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New coach, like the Mustangs, has had adversity

Gladstone success story Heather Denison is coaching volleyball at Milwaukie -


It’s been more than 20 years since Milwaukie High School has had a winning program in volleyball. The Mustangs have won only five of 138 league matches over the past 10 years.

Photo Credit: PHOTO BY JOHN DENNY - Heather Denison, the new head volleyball coach at Milwaukie High School, works with some of her players during an open gym. Denison hopes to generate an increased interest in volleyball at Milwaukie High School by building a youth program.Heather Denison, the Mustangs’ new head coach, admits it may take some time, but she hopes to begin to turn things around.

“I applied at Milwaukie because it was close to where I work and it was an opportunity to build a program,” Denison says. “I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

Denison says she believes the main ingredient that has been missing at Milwaukie is a feeder program, and she is hopeful she can get one started for area middleschoolers.

“They haven’t had a junior high program, a program that the kids can grow up with. There hasn’t been enough focus on the younger ages,” Denison said.

“I think my growing up in Gladstone, where we didn’t have the resources to play club, gives me an understanding of what it’s like for the girls in Milwaukie....,” Denison said. “One thing I’ve found out about volleyball is that it’s a sport where, no matter your level of play, with club volleyball or without club, it’s repetitions that make you better so that you can be successful.

“I’m excited for the challenge, but I’m very aware of where our priorities need to be. This year’s focus will be on maintaining a positive attitude and keeping it fun, but making it clear to the girls that they need to take ownership for improving their own skill-set. We’ll focus on individual development, and as the girls improve their abilities the team will get better.”

Denison’s own life is an example that great things can be accomplished even if life does not deal you the best of hands.

“I pretty much raised myself,” Denison says. “My parents divorced when I was two. My mom had a lot of addition and mental health issues. I stayed with friends off and on from fifth grade on, and I moved out of my mom’s house when I was in eighth grade. I had three families that I stayed with eighth grade through high school. I was one of those children raised by the community.”

In the fall of 1999, Denison’s senior year at Gladstone, she led the Gladiators to an 8-6 record in the big-school Three Rivers League and a berth in postseason play. No Gladstone volleyball team since then has had a winning record in league.

Denison played one year of club volleyball. Her senior year, she made the Nike Northwest Juniors, where she played for Rod Jones. Her efforts gained her a full-ride scholarship to the University of Portland, where she started three seasons and earned all-conference honors as an outside hitter.

Denison also competed in basketball and track and field at Gladstone. Her sophomore season, the Gladiators made the state tournament in girls basketball. Her senior year she qualified for state in both the triple jump (33-7-1/2) and high jump (5-0).

A double major at the University of Portland, Denison earned a bachelor’s degree in Life Science in 2004 and in nursing in 2006.

In 2004, Denison was honored by the NCAA as one of only three individuals from around the country awarded the NCAA’s Inspiration Award.

She was the first student from the University of Portland to receive the award, which is presented to a coach, administrator or student/athlete “who, when confronted with a life-altering situation, uses perseverance, dedication and determination to overcome the event, and who serves as a role model to ‘give hope and inspiration to others in similar situations.’”

Denison went on to earn her MBA degree in Hospital Administration in 2012. She’s worked as an operating room nurse at Kaiser-Sunnyside Hospital for the past eight years and a year ago was named manager of the surgical unit and post anesthesia recovering unit at Kaiser-Sunnyside.

“I think that with my personal struggles, they helped make me successful where I might otherwise not have been,” Denison says.

Denison was jayvee volleyball coach under K.T. Emerson at Lake Oswego High School for four years (2005-2008) and jayvee coach under Lea Petok at Lincoln High School two years (2009-2010). Emerson was recently named athletic director at Milwaukie High School. Denison also coached Athena Volleyball club teams from 2005 through 2010. Denison and Emerson played together one year at the University of Portland.

“I had been toying with returning to coaching since completing my MBA,” Denison says. “I missed it.”

Denison has named Melissa Brant and Darren Parra as her assistant coaches.

Brant was an assistant coach at La Salle from 2006-2009 and an assistant at Putnam the past two seasons. Parra, a 1984 graduate of Gladstone High School, has coached area CYO and club teams for the past 14 years.

“I feel great about our staff,” said Denison. “They all have several years of coaching experience. And it’s nice to have K.T. [Emerson] as athletic director. She’s really enthusiastic about volleyball.”



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