PORTVILLE, NY – They’ve won four state championships in five years. They haven’t lost a conference match in what feels like forever. They didn’t even lose a single set in conference play this season. Portville is undefeated at 17-0 conference play and 24-6-1 overall, and the Panthers want more. Success, for head coach Kelly Unverdorben, never gets old. It never will.
Unverdorben’s tradition of excellence began well before she became the head coach of Portville’s volleyball program in 2013. As Ellicottville’s head coach in 2011 and 2012, Unverdorben lead the Eagles to a state title in 2012.
“I was a junior varsity coach at Portville, and left to coach Ellicottville for two years and had success there,” Unverdorben said. “I then went back to Portville, and I’ve been there ever since.”
And ever since, the Portville volleyball program has been nothing but remarkable.
This season, according to Unverdorben, has been a different challenge. After losing five seniors from last year’s team, Unverdorben said the expectations weren’t as high for this year’s group.
“We’re extremely young,” Unverdorben said. “They had huge shoes to fill, and everybody talks, ‘Oh, they’re not going to be as good after losing five amazing seniors.’ ”
She continued, “They wanted to let people know that they are still a part of this same program. They’ve worked extremely hard.”
Unverdorben been particularly impressed with sophomore setter Kylie Blessing, who picked up her 1,500th-career assist this season.
“Kylie, in my mind, has stood out the most,” Unverdorben said. “ You can’t be successful without an amazing setter. She ran offense last year with the five seniors. She was definitely sharp and ready to go this season.”
Looking at the team as a whole, Unverdorben said the improvements her team has made, particularly serve returns, has been fun to watch.
“Serve receives is such a battle for every team,” Unverdorben said. “I don’t care if you're Penn State or Nebraska. Serve receives are such a battle for any team. We’ve worked really hard at that, and its improved so much since the start of the season. They had to put a lot of work into it, and they have.”
As postseason heats up, Unverdorben said she’s not looking past any opponent and is preparing her team for anything.
“To get there [state championships], you’ve got to beat a lot of good teams,” Unverdorben said. “We will have to contend with Allegany-Limestone and Chautauqua Lake, both good programs. And then Eden is always great. Sections five and three are tough. It’s good competition. The biggest thing is keeping our focus and doing everything well.”
Some coaches, after winning five career state titles, could become complacent. Unverdorben, however, loves the challenge of staying on top. As long as she roams the Panthers' sideline, she will keep navigating her teams through each season with the ultimate goal of glory.
“Winning never, ever gets old,” Unverdorben said. “What keeps me coming back is the challenge of it. When people tell me I can’t, I want to do it even more. The team definitely feeds off of that attitude. We may not win it again, but we’ll go down fighting.”
Portville’s journey to a fifth state title under Unverdorben will continue at 6 p.m. Monday, as the Panthers face off against Falconer in the section VI semifinals.
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