BY JAMES COLLIER
FOR THE ASHLAND BEACON
Katee Neltner had no idea of what she was getting herself into when she accepted the head coach for Boyd County Volleyball in 2017. Neltner inherited a team that went 0-28 in 2016, leaving her a bit shellshocked when she landed the job.
“I didn’t know we were winless when I took over the program,” Neltner said with a grin.
Those days, however, were ancient history after Neltner led her team to a 17-15 season in her first season at the helm and the first winning season for the Lions since a 16-5 mark in 2003.
“We started winning and people were hyped and I was like, this is easy,” Neltner chuckled. “Then I realized just how low the program had been. There was not much expectation put on me but the minute we started winning games and the minute we started running this program the way it should’ve been run, the minute these girls started playing volleyball and seeing volleyball the way it should be played in eastern Kentucky and throughout the state, all of a sudden, a light bulb went off.”
That lightbulb might as well have been a spotlight on a program that has taken not only the 16th Region by storm but has inserted itself as one of the top volleyball programs in the state. Neltner is coaching in her 199th game Monday night as the Lions play host to a Semi State contest in back-to-back seasons, welcoming 10th Region champ Bishop Brossart. Now, six years into a program that has completed a 180-degree turnaround, Boyd County athletic director Pete Fraley said the moment Neltner’s name went into the hat for the next coach for the Lions, he knew she was the perfect fit.
“She shared her vision for what she thought the program could be,” Fraley said. “I spoke to people who knew her when she played at KCU. They all had great things to say about her and everyone I spoke to endorsed her to be our next coach.”
Fraley said the expectations for Neltner were simple, build a competitive program for not only the district but also one that could via for a region crown, something the program had not had since 2003.
“The expectation was to build a competitive program,” Fraley said. “We talked about taking baby steps to get to the region tourney. She did that pretty quick. Then after getting to the region tourney, it was to get our program to a point where we could compete for the district and region title each year.”
Those accolades also came quick as Neltner guided her Lions into the region championship game in 2018 followed by appearances in the region final in 2019, 21 and 22.
“From that first season on, I think we set a precedent of what Boyd County volleyball was going to be, but at the beginning there were not many expectations,” Neltner said.
Neltner’s resume speaks for itself, a 156-42 record and back-to-back region titles while making Boyd County’s name known across the state. Her Lions surpassed the previous record of 34 wins for most in a season, set last year, with 36 thus far in 2022. But as Fraley said to Neltner, it took baby steps to get to that point.
“I’ve always said, there’s no reason to play outside the region until you could beat what’s inside the region,” Neltner said. “If you look at our schedule in the previous years, we haven’t played much outside the region. After region last year, we sat down and really looked at our schedule and we wanted to challenge ourselves with opportunities outside the 16th Region.”
Boyd County wasted little time in 2022 of finding out exactly where the Lions matched up with some of the better teams in the state with a trip to Apollo and the Apollo Summer Slam in mid-August where they posted a 5-1 mark against a high-level of competition. A trip to Lexington followed the next week where the Lions went 2-2 that included a loss to Bowling Green who touts the highest ranked RPI in the state. But Boyd County’s challenges early on was just what the Lions needed to set up another State Championship round contest on their home floor.
“Four years ago, I probably couldn’t tell you what RPI was,” Neltner laughed. “It's a huge factor in determining postseason because now, we host the 10th Region and last year we hosted the 15th Region. Just the home court advantage and not having to travel X number of hours to play your Sweet 16 game.”
Neltner’s love for a defensively sound team came naturally from her time spent with KCU Volleyball from 2006-09. As a member of the back row in the different colored jersey, Neltner was the catalyst for the offensive attack in front of her. But her former coach said Neltner’s skills from college is exactly what has allowed her to be so successful at Boyd County.
“She played the libero position very well and in developing those passing skills, she was always anticipating from where the next shot might be coming,” former KCU Volleyball coach Bruce Dixon said. “Learning those angles and tendencies has certainly helped develop her coaching choices.”
Dixon was in attendance for Boyd County’s regional championship win last week at Ashland and said seeing Neltner on the sidelines as a coach reminds him of her time on the court as a Knight in Grayson.
“The intensity she exhibited in college is on full display as a coach,” Dixon said. “It’s easy to be intense but the real key is how she cares for her players. They feel it, they know it’s genuine and because of that, those players will spill every bit of effort for her.
“She develops skills in a fundamental way and provides a foundation that builds a higher level of skill proficiency as each successive year comes. You put those two things together and anything is possible. I’m certainly not surprised.”
