Okemos 'Wall' Stands Tall as Chiefs Climb

September 15, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

OKEMOS – Daria Richards and Rachel Thomas always are partners when Okemos’ volleyball team lines up for drills, and always on opposite teams when the Chiefs split up to scrimmage.

Who better to match up than a pair of 6-foot-2 hitters who tower above their teammates and rise above the net with ease – and don’t mind giving each other a little verbal spike to keep things light?

During a blocking drill last week, they “got feisty with each other,” as Thomas put it – nothing serious, just a few “are you going to get that next times” after smashes found the floor, and Richards teasingly complimenting Thomas’ diving skill after the latter’s lunge came up empty.  

“I think we push each other. We mess with each other, as in I’ll give her grief for something and then she’ll do it right back at me,” Richards said. “We’re joking, but at the same time, it’s like, I’m not going to mess up again.”

“I think we have similar personalities too, like (with making) sarcastic comments,” Thomas added. “We’re kinda quiet at first. But once you get to know us, we’re not.”

A growing number of teams all over the Lower Peninsula are getting to know Okemos volleyball again this fall – thanks to the noise Thomas and Richards are making at the net.

The Chiefs have opened 13-5 heading into this weekend’s Portage Northern Invitational, the latest on a tournament schedule that’s stretched nearly from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron and included opponents from Traverse City to just north of the Ohio border.

Richards and Thomas are two of only four seniors on the team, but also young enough to know nothing about the last time their program made a serious run in Class A – in 2002-03, when assistant coach Allison Ianni was the setter and they were starting elementary school.

Okemos made its second straight MHSAA Quarterfinal appearance that season, and only three Lansing-area schools have advanced that far (and no farther) in Class A since – which hasn’t done much to steer statewide volleyball eyes away from the usual powerhouses in Battle Creek and suburban Grand Rapids and Detroit.

But this Chiefs duo isn’t a secret, at least not to possible tournament opponents, having played offseason ball with players from Class A runner-up Lake Orion and champion Romeo, including Miss Volleyball favorite Gia Milana.

Richards, playing in the middle, had 93 kills with a hitting percentage of .422 heading into Wednesday’s match against Jackson, and also averages 1.5 blocks per game. Thomas, from the right side after playing middle as a junior, hits at a .397 clip and averages 1.1 blocks, and may be the team’s top passer as well.

Both Richards and Thomas made headlines over the last year with future commitments – Richards will sign a letter of intent to play at Baylor University and Thomas will sign with Tennessee Tech.

But the common ground goes past witty comments and athletic prowess – and at least a few details likely contribute to their cohesiveness in leading the Okemos attack.  

They both used to play the violin, both taking it up in fifth grade. They spend a lot of time in the same classes, many of the toughest ones at a strong academic school, and with grades to show – Richards has a 3.9 grade-point average and Thomas comes in at 3.5.

They both have one sibling, although Thomas has a brother and Richards a sister. And though they run in different circles they are close friends on their own – although they didn’t really know each other until meeting on the volleyball court during eighth grade.

Richards was destined to play this game, following her older sister of two years Jessica, who started for the Chieftains through graduation – and with whom Daria already was competing with as a sixth grader, trying to match accomplishments in volleyball and high jump.

Thomas took just a bit longer to find her niche. She played basketball as a seventh grader, when varsity coach Jamie Ianni – who taught both girls in junior high physical education class (and also is Allison’s mom) – told Thomas’ mother that Rachel should play volleyball too. She gave it a try that winter, and it became her favorite sport.  

Both started on varsity as sophomores, and the coach knew she had something special in the making.  

“I don’t really look forward to anybody’s senior year, because it’s like, ‘Oh, I love these kids,’” Ianni said. “But they’re very special, the two together, (or) separate. They’re like twins. They wear the same thing. The same things come out of their mouths … much like a sister or a twin.”

And they’ve both learned plenty of lessons over the last two seasons they expect to pay off when tournament time begins.

Okemos finished a respectable 23-13-1 last season and second in the Capital Area Activities Conference Blue before losing in the MHSAA District Semifinal to Class A honorable mention DeWitt.

But outside of mid-Michigan, few had taken note of the Chiefs’ potential.

“Last year, people didn’t know,” Thomas said. “They were like, ‘Oh, they’re huge. Good for them.’”

But this fall has been different from the start. Thomas made her college decision at the end of last fall and Richards followed with hers at the end of winter, and word was getting around that the Chiefs had two Division I college hitters as they took the floor Aug. 22 at the Ann Arbor Pioneer Invitational.   

Richards admits that rising profile has brought out the best in some opponents. But it’s also been rewarding to recall how far the pair has come since playing junior varsity together as freshmen, and they both are quick to point out the other’s strengths:

Richards on Thomas: “She’s just a good all-around player. You can always count on her. She’s going to make her serve, she’s going to pass well, she’s going to make the most of out-of-tempo balls. She’s always keeping her cool; even if she missed 15 balls, you’d never know it. She’s still going to be ready for the next one.

Thomas on Richards: “She’s good at either getting a kill when it’s needed or a block for a game changer, to change the momentum. She’s always positive, and she encourages others. She has a positive vibe, so it’s easy to play with her.”

Added Ianni: “We use them both all the way around. They’re weapons on the court. It’s hard to pull them off.”

When Okemos won that last MHSAA Regional title in 2003, Allison Ianni (who went on to play at University of Pacific and Michigan State) set for a pair of future college hitters. She and teammate Amanda Amon, both 6-2 as well, were coined by another coach as the “Great Wall of Okemos.”

The wall appears rebuilt in Thomas and Richards, who despite their bright futures are focused on the now and turning some of that spotlight back toward the center of the state.

“I love it when there’s a big crowd. We do a lot better when there are people watching. Not to show off in front of them, but it’s exciting when you have people cheering you on,” Richards said.

“I think we could easily make a name for ourselves by beating one of those big schools. It’s always better to be the underdog because you have nothing to lose. That’s always cool when you play those teams, because nobody knows (you), like ‘Hey, who is this team? Where are they from?’”

Geoff Kimmerly joined the MHSAA as its Media & Content Coordinator in Sept. 2011 after 12 years as Prep Sports Editor of the Lansing State Journal. He has served as Editor of Second Half since its creation in Jan. 2012. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Barry, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Gratiot, Isabella, Clare and Montcalm counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Okemos' Daria Richards, left, and teammates including Rachel Thomas (10) enjoy a moment during last week's match against Lansing Eastern. (Middle) Richards and Thomas put up a block against the Quakers. (Below) Thomas exchanges congrats. (Photos courtesy of Alan Holben Photography.)

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

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com 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.