She then resumed her coaching career in fall of 2000.
In addition to the 2009 MHSAA title, her teams have won five Regional championships. Her 1997-98 Pinconning team finished Class B runner-up.
LaClair is a member of both the MIAAA and National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, and served as MIVCA president for six years, vice president for three and as a board member for 13 years. She also served a term as president of the St. Joseph Valley League and as an instructor for the MHSAA’s Coaches Advancement Program.
“I love coaching. It’s the time I get to deal with some good kids. We have a great summer, and it feeds into the fall,” LaClair said. “I feel when kids leave my program, they could be coaches. I do try to get them in involved in officiating as well.”
LaClair was inducted into the Michigan Interscholastic Volleyball Coaches Hall of Fame in 2006 and was named that body’s Coach of the Year in 2009. She was named Michigan High School Coaches Association volleyball Coach of the Year in 2010 and was a National High School Athletic Coaches Association volleyball Coach of the Year finalist in 2011. She also was named a Regional Athletic Director of the Year by the MIAAA in 2009.
She previously taught mathematics and physical education before becoming a full-time athletic director, and also became as assistant principal at Bronson High School during the 2010-11 school year. She continues to pull off the time-consuming coach-athletic director double in part because of superior organizational skills, but mostly because of supportive administrators who with another game manager help her to make sure everything is covered especially during the volleyball season.
“Jean is a professional in every sense of the word. She has been able to lead seeking not only what is best for Bronson, but what is best for everyone,” said Buchanan athletic director Fred Smith, whose school also is part of the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference. “She is a role model not only for female athletic administrators, but all athletic administrators.”
Past Women In Sports Leadership Award recipients
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
PHOTOS: (Top) Bronson volleyball coach Jean LaClair huddles with her team during a match. (Middle) LaClair, also Bronson's athletic director, sits in on a league and conference meeting at the MHSAA office this winter. (Top photo courtesy of the Coldwater Daily Reporter).
GRANDVILLE – As an incoming freshman, Zoey Dood remembers the euphoria she felt when she found out her older sister had been given the position of head coach of the Grandville volleyball program.
“I was super excited because it was always a dream of mine to have my sister be my coach, and I never thought it would actually happen and it did,” Dood said. “I knew she could make me better right away.”
Almost four years later, that expectation has become a reality.
Now a senior, the 6-foot-2 Dood has developed into one of the top players in the state and was recently named a finalist for this season’s Miss Volleyball Award.
For Dood’s sister, Jessica Vredevoogd, the opportunity to coach her younger sibling was too much to pass up.
“That was a big reason why I stopped playing volleyball overseas, was to come back and try and be a part of Zoey and (younger brother) Jackson’s lives more because I didn’t want to be that older sibling that didn’t exist,” Vredevoogd said. “They grew up not getting to know me as well, so to step into that role as her coach at Grandville was nice because I’ve had the chance to spend more time with her and it has built our relationship even more.”
With a 10-year age gap between them, Dood was a young child when she watched her older sister become a two-time all-state setter at Grandville before enjoying a successful career at Oakland University.
Vredevoogd, 28, who recently married, finished her final season for the Golden Grizzlies in 2016 and became the seventh player in program history to surpass 1,000 career kills.
She played overseas before returning to Grandville.
Dood, 18, saw the path her sister took to reach an elite level and wanted to follow in her footsteps.
“I would not have been as successful as I am today if I didn’t have my sister as my coach because I look up to her and I respect her and all of her accomplishments,” Dood said. “It has motivated me to want to be just like her and have the same accomplishments as she’s had.”
Dood, also a setter, received Division 1 all-state second-team accolades last year with an impressive stat line of 380 assists, 168 digs and 176 kills while leading the Bulldogs to a winning record. She posted a match-high 35 kills against East Kentwood last season during the Ottawa-Kent Conference Red Tournament.
Dood is ranked the state’s top player by Prep Dig, and committed to the University of Virginia last year.
“I’m pumped for her,” Vredevoogd said. “I think she's going to do awesome things there, and I'm just happy that someone else sees her potential. While coaching her the last four years has been fun, I'm excited to see her play and be able to thrive at the college level, too.”
Dood’s vast improvement from her freshman year until now has been impressive.
A strong worth ethic and a desire to reach the highest level have pushed her.
“My freshman year I was horrible, but I've improved exponentially and I know my sister has been a big part of that,” Dood said. “We would go into practice 30 minutes early, and I would practice my setting every single day.
“From freshman to sophomore year was an extreme change already in my development, and from there she has helped me so much and she's helped me with my IQ as well.”
Vredevoogd has seen major changes in her sister’s game and is proud of the progress she’s made.
“It’s her ability to really be intent about what you are saying to her, and then she's able to put it into action,” she said. “She's super coachable, but she’s hard-working, too. She's going to keep trying to do what I’m telling her.
“Freshman to sophomore was a big mental growth for her, and then sophomore to junior year and now her senior year you see the physical growth in her game, too.”
The dynamic between the sisters has been one of mutual respect and navigating the boundaries of a sister/coach relationship.
“I feel it’s different from your average mom and daughter experience,” Vredevoogd said. “It's interesting because she's actually watched me play, so I think she can be coached by me because she respects me a little bit in the sense that she's like, ‘OK, she actually did do what I’m trying to accomplish,’ but we do have our sister moments where there is more sass behind the tone. It’s like, do you want a coach's opinion or do you want a sister's opinion?”
Said Dood: “There are times when she says, ’I’m your coach so you need to treat me as a coach,’ and other times when I'm playing club and she’s my sister and now I can talk to her. Points where I can talk to her about certain things and points when I’m not technically allowed to where I approach her as a coach or just act like she's my coach and not my sister.”
Dood was an accomplished basketball player in middle school, but hasn’t played in high school due to her volleyball aspirations.
“My parents kept going back and forth about it and we just didn’t know if I would have time for that,” Dood said. “I couldn't fully commit to that, and I also knew that I wanted to play Division I volleyball in a Power 5 (conference) and be one of the top volleyball players in the country – so I knew I had to give that up to be able to do that.”
Dood will graduate early to get a jump start at Virginia.
“It was a very tough decision because I didn’t know if I wanted to miss out on my senior year, and I thought I would miss out on big senior events – and then I found out I wouldn’t,” Dood said. “What really sold me on it was my major (education), and they told me that I could get my master's degree in four and a half years if I graduated early. And I’ll have that extra semester, so my coach can develop me in the way she wants me to.”
As a team, the Bulldogs are striving to gain respectability in a difficult O-K Red.
They recently finished second at the Traverse City Invitational and lost a thrilling five-set match to Division 1 honorable mention Jenison to open conference play.
“I think Grandville volleyball always gets overlooked because we’ve always been the underdogs, but their drive to work hard is going to help us get more unexpected wins than anticipated,” Vredevoogd said. “And with Zoey being an offensive threat for us in the front row and being able to get a touch on every rally because she is a setter, I think that only helps us. She is one of our top scorers, and if we’re not able to use her then we have a hard time winning.”
Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Grandville's Zoey Dood is a recently-announced Miss Volleyball Award finalist this season. (Middle) Dood sets for the Bulldogs as a junior. (Top photo by Tully Chapman; middle photo courtesy of the Grandville volleyball program.)