MISSOULA — Erin Keffeler classifies herself as a nerd.
Interesting really, since she might be the coolest high school coach in Missoula. Not a self-important or cautiously-bland bone in this woman's body — unbelievably refreshing to this reporter, who wishes he had a dollar for every time a coach offered up a moldy cliché for a comment.
As a casual onlooker, the first thing you notice about Erin is she smiles a lot when she leads her team through warm-ups. It's hardly the stiff, ultra-disciplined vibe you'd expect from the coach of the two-time defending State AA champion Missoula Sentinel volleyball team.
Keffeler is living proof you don't have to be domineering to be a consistently successful skipper. Her secret weapon is kindness and our fair city wouldn't be the same without her.
"I think teenagers definitely want you to be cool and I'm not cool enough for them, that's for darn sure," she says with a contagious laugh. "I am myself and I don't try to be anybody but that. That's for sure.
"I love volleyball, so I think definitely that part comes out to them. They know that I truly care what happens for them."
Keffeler seems to be friendly to everyone — parents, crosstown rivals, peculiar sports writers, janitors, officials, everyone really. She reminds you of one of those friendly neighborhood storekeepers from the 60s. Coincidentally, that's sort of what she does for a living.
Every morning she wakes up at 5 and heads to Noon's gas station/convenience store on Russell St., where she has served as a manager for 13 years. Then at 3 in the afternoon she hustles to practice, where she uses her down-to-earth people skills to connect with teenagers.
"We actually have a great team at Noon's," she offers. "The reason that happens is because when you care about your people, it doesn't become about money. It becomes about family.
"Knowing what's important in their lives, you schedule them accordingly. Managing is coaching. If you can talk to your people ..."
Let me finish that for you, Coach. And kids, take note: If you can talk and listen to people without prejudice, life can be a pretty sweet ride.
"She's so friendly," Sentinel senior player Shelby Schweyen said. "Some coaches are more hard on you and strict, but she gets to know how you react to things and knows how to push you in a positive way.
"Just a very nice personality, unlike a lot of coaches. She knows how to work with all of us."
You're never going to get Keffeler to stay quiet on the bench. Her players are never left to wonder what's expected of them, yet you'll never catch Erin breaking down a kid with public ridicule.
Teens want to play for her. Can you beat that?
"These kids need a lot of positive feedback," she offered. "Any mistake that happens in this sport is already over. If you hem and haw and dwell on mistakes, it turns into five mistakes.
"If you always focus on the next play, they don't get tentative. They're not afraid you're going to yell at them. They can be calm and relaxed. That's something that's really important. I love kids."
Winning a third straight state championship seems like a stretch for the Spartans with only one returning starter. On the other hand, Keffeler has her young crew believing.
It's a marvelous machine powered by positive energy. And regardless of where Sentinel finishes this fall, their coach will always be a champion.