At the end of a day of ballet dancing, Allie Yaeger sat in her parent’s car crying with her toe shoes still on her feet. She knew it would be her last day dancing after 13 years. Volleyball had taken over yet another of her many activities as a 14-year-old.
“It was a big part of my life and my mom said you have to pick,” Yaeger said. “There is no competitiveness when it comes to dance and volleyball was everything for me. I absolutely fell in love with the sport at a really early age.”
Her passion for the sport began when she was in fourth grade, after her family moved and she switched to a different school. That is when she was introduced to volleyball. She instantly started getting involved with the sport.
“I had two older brothers and they were into basketball, soccer and football,” Yaeger said. “I was never introduced to it until I got to my new school. It was the thing to do there.”
When it came time for Yaeger to attend high school, she played volleyball and basketball. If she did not end up dropping softball to play more volleyball, Yaeger would have played three varsity sports.
“I loved playing the other stuff, but if I had to give up playing basketball I would have,” Yaeger said. “Volleyball has always been No. 1 since I was 12 years old.”
Despite getting two Division II offers to play basketball, Yaeger would attend Wright State University to play volleyball. After two years of it, however, the game would change. A new position called the libero was introduced. Yaeger, a player who excelled in the back row, couldn’t pass up this chance at a new challenge.
“It was almost like a dream come true when the libero position came along,” Yaeger said. “I said ‘I want it’ and I got it and I was very successful at it.”
At the end of her college career, Yaeger had to make a choice about what she wanted to do afterwards. She had plenty of options, including being an athletic trainer, a coach and, one that did not seem as appealing at the time, an Olympic volleyball player.
“I didn’t [consider it]. It didn’t hit me until after all of the awards I was given my senior year. People started talking to me about it, ‘are you interested? You are one of the best liberos in the country,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know,’” Yaeger said. “I didn’t want to take time away from my career that I wanted to do because if I would’ve gone overseas and played that is taking years away from getting my foot in the door with coaching.”
Volleyball in the Olympics has grown on the court and in the sand. If times were like they are today, Yaeger’s career might have turned out differently.
“Yeah, [I] probably [would have kept playing]. I was not interested in it and then a year later I realized because once you get into coaching you realize ‘I was good,’” Yaeger said. “The Olympics is huge now with volleyball in sand and back in my day they didn’t have sand. People played, but it was not necessarily an Olympic sport. Maybe I would’ve pursued it if it were like nowadays and everything is as popular as it is now.”
Yaeger instead accepted a job as an assistant coach at the University of Binghamton. After success there she found herself in South Orange as an assistant coach. After standing at that post for five seasons, she was named the head coach in 2011.
For her first head coaching job, it was all familiar to Yaeger. She had helped recruit all of the players that were there and knew what direction to take the team.
“We have been successful ever since I have taken over here,” Yaeger said. “It is a respect thing. I think the kids respect us as coaches and I respect them as players and they want to play well for us.”
Winning, emotion, respect and family seem to be pillars of the team’s culture. That second one, emotion, seems to be one that helps keep this team close.
“You can really tell in locker rooms after matches,” Yaeger said. “There are times in the locker room when it gets emotional and I break down and I cry and my assistant cries and you can tell how much the kids respect you and how much they want it for you as a coach when they respond to that.”
This season, after the Pirates suffered tough defeats to DePaul and Marquette on Oct. 7 and Oct. 8, the team broke down crying in the locker room.
“The girls see how much we love what we do for a living and how passionate we are as coaches and they see that they let us down,” Yaeger said. “It is nice to get that emotion back from the girls in the locker room because you know that they respect you.”
That seems to lead into the theme of family around the team and that part of the culture seems to be the section that Yaeger is the most proud of with her program.
“As a coach I’m also a mother and I have two little boys at home, a husband and all my time is put towards these girls and this team especially from the months of August through November,” Yaeger said trying to hold back tears. “My girls know that they are taking time away from me being a mother, seeing my kids grow up, picking them up from school and going to get pumpkins and picking apples. I’m taking the volleyball team to go do that and not my own kids, but that is my choice. I chose to do that because I love these players like they are my own children.”
Many of the players live a long plane ride away from Seton Hall and have to rely on Yaeger and her staff when times get tough.
“She plays the role of mother,” senior libero Tessa Fournier said. “We always have stuff going on in our lives. I’m from California so there are always family issues over there, but we all have each other’s backs and we are all there for each other so no matter whether we are in the country traveling or not they are going to be there for us. It is tough, but that is why we came here.”
Many players visit Yaeger’s office just to talk about school, friends or life, and one, Yaeger said, even brings along Dunkin Donuts coffee so they drink a cup over a conversation. Yaeger also has team dinners at her house where she cooks and the players even babysit her two boys at times.
“She is the mom of 20 girls. It is great,” senior Dani Schroeder said. “I always feel fine coming to her and talking to her about anything not even just volleyball. I can talk to her about school, my friends, college, everything.”
However, despite sharing this great relationship with her players it takes time away from her two sons Max and Lincoln as well as her husband Nick. Yet another sacrifice for the game that she loves.
“When I first got the job everyone told me it was going to be hard if I wanted to be a mother and a coach and I said, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah,’ but it takes a toll on you for sure, especially when your kids are younger.”
Yaeger’s sons will be nine and four in November and she said time away takes a big toll on the younger son that she is not around as much as she would like to be.
“Being in athletics in general you sacrifice a lot,” Yaeger said. “At the end of the day it comes down to, ‘Are you willing to keep doing this? Do you love it that much to keep doing it?’ and I do.”
Fellow Seton Hall coaches like women’s head soccer coach Rick Stainton and men’s head soccer coach Gerson Echeverry have been great friends to Yaeger. Seton Hall men’s basketball coach Kevin Willard and baseball coach Mike Sheppard are frequent visitors to Yaeger’s office where they pick each other’s brains about coaching and life.
“We are very close with the men’s soccer program,” Yaeger said. “I talk to Rick all of the time. Gerson is one of my best friends. Willard stops in all of the time to talk and just to pick each other’s brains and to be there for each other because we all go through the same exact thing.”
Another one of those pillars, winning, seems to be the magic elixir that keeps not only Yaeger, but many coaches facing her lifestyle motivated to get up the next day and get back to the court.
“When we win it is all worth it. It is worth that I don’t get to see my children on the weekends,” Yaeger said. “It is worth not spending a couple extra hours with my husband every night because I’m watching film. When we win it gets emotional in the locker room and it is positive because it is all worth it at the end of the day.”
In 2014, Seton Hall volleyball made it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. A moment of culmination and reflection for Yaeger in a life full of sacrifice. It finally paid off.
“That was the ultimate high. That season was amazing,” Yaeger said. “The best part about that season was that we had the same exact team the year before and they decided as a team that we are all going to get on the same page and they said ‘we want it this year, this is going to be our year,’ and I was like ‘I’m there, if you guys are there I’ll be there too.’ Once we got that taste of winning it was like gas on the right and keep going.”
This year’s team has players that were on that 2014 squad and the younger ones who were not watched the Pirates play Brigham Young University in the NCAA Tournament that season. That run still motivates this team on a regular basis and as they look to get back.
“To be the best is the biggest motivator,” Yaeger said. “If you ask me what my number one dream is, it is to win a National Championship. I’m not okay with not doing that and not making the NCAA Tournament.”
That is the next step for Yaeger and she looks to build the Seton Hall volleyball program to national prominence. Along the way more sacrificing will occur, pains from losing will be endured, but if the team can one day win the national championship, that winning feeling will provide be the ultimate cure to her sacrificing.
Sean Saint Jacques can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SSaintj7.