Stacy Johnson retires as the head volleyball coach at Gilbert

With a smile on her face, Stacy Johnson exhales loudly as she stands up from a table inside the empty Gilbert High School commons area Wednesday morning. Emotionally, she held it together over a 20-minute stretch in which she was asked to play a game of, “This Is Your Life.”

She laughed. She smiled a lot. She reminisced on so many of the good times with descriptive details that made you feel like you were right there beside her in the volleyball huddle. And she reflected on those moments that make her proud of what she’s accomplished.

Make no mistake, she accomplished a lot over her 14 years with the Gilbert volleyball program, the last 12 as the head coach. But now, more than anything else, she’s content. She’s ready for that next chapter of her life, ready to see what that next chapter of Tiger volleyball looks like without her in charge.

Johnson, the only coach to ever lead Gilbert to the state volleyball tournament, has announced her resignation as the head coach. Her reasons for stepping away now are numerous, but at the top of the list is simply one word: Family. She says it’s time the most important people in her life get her undivided attention each fall.

“A lot of soul searching went into the decision,” Johnson said. “Is this the right time, is this not the right time? But over Christmas, we had all of the kids at home and they kept making comments like, ‘Mom, this is the time you can give to us.’ That put everything into perspective that this is the time. And the program is in a really good spot right now. The organization and the reputation the program has, the assistant coaches, and the players we have coming back and coming up. Putting all of those things together, in my heart I thought this is the time.”

Johnson’s daughter, Nessa, is currently a sophomore at Missouri Western State University where she plays volleyball. Getting the chance to watch her play on a consistent basis factored heavily into Johnson’s decision.

“As a freshman, I knew she wouldn’t play much so I thought I had time to dedicate to the Gilbert volleyball program and its players,” Johnson says. “But she was a starter on the team this past year and I don’t want to miss the next two years. I thought I would be selfish if I stayed (as the head coach at Gilbert) because I couldn’t give 100 percent to the program while watching my daughter play.”

Ian Smith, Gilbert’s activities director, commends Johnson on the program she ran so successfully and for making the decision that was right for herself and her family.

“Over the last year I’ve really gotten to know Coach Johnson and she’s just a great coach,” Smith said. “She’s taken Gilbert volleyball to unprecedented heights. And I couldn’t be happier for Stacy on making this decision where she can enjoy watching her daughter play collegiate volleyball. I’m really happy for her and her family that she can move on to this next stage in her life, and hopefully she’ll stay around Gilbert athletics for a long time and contribute in other ways.”

Johnson says she’d love nothing more than doing just that. She may not be the head coach in future years, but that doesn’t mean she can’t help out in other ways.

“I just love this sport and I’m passionate about Gilbert athletics,” she said. “I hope I can stay involved somehow.”

The Career: It Speaks For Itself

With 25 years of experience coaching volleyball at four different high schools, the majority of it coming at Gilbert, Johnson exits the stage with a resume any coach would be proud to wave in the air.

She won 266 matches and three conference championships during her time with Gilbert, including in 2020, the school’s first year as a member of the Raccoon River Conference. But that season holds a special place in her heart for more than just that accomplishment.

It was a unique season for myriad reasons. But the payoff was well worth it, as Gilbert reached the state tournament for the first and only time in program history. After stunning Waverly-Shell Rock on the Go-Hawks’ home floor in the regional final, the Tigers invaded Cedar Rapids and pulled off another shocker in the 4A state quarterfinals against second-seeded North Scott. Both “upsets” were 3-0 sweeps. The postseason run eventually ended in the semifinal round against West Delaware, but that hardly diminishes the memories for Johnson and her plays, one of whom was her daughter, Nessa.

“People that have been around for a while know that we were close three or four times before and could not get over that hump,” Johnson said. “So that was a huge milestone for the Gilbert volleyball program. Those girls overcame so many obstacles and so much adversity.”

Erin Bathie was one of seven seniors on that 2020 roster and she overcame her own obstacles to make it onto the court, where she delivered 204 kills on the season. Bathie suffered a serious knee injury at the state soccer tournament in June of 2019, but with Johnson’s guidance and encouragement she was able to return to the court and make a lasting impact.

“What I needed was somebody to motivate me and Stacy definitely did that,” Bathie said. “She was there with me, encouraging me. I loved playing for her.

“From her, I definitely took away that you can always try your best, give your best, and overcome anything.”