FUNDAMENTALS ARE THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF SUCCESS
Neltner’s goal on day one of her program was simple, learn the fundamentals of the game. But she wanted more than just a team that could win games, she wanted a program that would be well respected and known for their ability throughout the state.
“I’m competitive in nature and I don’t think that shocks anyone,” Neltner said. “My goal starting out was to build a winning program and to establish a program more so that has fundamentals. We teach our girls fundamentals and fundamentals beat out skill any day. When you put the fundamentals with the skill that our girls have, I don’t care who you put on the other side of the court.”
Neltner’s Lions stormed through region competition this season with a 19-0 record while losing only one set all season. But Neltner never allowed her team to play down to their competition, rather, she continually demanded a level of excellence that she felt each player had to offer.
“I think when you practice, you practice for the next game and when you play, you play for the next game,” she said. “When we play a team that doesn’t necessarily have the skill that we have, we have to bring our game because it means the next game we are going to play down because it's muscle memory.”
Neltner added: “At the end of the day, this game is a game of repetition. A game of perfect repetition and muscle memory and in the game of volleyball you don’t have time to think. It's a two or three second, if that, reaction time and with that reaction time you build that muscle memory, it's just straight practice of fundamentals.”
Fraley said Neltner has created a high level of expectation for her players each time they take the court.
“Our girls expect to win every time they step on the floor,” Fraley said. “They have worked so hard on fundamentals and skill work that they now have the confidence to play with any team on the other side of the net. They are a very disciplined team and that is a credit to Katee.”
COME TO JESUS TALKS
Anyone around the Boyd County program knows what to expect when Neltner and her crew take the court. This is also the case when her team does not perform to the level, she feels they are capable of which often leads to a quick timeout, regardless of the match score.
“One time when I was in college I heard a stat—and it might not be true—statistically if you let five points go by, you’ve lost the game,” Neltner said. “You will never see me not call a timeout once two or three points have come because that statistic sticks in my head. But volleyball is a game of momentum and all of a sudden you get a couple errors and even the best of kids are going to start getting in their heads. I like our come to Jesus moments, even if we are winning.”
As a practicing attorney for her day job, Neltner knows a few things about strongly worded conversations. However, even when her fury rains down in a timeout, Neltner said she only wants every drop of potential her team has to offer to be poured onto the court.
“It's the same in career when you go home and decompress and you think you could’ve, should’ve, would’ve,” Neltner said. “At the end of the day, I can hope the girls know that I love them even on a harsh day or a tough come to Jesus meeting, I know that they know that I love them.”
Neltner admits after a cardiac episode this year, she has mellowed somewhat and even questioned if she wanted to continue coaching due to the physical toll a volleyball season takes on a person. But her girls have been and always will be the reason Neltner patrols the Lions sideline while demanding excellence from her team.
“When I had my heart issues earlier this year, I sat down and asked myself if this was a stressor that I wanted to take on,” Neltner said. “So, I have been slightly chiller this year in my yelling. People have asked where has my yelling gone and I tell them, it's still there. Overall, I think I’ve grown as a coach and I think I’ve chilled out a little bit.”
Dixon said Neltner’s desire for greatness is what makes her successful in all she does.
“She wants to be and she will not allow herself to be denied,” Dixon said. “Where she is different, her motives are for the players and providing them with a great experience within this Boyd County volleyball program. It will never be about her.”
A win Monday night over Bishop Brossart for Boyd County would send the Lions to the Elite 8 in Winchester on Thursday. This would also be Neltner’s 200th game she has coached in her six-year tenure with the Lions. But just as she does with her work in her law firm, Neltner takes time to reflect on her wins and losses while trying to be the best version of her for Boyd County.
“I am uber critical of myself when it comes to coaching,” Neltner said. “There are days when I go home that I think I was too hard on them or I probably should’ve let that go. Pete always tell me, why don’t I just try and be nice and at the end of the day, I feel like I’m a very nice person. I think with the intensity and attitude that I coach with sometimes comes off a little harsh to people. I’m always super critical when I go home.”
Regardless of the stress, countless hours spent in the gymnasium or traveling throughout the state for the Lions next contest, Neltner said there is one thing that always gives her the will and desire to push on.
“At the end of the day, my love of the game will always win out,” she said. “People ask me, when is your last year? When are you retiring? Is it this year and everyone is over here stressing. I don’t even look at that. We look at postseason and once season is over, we look at next season and make that determination. But my love for the game and the love for these girls will always have me coming back.”