Julie Slater really thought her volleyball coaching days were done.
After leading Lansing to a third-place finish at the Class 5A state tournament last year, Slater hung up the whistle. It wasn’t as if she was burnt out on the sport – far from the case – but after 35 years and 1,003 victories, Slater felt the time and conditions were right.
"When I started last season, I knew it was going to be it," Slater said. "A huge goal for me when I retired is I wanted to hit the 1,000 mark. And then a second goal was I wanted to leave the program as good as it’s ever been. I felt good about that. The program is stacked and they’re going to be good for a while."
Slater also had other interests in play. She wanted to spend more time following her son, Jeff, and his football coaching career at Burlingame. She wanted to follow her grandchildren’s athletic ventures, as well as those of her former players playing at colleges and universities around the area, including four at Kansas.
Slater’s plans were set. And then things changed.
Only days before the start of the 2020 high school volleyball season, Slater got a phone call from Pleasant Ridge principal Tom Barry. The Rams’ coach, Joy Ewert, had just resigned and they needed someone to lead the program.
"I got the call Saturday morning and asked if I would be interested," Slater said. "I had to have a day to think about it and process things. He called me back the next day and I agreed to go out for an interview."
Slater was hired on Monday and the Rams opened their season the next night, splitting with Jefferson North and Maur Hill. Pleasant Ridge played eight matches in seven nights in Slater’s first week with the program, going 5-3.
Since, however, the Rams have been on a roll. With Tuesday night’s sweep of McLouth and Horton, Pleasant Ridge is now 15-3 and riding an 11-match winning streak.
"We were challenged a little bit last night, but we came out of it OK," Slater said. "That first set against McLouth we were struggling a bit but then we came out of it. We’d gotten kind of complacent from winning, so we need some challenges."
While Pleasant Ridge’s initial inquiry to Slater might have seemed like a long shot, there was plenty of reason to think she might take the job.
Slater’s first teaching job came in 1981 at Pleasant Ridge Middle School, first as a substitute and then as a science teacher. She left the next year for a physical education teaching job at Lansing, her hometown and alma mater, taking over the high school program in 1985.
During her time coaching Lansing, Slater also was involved with the KC Mavericks, a club volleyball program. She coached four players who are now freshmen at Pleasant Ridge – varsity starters Emily Langley and Kelsi Ko and JV players Maddie Heim and Ava Potter – and knew junior Kelsey Theis, who also played for the club.
Langley ranks third on the team in kills with 86, trailing only seniors Felicity Worsham (95) and Emma Schwinn (88), and also leads the team in aces (30). Ko leads the team in assists with 219.
Those relationships, past and present, helped make the transition as smooth of one as possible.
"The community has been so overwhelmingly welcoming with open arms and embraced me," she said. "I’ve had so many people that have reached out to me and telling me how glad they are. The girls have been like a sponge and absorbed everything and that’s why we’re being so successful. They’re so coachable and open to everything. Their work ethic is really good and the former coach had done a nice job, so credit to her."
The season has invigorated Slater to a degree, as well. She has only committed to this season as coach, but hasn’t ruled out returning next year and making this a permanent job.
With 1,003 career wins, Slater ranks second in state history behind only legendary Miege coach Gwen Pike, who won 1,224 matches in her 36 years. They are the only two coaches in state history with 1,000 wins.
"I have always felt my whole career, this was what I was put on this earth to do," she said. "This just kind of fell in my lap and I just couldn’t turn my back on it. Honestly, it was like, ‘OK, I better do this now.’ It’s like a calling and it’s interesting that I’m not going to end my career at Lansing, but at Pleasant Ridge where I started.
"I think it was just meant to be."