By Sammy Clough Staff Correspondent, Gwinnett Daily Post
Rachel VanderPol is the new head volleyball coach at Greater Atlanta Christian School. After winning a state championship as a coach at Mount Bethel Christian Academy, VanderPol is looking to use that experience to lead the Spartans in her first year.
In this installment of “Getting to Know…”, VanderPol talks to staff correspondent Sammy Clough about her transition to GAC, growing up with her Hall of Fame father John Smoltz and her first year of being a mother.
SC: What classes are you teaching at GAC?
RV: I am teaching two physical education classes and a personal training class. That’s all I’m teaching in the fall currently. I have a three-quarters time role there because of my son and our commute. It’s about an hour commute for us so we get to go in a little bit later, which is such a blessing.
SC: I went to Providence Christian Academy just down the street so I know how bad traffic can get over there.
RV: Yeah for sure. This is all new for me. I went to King’s Ridge Christian School in Alpharetta growing up. So I’m really familiar with the Fulton County area. Then I went over to Mount Bethel Christian Academy in Cobb County so that was all new to me, too. So I learned the territory over there, but now being in Gwinnett County is a whole new ball game which is exciting. Everyone has been extremely welcoming, the coaches have all been really helpful. So just learning the new territory and all the schools around us is what I’m trying to do now.
SC: What are you doing to prepare for the season at a much bigger school than you last coached at?
RV: My philosophy and the reason that I coach is very relational. Which I know a lot of people say, but I take it really, really seriously in building relationships with these students. Because you have a handful of very talented athletes that will continue to play after high school, but on the other hand you have another set of athletes that when they’re done, they go to college, and you only have four years to hopefully make them a better person while you have them.
So, I look at this situation like I’m an outsider to them. And I have to build relationships so they can trust me as a coach and as an individual. Because I think that the coaches I’ve had in the past, the ones that you work the hardest for and go out there and give it all you got for, those are the ones you trust and you know they care for you and you want to work hard for them.
We have a great group of athletes, from what I’ve seen, a lot of raw talent, and I think it’s just trying to figure out how to bridge that gap quicker so they know I’m in it for them, and like I said, try to build relationships with them. So that didn’t change from Mount Bethel to GAC. Whether you’re in a 100-student body school or a 1,000-student body school, you still have to find ways to make relationships with your athletes. I think the difference at GAC is that we’re gifted with a lot of resources. We have a full time strength and conditioning coach and we have really nice facilities, so understanding how to utilize those best is going to be my biggest challenge. As far as coaching, I’m confident in my X’s and O’s and I’m confident in our girls’ ability to play. So I’m just kind of forming the team and building relationships with them right now.
SC: How did you get to GAC?
RV: It’s kind of a funny story. Richard Burnette was the head coach there the past two years, and he’s just an awesome guy. So he reached out to me while I was working at a few high school volleyball camps at Emory University. Jenny McDowell, the head coach at Emory, is really great, too. She gets local high school coaches and other college coaches to help run the camps. So I got involved and started making some connections with nearby coaches in the area. Richard had mentioned to her that GAC was in a transition and they were trying to bring on a new assistant onto the staff. He asked Jenny if she knew anyone for the job and she mentioned my name. So Richard reached out to me, actually a week after my son was born so I had just gotten back from the hospital. And I was like, “Uh, I don’t know if I’m looking to change right now.”
But then I met with him and with Kristy Shelton, a longtime GAC coach, who is just phenomenal and a great resource for everyone at GAC. Then I saw the opportunity for my whole family to get involved there. They have childcare on campus, which was such a big thing for me having an 11-month old. Looking at what they had to offer for my family and the potential with the volleyball program being able to step in and offer up my skill set there seemed like a great opportunity.
SC: Other than your time in college at Liberty University, have you always been in the Atlanta area?
RV: Yes. So I was born in Duluth, which I guess now is technically Johns Creek. We go to Perimeter Church in Johns Creek now. But then we moved to Alpharetta when i was in fifth grade and I lived there until I moved up to Virginia for college. I met my husband at Liberty, and when we were engaged he moved back here because he loved the area so much and I thought, “Wow, I guess that works.” So we’re back in the Roswell/Woodstock area now and we love it.
SC: What was it like growing up in the Atlanta area while your dad (Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz) was playing for the Braves?
RV: We were really blessed to be able to stay in the same area for almost all of his career. A lot of athletes are traded or switch teams and their families are constantly moving. I had friends growing up who, when their dads got traded, they had to move away. So, we didn’t take that for granted at all.
It was really cool to have an area we called home and got to stay here for so long. At the end of my dad’s career, he went up to Boston, but we were able to stay here. It was just really cool to be able to grow up in one place.
You know, people ask me all the time what it was like growing up with my dad being who is. But it’s funny because he’s just my dad. That was just his job and what he did, so he would just go to work and come home. We were little kids and it was exciting but it was just his job. I’m very blessed to have those memories. I think now, as an adult, it means more.
SC: Does your dad tell any funny stories about you in his autobiography?
RV: Uh oh ... not that I’m aware of. We joke that we’ve heard everything in the book growing up and listening to him. But it is pretty cool that he was able to put all that in a book form for people to learn a little bit more about who he is.
SC: Do you still follow baseball at all?
RV: Not really. Obviously my dad is still pretty involved, so we watch him on TV every once and awhile. But like I said, it was his job, so as kids we enjoyed being in the atmosphere but I would say I definitely was not as knowledgeable about what was going on in baseball as a lot of the kids I knew.
SC: I guess you’re right, I don’t think I would want to watch my dad go to meetings.
RV: Exactly. I have so much respect for him and the ways that he’s been able to serve his community. He played a sport that he loved and he played it well. He taught us so many lessons through it like how to be competitive and how to work hard and I really think that’s where I’ve gotten my love for athletics.
SC: Your husband played basketball at Liberty, has he ever tried to take you in volleyball?
RV: Oh gosh. We played beach volleyball a ton in college, which is kind of a good game because it sort of evens the playing field being out on the sand. And he is so talented, which made me mad sometimes because we work so hard at a sport and he would just show up and be good. But I always joked that I had to be his defense because he could hit the ball but didn’t know how to pass it. He’s an incredible, multi-sport athlete though, and now he has turned into a golfer. So I have to find my next sport now I guess.
SC: How has your life changed since having your son?
RV: It has been an incredible journey. As a coach you work with kids, but they have their own parents so you have to work through that dynamic. But now having a kid of my own, I now understand what it is to truly love another person unconditionally. Obviously I love my husband and my family, but my son isn’t even 1 yet and he can do no wrong. It’s a challenge to balance coaching, and working and being a mom, but my husband has been super supportive in allowing me to pursue coaching even though it takes me away some evenings. But I love being a mom and I love sitting on the ground and playing with him for hours. It’s cool to show that side of myself to my girls too. I actually brought him to practice yesterday, so it’s nice for them to see a different side of their coach.