WORDS: Kara Chalmers
PICTURES: Whitney Patton
You know you have something good when former players come back to coach for you. In Nancy Cothron’s case, that something good is Manatee Area Volleyball, of which she is the director and head coach.
At 30 years old, the club is the longest-running independently owned volleyball club in Manatee County. It offers indoor and beach volleyball to boys and girls ages eight through 18.
Josilyn Benitez, now 22 and one of four head coaches for the club, began playing for Manatee Area Volleyball when she was 13 and continued with the club through high school at Palmetto High.
“My volleyball journey started in eighth grade,” Benitez said, noting she first learned about the sport in P.E. class at Buffalo Creek Middle School. She fell in love with it and joined the school’s team.
“I like that it’s a team sport,” Benitez said of volleyball. “I like the feeling of being part of something bigger than me.”
At Palmetto High, Benitez played varsity volleyball all four years. But it wasn’t enough. Manatee Area Volleyball, Benitez said, “was an opportunity to play all year round and at a higher level.”
While the indoor volleyball high school season is in the fall (August to October), clubs like Manatee Area Volleyball offer practices and tournaments beginning when the high school season ends and running through May. Over the summer, they offer beach volleyball.
“I wanted to stay involved instead of taking 10 months off from playing,” Benitez said, adding that playing for Manatee Area Volleyball improved her game. Also, the club offered her a needed escape as a teen – chunks of time during the week when she could forget any stress and demands and just play.
“I always looked forward to it,” she said.
Today, Benitez coaches a team with 10 girls ages 14 through 17. While she no longer plays competitively, she plays recreational beach volleyball. She said she enjoys being a mentor, too, and sharing her knowledge with her players.
“It allows me to be a role model, and it keeps me in the game,” she said of coaching. “It gives me a way to give back to a club that gave me so much.”
A Hit with the Players
Cothron, Manatee Area Volleyball’s director, and head coach, is partly to thank for Benitez’s success in the sport and her love of the game, she said.
“She is the true definition of a coach,” Benitez said of Cothron. “She knows how to bring out the best in everyone.”
Cothron is a subtle, laid-back, and welcoming coach, who her players’ respect, Benitez said, adding that Cothron is an excellent teacher. Even kids who’ve never touched a volleyball are encouraged to join Manatee Area Volleyball, she said.
“Nancy brings in anyone who wants to play, will teach anyone who wants to learn,” Benitez said.
Cothron, a former professional volleyball player, works full-time as a P.E. teacher at Bayshore High School, where she also coaches the girls’ tennis team. Also, she coaches the girls’ junior varsity volleyball team at Manatee High School (her husband Tony Cothron coaches the girls’ varsity team there). Before working at Bayshore, Cothron was a P.E. teacher at St. Stephens in Bradenton for 16 years.
Cothron founded the club in the early 1990s as an affordable way for local kids to play volleyball outside of school. At its height in 2010, the club had 120 players – 10 travel teams – and one of those teams qualified for junior nationals more than once. Back then, the teams attended tournaments as far away as Georgia, Minnesota, and Texas.
Cothron ran track before discovering beach volleyball in her senior year at Robinson High School in Tampa. Cothron, who had known since middle school that she wanted to be a P.E. teacher, majored in Physical Education at Florida State University. In her sophomore year, she walked on to the volleyball team, and played indoor and beach volleyball, and ran indoor and outdoor track until she graduated.
After graduation, Cothron played professional volleyball for four years in Italy – in Parma, Genoa, and Trento. She then spent a year and a half playing in Switzerland.
After coming home to Tampa, Cothron took a job as a P.E. Teacher at Dowdell Middle Magnet School. She also met her husband, a fellow volleyball player and Bradenton resident, via beach volleyball tournaments. They married in 1990 and soon after had twins Joshua and Casey, who started to play volleyball at age five. The twins, who both played for their college volleyball teams, coach for Manatee Area Volleyball today.
This past year has been challenging for the club because of COVID-19, Cothron said. She had to stop all practices and tournaments from March through August 2020. At that time, she began offering beach volleyball practices at the beach. In November, she offered her indoor players practice on Palma Sola Elementary School’s football field and Bayshore High School’s softball field. She didn’t offer summer camps in 2020 because of the pandemic.
Manatee Area Volleyball’s players come from all over the area – Bradenton, Sarasota, Myakka City, Parrish, and Palmetto. There are about 50 players in all, and about 40 play on teams that participate in tournaments. Teams are categorized by age and ability. A lot of the players also play for their middle and high schools.
Ashlyn McClellan, 15, is a sophomore at Manatee High School. Ashlyn has been playing indoor and beach volleyball for Manatee Area Volleyball for two years. Cothron is her high school volleyball coach, and that’s how she heard about the club.
The club has been great for Ashlyn, who said that she was shy and struggled with anxiety before joining. Now, not only has her game improved substantially, but she is also more confident. Also, volleyball helps with her anxiety by allowing her to focus on something completely and keeps her mind off any worries, she said. “I like how competitive it is,” Ashlyn said of volleyball. “It’s fun. I love it.”
Ashlyn plans to play volleyball through high school and hopes to earn a scholarship to play in college.
Ashlyn’s mother, Amie McClellan, described coach Cothron as the “sweetest person ever.”
“She’s very patient with the kids,” Amie McClellan said. “She’s a really good coach.” Ashlyn agreed.
“She is an amazing coach,” she said.
Manatee Area Volleyball offers opportunities to play all year long. Indoor practices are from 7 pm to 9 pm Mondays and Thursdays in the Bayshore and Bradenton Christian high school gyms.
Beach Practice is held from 9 am to 11 am or noon Saturdays at Manatee Public Beach (unless there is a tournament). Over the summer, beach practice is also offered at the courts on Bradenton’s Riverwalk.
The club teams attend six to eight one- to two-day tournaments a year, all in Florida.
Whether and when Manatee Area Volleyball will hold summer camps or host tournaments again depends on COVID-19. For updates, call 941-915-3097