In Rod they trust
By Grant Lucas
From a thin gold chain looped around Rod Jones’ neck dangles a gold No. 7. The man who never played volleyball, other than an advanced class while earning a master’s degree at Portland State, clutches the pendant and raises it to eye level.
Long ago, Jones was an ace baseball pitcher. “My whole life was baseball,” he recalls now. He is enshrined in the sports hall of fame at Western Oregon, where in the late 1960s Jones tossed four no-hitters before blowing his arm out during his senior season.
Looking to further his education, Jones began taking summer classes at Portland State. He enrolled in that volleyball course, led by coach Marlene Piper, who, according to the school’s hall of fame website, is credited with the development of the PSU volleyball program.
“Greatest woman I’ve ever met in my life,” Jones recounts. “Phenomenal athlete. She worked us like we were in the Olympics. I think I puked every day.”
Still, he says, “I just fell in love with the game. It just took off. It fit my personality.”
There is little doubt how significant that No. 7 is to the man grasping it. Since 1978, Jones has coached seven high school state champion volleyball teams in Oregon, the last of which was 20 years ago this season — a comeback, three-set Sisters victory at Eugene’s Lane Community College in front of a large crowd of Outlaws supporters. That Class 3A championship win over Estacada, Jones told The Bulletin in 1996, was one of the best high school matches he had ever seen. Players on that Sisters team were quick to credit Jones.
Heather Dempsey explained to The Bulletin how Sisters boasted a number of strong athletes, but, she added, “he brought something more out of us. … We had a new attitude. We had a lot more confidence.”
Shelly Greene said Jones “prepared us for the state tournament. … He changed our intensity level, and there was more unity with the team.”
As he did 20 years ago, however, Jones, who now has been coaching volleyball for more than 40 years, deflects the praise.
“I’ve just been blessed with a lot of great athletes and kids that want to come because of what we’ve done,” he says. “I don’t flaunt anything. I don’t care about it. It’s not about me. Like I’ve told the kids: ‘There’s nothing that you can give me already that I haven’t received, except respect for one another. You don’t have to love each other all the time, but respect for one another while we’re here, worrying about the game and loving the game like I love the game.’ It’s a family. We’re a family.”
Twenty years after leading Sisters to the school’s first volleyball state championship in his lone year coaching the Outlaws, Jones has returned to Sisters to take over a program that has placed fifth or better at the 4A state tournament in each of the past nine seasons, including three state titles and two runner-up finishes. He was living in the Portland area when, a few months ago, he caught wind of the open coaching position at Sisters. And though he had not coached high school volleyball since 2001, he ran after it.
“I was ready for something. I just like challenges,” Jones says of cutting his retirement short to coach the Outlaws. “My whole philosophy about everything in life is you have a big clock on that wall. You’ve got all those little slashes (minute and hour hash marks). What are you doing with those slashes? How many of those slashes are you wasting?”
Among Oregon high school volleyball coaches, Jones is a legend. He led Marshall of Portland to the AAA state championship in 1978 before guiding Gresham to four straight titles from 1988 to 1991. Another championship at Gresham in 1994 was followed two years later by Sisters’ state crown. Jones, whose daughter, Kaylyn, played at the University of Portland, has also compiled a highly successful volleyball club record, and his reputation preceded him when he returned to Sisters for the 2016 season.
“We knew who he was, and we knew he had coached here before because we have some players on the team whose moms were coached by him when he coached here,” says Emma Houck, a senior captain for the Outlaws this year. “We had an idea of who he was, but none of us really KNEW him.
“I think it made us get riled up because he had a big name, and we were ready to continue his big name,” she adds. “I don’t think any of us were really intimidated. More excited.”
Jones does not keep statistics, not conventional stats, anyway. There are no kills or assists or digs or blocks to report to The Bulletin after each match. Those mean nothing to Jones. His stats are team-based. For the coach who has his players wear practice shirts sporting the phrase “Where we go one, we go all” — just as he did with the 1996 Outlaws — the focus is on hustle and bench support and communication and aggressiveness. His statistical categories are “great team defense” and players being “all over the place” during matches. Those, Jones says, are the intangibles.
“The state knows who the good kids are,” Jones says. “If they want the honors, they’re going to get them anyway by how they play and earn the respect of the opponent every time we show up. ‘Go do it on the floor, kids. You do your talking on the floor; I’ll do my talking at the (all-league) meeting.’ Those are the things that we’re working on as a team for goals. And if they receive any of those (postseason awards), it’s because our team did something. … We’re a team. We’re 12.”
Houck says some Sisters players miss seeing their statistics, either in the paper or on postgame stat sheets. Reading about their successes is, of course, reassuring. “But the fact that we have team stats makes us more of a unit,” she says. “Instead of pointing out one individual player, it makes you feel more as a whole, and no one gets left out that way. It’s better, I think, for the team camaraderie.”
In the 20th anniversary season of Sisters’ first volleyball state championship, Jones is priming these Outlaws for yet another run at the 4A crown. That milestone, Houck says, is driving Sisters players to focus more, to work harder. Jones says, though, that the Outlaws do not discuss the anniversary. If Sisters wins it all again this year and provides Jones with an eighth state championship, he says, raising his arms toward the sky, “it’s a blessing. I’ve had great people who have believed in me, great assistant coaches, parents. I know I worked at it. But I’ve been blessed.
“My life,” he concedes, “has basically been a hobby.”