Horizon volleyball

In her 42 years as Horizon High School’s girls volleyball team, Valorie McKenzie has powered it to four state championships and 1,000 wins. (Courtesy Daily Advent)

Valorie McKenzie became the girls volleyball coach at Horizon High School 42 years ago.

In that time, she has led Horizon to four state championship wins, won multiple Coach of the Year awards and earned 1,000 wins amid a drastically changing high school sports landscape.

McKenzie entered coaching soon after the Education Amendments of 1972 brought Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or any other education program that receives funding from the federal government, and educational funding equality to schools across the country.

In the 50 years since, McKenzie has seen women’s sports grow as a result of an increase in budgets and opportunities.

“When I played college sports, there were no scholarships for women,” McKenzie said. “High school ladies just went to school and would play just to be a part of a sport in college.”

As a result of Title IX, women’s athletics in high school and college have grown in number and popularity. In 2022, the Women’s College World Series outperformed the men’s College World Series in viewership, averaging 1.7 million viewers to the men’s 1.63 million viewers.

The growth of women’s sports has also led to increased college recruitment and club volleyball participation as student-athletes balance the two along with their high school seasons.

“I’m still very disciplined; the kids still have to be very accountable, very responsible and very committed, but I am too,” McKenzie said. “I make sure that I am exactly what I ask for. I’m accountable, and I’m there and my commitment and passion is always high. That’s what I expect from the kids.”

But with tough love comes her love for the game – and her players. Like any good coach, she demands the best because she sees her players’ potential inside and outside of the gymnasium.

Both players and parents can see how she impacts her team, and while the coach has adapted to a new era in the sport, her girls have also changed for the better.

Take Kiera Hall, a rising college freshman, for example.

“I’ve certainly seen Kiera grow in her four years at Horizon,” Cary Hall, Kiera’s father and Horizon volleyball “Team Dad,” said. “I think (she’s) a much stronger young woman as a result of both high school and club volleyball and the coaching she got in both, and certainly Coach McKenzie was a big part of that.”

McKenzie came to Horizon when the school opened in 1980, after several years of teaching physical education and coaching softball, track and field, and tennis at the middle-school level.

Title IX had yet to come around during her playing days. The Education Amendments were passed and signed into law during her final year of high school in 1972.

When she graduated and started coaching in 1976, the balance of power in financial budgets was only starting to sort out between men’s and women’s sports.

But since then, McKenzie has seen finances for boys athletics and girls athletics level out.

“You could see the difference,” McKenzie said. “[Title IX] did kind of level out between how things were handled with the boys sports and the girls sports. I don’t think it’s leveled out at the college level.”

The lack of education funding in the state has added new difficulties and challenges for McKenzie and her team.

The onus of raising funds for travel and uniforms often lands on McKenzie and the school’s booster club, a responsibility she had to learn to navigate on the job.

“I never did a fundraiser in the beginning of my coaching career, and now funding is huge. We have to do fundraisers every year,” McKenzie said. “As the sports have changed and the needs have changed, so have the demands, like as a coach to fundraise.”

“(Boosters) help fund a lot,” McKenzie said. “They’ll do fundraisers and they get sponsorships. You have banners in the gym now with all the sponsors; that was unknown even 15 years ago. You can’t survive as an athletic sport nowadays if you don’t have sponsors.”

“What hasn’t changed is pay; pay is very little,” McKenzie said. “After seven years, you stop on the pay scale. You only get the interest rate on the base of the salary. Really, what I’m getting now, 40 years later, and when I got then is maybe $1,500 different over 40 years. Pay has not changed.”

McKenzie is a rare breed in the current state of Arizona education.

For the veteran educator and coach to not just stay within the profession for 42 years but to stay in Arizona “speaks to her passion for the students and to the volleyball program at Horizon,” Cary said.

McKenzie will see college recruiters attend select tournaments and attend regular-season games if she has a talented team or players.

With a senior-heavy roster last season, McKenzie had to learn how to accommodate her players without changing her team rules. The coach still stands by not starting a player who misses practice, but now she will often cancel a Friday practice so seniors have more time for weekend college visits.

“I tell my players and my parents that I’m not out to get your daughter a college scholarship,” McKenzie said.

“If a college coach calls me if they want video, if they want stats, I will do everything I can to help that,” McKenzie said. “I have tried not to change my philosophy of coaching because of college recruiting.”

If a player works hard and has a good attitude, McKenzie will vouch for her.

Coaching at the same school for over 40 years means coaching lots of kids. It also means lots of familiar faces and familiar last names.

Tammy Murphy first met McKenzie after moving from Wisconsin to Arizona as a senior in high school, thanks to an invite to a summer volleyball tournament.

Murphy’s experience with McKenzie is why her daughter, Kendal, followed in her footsteps to play for McKenzie at Horizon.

“Before every game, she would give us a poem that she would write,” Murphy said. “It was a poem about our opponents and what we were going to do to them. It also had a little gift with it. We were playing the (Shadow Mountain) Matadors, and she gave us little bells to put on our shoes so that when we were walking in school, it would remind us of what we had coming forward.”

A lot has changed between Murphy’s and her daughter’s high school career. McKenzie’s ability to adapt to the game and connect with each generation has remained constant and led to her success.

Even McKenzie’s own daughter has provided the building blocks to developing relationships with a long list of players. McKenzie coached her daughter, Courtney, in 2003. For the first time, she saw her coaching from the perspective of a parent, and she decided to make some changes.

“We’d come home, and I’d see her doing her homework and having to study for this exam and just trying to juggle all the demands of her life as a student-athlete,” McKenzie said. “It made me re-evaluate.

“Do I need that three-and-a-half-hour practice? Maybe it only needs to be two and a half hours. Maybe these kids do need to go home and have an extra hour for studying or for just being them.”

After 42 years and an ever-changing sports culture, McKenzie is still committed to the game and coaching.

She has attended clinics twice a year and still calls herself a strict disciplinarian.

Former and current players certainly agree.

“Coach has always been fair, (it) doesn’t matter if you’re a starter or a backup,” Murphy said. “

“She shares her love of the game with our girls and keeps the girls accountable,” Murphy said. “She’s helping not just make our daughters into better volleyball players, but she’s making them into better people and better citizens.”

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