It was a historic volleyball season for Omaha Skutt, and the same could be said for SkyHawks coach Renee Saunders.
She’s the first former World-Herald Nebraska high school athlete of the year to receive the newspaper’s high school coach of the year honor.
Saunders earned the girls athlete honor in 1995 at Omaha Marian and the girls coaching honor 22 years later after guiding Skutt to a 44-0 mark and its second straight Class B championship.
“That’s pretty awesome,” Saunders said. “It’s something I’m very proud of.”
The SkyHawks ran the table one year after Saunders led them to the school’s first state volleyball title. The 2016 version proved to be one of the top teams in the U.S. and finished the season ranked second and third nationally.
“It took a lot of hard work to get that accomplished,” Saunders said. “We had a lot of driven kids, and it showed all throughout the season.”
She was driven by sports, too. She grew up in South Omaha, the only daughter of Rita and Tom Saunders. She has a younger brother, Troy.
After attending Immaculate Conception Grade School — later called All Saints — Saunders attended Marian. She played primarily two sports for the Crusaders while accumulating seven varsity letters, four in volleyball and three in basketball.
Though playing for coaches Rochelle Rohlfs (721 wins in volleyball) and Jim Miller (619 wins in basketball), she was not part of a state championship team. It was something that would help drive her later in life.
“I’ve been very lucky because I’ve had great coaches my whole career,” Saunders said. “Those two taught me to have high expectations and to push myself to the limit.”
Saunders pushed her way to that athlete of the year award in 1995. As a senior, she had 335 kills in volleyball and averaged almost 15 points in basketball.
After moving on to Nebraska as a two-sport athlete, she was part of the national championship Husker volleyball team her freshman year. She continued to play volleyball throughout her NU career but backed off basketball after suffering a knee injury.
While attending college, Saunders put down the groundwork for her future coaching career. She got a taste of it by volunteering to help coach volleyball at Lincoln East.
“I knew from a young age that I wanted to coach,” she said. “I helped my dad sometimes and then helped (longtime East volleyball coach) Myron Oehlerking.”
Saunders added it helped that she had played every position on the volleyball floor, from front row to back row.
“It increased my understanding of the game,” she said. “I had gone through a lot of hours of practice at a lot of different positions.”
She got her head coaching start at Omaha South from 2002 to 2011. It was an uphill battle at South — the school had reached state twice, most recently in 1982 — but Saunders didn’t back away from the challenge.
“We never had a winning season there, but we won nine matches one year,” she said. “It was super rewarding to teach the game and celebrate little victories, like taking a very good opponent to five sets.”
Most of all, Saunders said she enjoyed the friendships she made with her players.
“They were good kids,” she said. “I still keep in touch with a lot of them.”
After compiling a 57-206 record at South, Saunders moved on to Skutt in 2011. She has coached the SkyHawks for six years and has a record of 204-44.
“It was a big change for me,” Saunders said. “It took me back to my Marian days because I could push the kids more and they had the internal drive.”
She has guided Skutt to state in five of her six years and led the SkyHawks to their first championship in 2015. With several players coming back this year, expectations were high for a second straight title.
“We finished as the runner-up in 2014 when a lot of these girls were sophomores,” Saunders said. “They won it all as juniors, and there was only one way they wanted to finish their varsity careers.”
The coach knew she had her most talented team and a schedule was set up to test that squad from the start.
“We did have a very tough schedule,” she said. “I wanted to keep pushing our girls and make sure we never got complacent.”
The first challenge came on the opening weekend when the SkyHawks faced three-time defending Class A champion Marian at the Bellevue Invitational. Skutt swept the match, affirming the SkyHawks’ ranking as the overall No. 1 team in the state.
“We were tight the very first day of the tournament, but we loosened up,” Saunders said. “These girls wanted to be the best in the state, and that was the first chance to prove it.”
Skutt steamrolled its competition, losing five sets all season. The SkyHawks defeated all comers from Nebraska and beat top teams from Kansas and Missouri.
The squad was not just talented but had the right person at the helm. Saunders takes nothing for granted and always watched film of an opponent before a match.
“I don’t like surprises,” she said. “I don’t care if a team hasn’t won a match yet, I want to know about them.”
It’s that attention to detail that new school president Jeremy Moore says sets Saunders apart.
“She’s a great leader,” he said. “She understands the game and has used her own experience — the successes and the trials — to help our teams here at Skutt.”
Moore added that Saunders, a health and physical education teacher, is an important member of the school community.
“She’s up here all the time and spends a lot of time with the athletes,” he said. “And it’s not just volleyball. She gets out and supports all of our teams.”
At the state tournament, an unusual thing happened in the first round against Aurora. The SkyHawks lost the first set 25-23, something that refocused the team the rest of the tourney.
“We had beaten them earlier in the season when a lot of our girls were sick,” Saunders said. “I told the girls to stay the course and clean up our mistakes.”
Skutt bounced back to win the next three sets against Aurora before sweeping Omaha Duchesne in the semifinals. That set up the final against Grand Island Northwest. Saunders had her own problems the morning of the final.
“My dog was acting weird and my dress had a rip in it,” she said. “It was a pretty stressful start to the day.”
Saunders worked through those issues — a friend took care of her dog and she duct-taped her dress. Against the Vikings, the coach watched her squad cap its perfect season with another three-set sweep.
“Our girls were so focused for that final,” Saunders said. “I don’t think any high school in the Midwest could have beaten us that day.”
That SkyHawks team included four talented seniors, and two — setter Alli Schomers and outside hitter Brooke Heyne — were All-Nebraska first-team selections. The other two were middle hitter McKenna Kirkpatrick (240 kills) and libero Jess Schlautman (486 digs).
Schlautman last week was honored as Nebraska’s girls athlete of the year.
“Coach Saunders is 100 percent — no, probably 120 percent — dedicated to the game,” Schomers said. “When your coach is that invested, it makes you want to work that much harder.”
Schomers said the SkyHawks’ success during matches had its roots in Saunders’ challenging practices.
“Some of her drills were impossible,” the setter said. “But when you’re getting pushed to the limit like that, it really keeps you focused.”
A three-peat certainly seems possible for the SkyHawks next season with the return of seven players, including 300-kill performers Lily Heyne and Megan Skovsende.
Saunders said the athletic bar is set high at Skutt, and that’s the way she likes it. Part of that winning attitude was instilled by her close friend and the school’s former athletic director Mike McMahon, who passed away in 2014.
“Mike went around and took all of our runner-up banners down,” she said. “It’s a winning culture here, and we’re proud of that.”
Moore said he can’t think of anyone he’d rather have instilling that spirit into the Skutt volleyball team.
“Renee is a winner, in volleyball and in life,” he said. “We’re very proud of what she’s accomplished.”