During Johnson’s 12 seasons at the helm, Gilbert won at least 20 matches nine times and crossed the 30-win barrier on three occasions in 2016, 2017, and 2019.

Johnson says her very first team as the head coach, in 2011, remains one of her proudest achievements. After a laundry list of talented players said goodbye to the program due to graduation, there weren’t high expectations for that 2011 group. And yet the Tigers went 27-6, including 8-1 in the Heart of Iowa Conference to win the league crown.

“We made the regional finals with a group of girls that would not give up that year,” Johnson said. “There was talent there, but they were total workhorses.”

Michaela Gibson, the setter on the 2011 team who doled out 661 assists that season, said it was Johnson’s consistent approach, fire, and passion that propelled the team to its lofty status.

“She just brought a lot of consistency and her expectations for everyone were the same, and they were high,” Gibson said. “She was fairly calm in practices, but when it was game time, she flipped a switch. She was very excited and she was the person we looked to to get us pumped up.”

Gabby Stearns laced 265 kills for that 2011 team during her senior season before she went on to run track at the University of Iowa, and 11 years later she gushes as she talks about what she learned from Johnson. Hearing of her retirement brought tears to Stearns’ eyes as she spoke about her former coach.

“She was such an amazing coach and she always believed in us,” Stearns said. “When I think back on my high school days and volleyball career, I always talk about Stacy and how great she was. I always looked forward to going to practice because I loved playing for her. We worked hard, but she always made me laugh, and she had a tremendous passion for volleyball.

“I would just tell her a great big thank you. One of the greatest high school memories for me is getting to play for Stacy Johnson.”

A bump in the road in 2012 was followed by eight seasons in which the Tigers won 210 matches, an average of 26.25 per campaign. From 2013-2020, Johnson coached five players — Alex Miner, Inga Rotto, Haleigh Hadley, Theo Rotto, and Nessa Johnson — to seven all-state accolades.

Eight of her players — Miner, Taylor Forth, Bree Richard, Inga Rotto, Hadley, Thea Rotto, Bathie, and Nessa Johnson — went on to play at the collegiate level. Miner, a two-time all-state player in 2013 and 2014, went on to an All-American career at the University of Missouri St.Louis where she remains to this day as an assistant volleyball coach and assistant athletic director for academics.

Inga Rotto, who bashed 1,072 kills under Johnson’s tutelage from 2014-17, went on to have a sterling collegiate career at UNI where she was a first-team all-Missouri Valley Conference selection. She never forgot where she started and that was under Johnson’s wing at Gilbert.

“Something I really appreciated about her when I was playing for her was that she gave us leadership,” Inga Rotto said. “She was a demanding coach and she had really high standards, but she listened to us and our opinions. When it came game time, she turned it on and had the plan that she thought was the path forward.

“The Gilbert volleyball program is where my confidence grew. It’s where my leadership abilities grew, and it’s where my skills grew.”

Johnson’s list of personal accolades includes three times being named the Ames Tribune Coach of the Year (2017, 2019, 2020). She was also the 2015 District Coach of the Year, and in 2017 she was named the IGCA Coach of the Year.

But perhaps one achievement that few people know about, and one that will continue to benefit Gilbert volleyball for years to come, was her involvement in the design plan for the high school gym when it was built in 2013.

Johnson worked diligently alongside then athletic director Don Knock to design the drop down volleyball net system that remains today and makes matches at various levels run smoothly and efficiently.

“I was fortunate enough when we bonded for the school and went through it that the school board let the coaches have a say in things,” Johnson said. “Don and I went down to Kansas City to visit a couple of schools that had that system, and then we were able to work with the contractors to get what we wanted. The Booster Club was an amazing support because they donated a lot of money to put those in, and eight or nine years later it’s definitely been worth it.”

So many stories. So many successes. And the pride exudes from Johnson as she talks about all of it one final time.

“I don’t know if I can explain in words how proud I am of everything we’ve accomplished,” she said. “Personally, I’ve reached a lot of goals and accomplishments myself, and between the players, the coaches, the administration, the parents, all of the support … everything they’ve given me throughout the 14 years, it couldn’t have been done without that big pool of resources.”

The next time Johnson takes in a Gilbert volleyball match, it will be in the role of a spectator. But that fire will still burn in her soul, and that will to see the team win will never leave.

Johnson is a volleyball coach. She always will be. And we’ve all been fortunate that she’s called Gilbert home for so many years.

She’s a Tiger.

Then. Now. Always.