FORT SMITH -- Life has come full circle for University of Arkansas at Fort Smith assistant volleyball coach Susannah Kelley, but she wouldn't have it any other way.
Kelley, a 2017 graduate and decorated setter for UAFS, couldn't pass on the opportunity to return to her alma mater when UAFS coach Jane Sargent gave Kelley an opportunity to join the staff in August.
"We are so similar and right now we are dressed the same and we even have the same color cup," Kelley said with a laugh while making the observation. "It's been so much fun being around each other all the time again. We think similarly in so many areas especially with our expectations and competitiveness. We are a perfect pair, I feel."
Sargent is always recruiting, whether it's for a potential assistant coach or a player. It's just in her nature looking to make her program better after 25 years on the job.
The addition of Kelley to the staff is one Sargent has been trying to make for the past three seasons. But the timing was just never right for Kelley. Sargent is glad she finally got her former setter on board.
"She is a natural," Sargent said. "Leadership is a huge quality Susannah has had as a player and now as a coach. That's just who she is, and it is ingrained in her DNA. She could be coaching tiddlywinks, and the players would follow her. She would know everything about it and make it fun. Her passion is very special. She's got it all. Whatever she wanted to do in life, whether it be coaching or running a Fortune 500 company, she could do it. Susannah is a winner. I was honored for her to come back to the program."
Kelley has made a big impact in her first season working with UAFS' setters, which includes Chloe Price (Siloam Springs) who is having a strong final season. Price has guided the offense all year and has nearly doubled her assist total from 2021 with more than 730. She had as a Lion a career-high of 54 assists in a match earlier this season.
"I love coaching setting," Kelley said. "It's my passion. The girls this year have been awesome to work with. I didn't get a whole ton of coaching for setting as a player until I got here. (Then UAFS assistant coach) Tyler Kanelos really helped me with my setting. Everything I learned from him is what I'm trying to pass to players. Setting is a very particular position with some instinct. It takes some time to run your court."
Sargent knew well before Kelley accepted the role to join her staff that Kelley would make an impact. But Sargent has been very pleased with what she has seen this year from her former player and now colleague.
"It's probably the hardest skill to teach," Sargent said. "To have someone with as much knowledge as she has brings so much value to our players. But she can do it all with hitting, blocking and defense. She is just a fundamental coach, and that is one of her biggest strengths. That helps us out a lot."
It isn't hard to spot Kelley on game days. She'll be the coach bringing a lot of animated energy in support of her players. It's that youthfulness that Kelley brings to the program that Sargent loves to round out her coaching staff.
"I feel we bring a pretty good balance," Sargent said. "It's good for players to hear another voice. You can't always be on them. It works out well. If I'm on them, she is praising them. And if she is on them, I'm praising them. Jon Core is the perfect assistant coach as well. He is the steady big brother everybody needs."
The relationship between Sargent and Kelley goes all the way back to before Kelley even joined the program as a player. It all started with some locally renowned cinnamon rolls at Calico County, a spot Sargent loves to take recruits on visits. Sargent needed all of just one meal together to know she and Kelley would get along just fine.
"We connected from the get-go," Sargent said. "I took her to eat, and we just hit it off from the start. We were talking, and I was trying to find out what kind of person she is. We got to talking about the TV show Sons of Anarchy. Anybody who likes that is alright in my book. We've always been close ever since and she is one of my favorite people in the whole wide world."
Kelley just played one season for Sargent, but it was a magical one. The Lions in the 2017 season finished 26-7 and won the Heartland Conference regular season championship with a 11-1 league record. There is no doubt she left her mark on the program.
Just a simple glance at the school's Division II record book shows that. Kelley ranks fourth all time in career assists with 1,300 despite playing just the lone season for the program. She also ranks first in career assists per set (11.02) and is first in most assists in a game (63) in school history. She won the setter of the year award from the conference for her efforts.
"It was just a thrill to coach her," Sargent said. "She is one of the best one-year players in program history without a doubt. Your setter is your quarterback. You have to have great hands, ball location and need to be a leader. She had all of that to a level not many have had since I've been a coach."
