One of the best-ever women tackles new challenge with Culver-Stockton men's program

Culver-Stockton College, an NAIA school with about 1,000 undergraduates in Canton, Missouri, established a men’s volleyball program eight years ago. (Photo courtesy of Culver-Stockton College)
Culver-Stockton men’s volleyball coach Caren Kemner.

Three-time Olympian. Six-time recipient of the United States Olympic Committee Female Volleyball Athlete of the Year and a five-time winner of Team USA MVP award. Member of the University of Arizona and International Volleyball halls of fame.

Caren Kemner, a native of Quincy who led Quincy Notre Dame to an undefeated IHSA championship as a sophomore in 1980, has achieved just about everything possible on the women’s volleyball side.

So why did she give up the reigns of her women’s program in favor of the men’s game?

“I absolutely love the men’s side,” said Kemner, the men’s volleyball coach at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri, an NAIA school with about 1,000 undergraduates that is just a stone’s throw across the Mississippi River from her hometown of Quincy.

“Those who know me know I’m very direct,” she added. “I’m not big on beating around the bush, and I think guys appreciate that kind of thing.”

After wrapping up a professional career that took her to Italy, Brazil and Japan and the beaches of the AVP professional tour, Kemner returned home to Quincy to care for her elderly parents. She opened a volleyball club in Quincy and coached for two seasons at Notre Dame.

In 2012, she became head coach of the women’s volleyball team at Culver-Stockton. Three years ago, she became the head coach of the fledgling men’s volleyball program, beginning a love affair that does not appear to be ending anytime soon.

“I helped behind the scenes putting the numbers together (when Culver-Stockton first explored men’s volleyball as an offering),” Kemner said. “We went to the president and said, ‘Look, it’s a no-brainer. You got to get on board sooner than later.

“(Men’s volleyball) is probably the most exciting sport on campus,” she added. “We’re so fortunate because we have such a great following. Students come up to me after a match and say, ‘Coach, this game’s amazing.’ I tell them, ‘Yep.’”

From a coaching standpoint, Kemner enjoys the challenges posed by the men’s game.

“I like tweaking their athleticism and combining that with the ball control aspect of the game, which I’m very fond of,” Kemner said. “It’s needed. But it’s also trying to figure out ways to be more explosive, and I have way more fun fiddling with my offense on the men’s side.”

Her biggest challenge, however, is promoting an NAIA program at a small school nestled on a 140-acre campus in a community of just under 2,400 people.

“I think the hardest thing is getting kids to understand is the campus, which seems to be in the middle of nowhere, is really cool,” she said. “You can throw a penny and hit another institution in Chicago or St. Louis that has boys’ volleyball. It’s hard to get them outside that box.”

To that end, Kemner has upgraded the Wildcats’ schedule. Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, Culver-Stockton had played preseason No. 1-ranked and defending NAIA champion Benedictine-Mesa, No. 2-ranked Missouri Baptist and No. 9 Aquinas College.

Since the end of the shortened season, Kemner has upped her recruiting game.

“I’ve been talking more to people than I ever have,” she said. “If we were still in season, we would just be wrapping up our (Heart of America Athletic Conference) tournament. But it’s also given me time to look a lot of kids who are three years out as well just trying to close up this 2020 class.

“I was looking for new challenge, and I definitely got one,” Kemner added. “But it’s so much fun. (Coaching the men) has put a little bit of the pep back in my step.”

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