Kelley started her college playing career at Missouri State-West Plains. She helped the Grizzlies compile a combined 53-26 record for the 2014 and 2015 seasons and placed seventh and eighth, respectively, at the 2014 and 2015 NJCAA Division I Women's National Volleyball Championship Tournaments.
A transfer during her junior year to Columbia College didn't quite work out. That had the Jonesboro native looking closer to home for a final senior year, and UAFS was just the fit for her. It was a reunion with teammates from the past in Pulotu Manoa and Autumn Reese.
"It was an honor to finish my playing career in my home state," Kelley said. "No matter where I go, I've always been an Arkansan through and through. I always wanted to end up back in an Arkansas school. It just worked out. It was a place my parents got to come see me play, which means a lot. They only missed one game that year and that included a 14-hour drive for one. It didn't hurt that I got to play with a couple of my best friends as well."
One game unfortunately sticks out to her the most: the final game of her playing career for the Lions. After an incredible run through conference play dropping just one game, the season all came crashing down for the then five-time defending Heartland Tournament Champions Lions. UAFS dropped a 3-0 contest, 25-21, 29-27, 25-23, to St. Mary's (Texas) in the finals of the league tournament. It's a moment Kelley will never forget.
"I still think about that game because it is haunting," Kelley said with a laugh. "Just thinking about that game, it seemed that nothing could go right. You always want to learn from all experiences. My takeaway from that game that I pass on is you want to make the most of your opportunities. We lose that game and our season is over. That's how fast it can be in postseason play."
Although there have been downs along the way like that last game she played for UAFS, there have been many, many highs as well.
Volleyball has given a lot back to Kelley as a player, coach and just as a person. Her best friends came from the sport. There have been plenty of unforgettable playing memories. Kelley also coached a junior club team to the final four of the national tournament last year.
"I'm so appreciative of volleyball and the journey it has provided me," Kelley said. "I've gotten to know some very special people to me because of it. I've got to know awesome coaches as well. I've been very fortunate. Volleyball is just a game. But sports are like music. They just unite people."
But as much as she loves volleyball now, it wasn't her first love of all the sports. Kelley grew up with a huge passion for softball. Her senior year of high school at Jonesboro changed it all with a state volleyball championship run in 2013 in the 6A state tournament.
Kelley, who was the MVP in the title game, helped guide Jonesboro to its 11th state championship and at the time first since 2008. It was a tournament that changed the course of her athletic career and later her life.
"That was when it all changed for me was that game," Kelley said. "I had loved softball since I was little. But I never had as much fun as I did in that one game in the finals. That entire postseason was very special to me. We were pushing for that state title so much. We wanted it so bad from the year before. We beat Benton that year. We were undersized and player by player I feel they were better than us. But we played way more together and we outlasted them in five sets. Those types of wins are always special."
Kelley is the ultimate competitor. She joked with players just this week any activity someone else is doing she wants to be the best at it. If she is going to tie her shoes, it will be the fastest among anyone around. If she is picking up sticks, she is picking up the most. It's that passion that has made her a natural as a coach.
Before joining the staff at UAFS, she returned to Missouri State-West Plains to coach at another former program she played at. She also has coached for several years the Fort Smith Juniors team and was an assistant at Van Buren High School after she graduated college. Kelley in her playing career and as an assistant coach has gotten to watch two volleyball legends in Missouri State-West Plains' Paula Wiedemann (more than 800 wins) and at UAFS with Sargent (more than 700 wins) work their craft.
Although she always had an interest in coaching, it wasn't until her senior year of college when she switched paths. Up until that point, Kelley wanted to do something in the medical field. But the thought of missing out on coaching club volleyball because of additional schooling caused a change of heart for Kelley. Through the ups and downs, Kelley feels coaching has been the path meant for her.
"Coaching is like a roller-coaster ride," Kelley said. "There are just moments out there in games whether you have it or you don't. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't for your team. But it's what you sign up for each year. It's like a haunted house. You ask yourself do I do this again? And you can't say no because you want that thrill."