For Autumn Hawkes, there must be a sense of de?ja? vu between her experience as an athlete and now as a coach.
Hawkes, 28, is the coach of the South Portland girls volleyball team. The Red Riots are in the first year as a varsity program after three years at the club level.
She grew up in North Yarmouth and moved to Pownal her junior year of high school – the same year she discovered the sport.
She and a few other girls were approached by Coach Kalvin Hasch in 2001 to help start a volleyball program at Greely High School in Cumberland.
“I had never played before, but always liked playing the sport in gym class and at barbecues,” said Hawkes. “So I said, ‘Why not?’”
Hawkes said the inaugural Greely volleyball team had fun and learned a lot in their first year. They even made it into the playoffs, but couldn’t compete in the postseason because they were only a club team, not a sanctioned varsity sport. The next year, the team went to the school board and was sanctioned in time for Hawkes’ senior year in 2002.
Most of the players on the team were new to the sport. This time as a sanctioned team, they not only made it to the playoffs, they also won the state championship.
Hawkes says that Hasch and Assistant Coach Dr. Bruce Churchill pushed the players to be the best they could be.
“Those two years under Coaches [Hasch and Churchill] made me love the sport. I haven’t stopped playing since,” Hawkes said.
After graduation, Hawkes went on to play at the University of Maine at Farmington, as an outside hitter. She played in adult leagues in the Farmington area while at school and then joined more leagues in the Lewiston/Auburn and Portland area.
“I moved to Fryeburg for a year for work but continued to drive back and forth at least twice a week to play in competitive leagues,” Hawkes said. “I still play in leagues and play beach volleyball in the summer.”
Hawkes’ first coaching job was as an assistant for the Maine Juniors 18 Gold team.
Two years later, Hawkes moved on to be the assistant coach at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish in 2010. Her sister was starting her sophomore year at St. Joe’s when Hawkes stepped in and figured she could gain some experience coaching at the college level and also watch her sister grow as a player. She stayed there for three years.
She heard about the position at South Portland, but wasn’t sure if she was ready to take the next step into a bigger leadership role.
In fact, her fiance?, Tim Vargo, took an interest in the position, but didn’t feel like he could meet the required time commitment.
A month later, Hawkes reached out to South Portland Athletic Director Todd Livingston to discuss the coach position. Livingston, a former physical education teacher at Greely High School, remembered Hawkes.
She debated whether to submit an application, hesitant to leave St. Joe’s and unsure about handling the new position.
“I didn’t feel like my confidence was there,” Hawkes said.
She also worried about transitioning from coaching college-level play to high school. Coming from a “harsher” and “blunt” college level, where players are told and understand exactly what they need to fix, to coaching a newly formed team with many novice players who would need constructive guidance, she worried about finding a balance.
Livingston called her and set up an interview. She was offered the job a week after inquiring and a week before the season began.
“When hiring Autumn, I was impressed by her desire to see this program grow and improve,” Livingston said. “She has a great knowledge of the game and her experience as a college assistant at Saint Joseph’s College has prepared her well for the high school level.”
Hawkes’ goals for the season are to teach the girls basic skills of the game, competitiveness and give them coaching that truly breaks down each skill.
The season lasts about two months and the team has about two matches a week. A typical practice focuses primarily on serving and receiving serves. Hawkes adds in different drills each day based on what the team needs to work on from the previous match.
“All the girls on the varsity team are very athletic, so they have picked up a lot of the skills very quickly,” Hawkes said. “For the JV team, they are mostly freshmen, some are very athletic and some wanted to try something new.”
“I’m very impressed with how far our team has come under her leadership and the team continues to improve each match,” Livingston said. “Knowing she inherited a new program, she has focused on instilling the basic volleyball skills and knowledge, but challenging the girls to extend beyond their comfort zone.”
“We are playing hard,” Hawkes said. “We have yet to win a match, but we are taking games off teams like Cape, Falmouth and Greely so far this season.”
While South Portland doesn’t play Hawkes’ alma mater, Greely, in competition, the two teams were paired, fittingly, in the Maine Games Bruce Churchill Memorial Tournament in September. It’s an event benefiting ALS research in memory of Churchill, who succumbed to the disease in 2012.
It’s not just winning and losing that is important. Hawkes wants to see her players bond as a team and bond as friends.
“I’m really lucky with this group of girls,” Hawkes said. “Each girl has a piece of card stock with their name on the top and every other player would write something positive about that player on it. It helps them to see how their teammates see them.” Hawkes said. The girls took it upon themselves to have team dinners and Hawkes had them make T-shirts and posters together, too.
Hawkes’ fiance? is her assistant coach at South Portland. The duo previously coached the Maine Juniors 15 Gold team together last year. Livingston hopes to keep the pair around to establish South Portland’s volleyball program for years to come.
“She intends to dedicate herself to developing the volleyball program and I look forward to watching it flourish under her leadership,” Livingston said. “Aside from developing the program and winning games, I am pleased to hear that the girls are having fun and enjoying playing for her.
“She knows that it will take a few years, but has already spoken about developing a middle school feeder program and offering clinics for youth,” Livingston said.
Hawkes looks to her coaches to model her leadership style. Hasch, her first coach, was teaching a bunch of new players, just like Hawkes is at South Portland today.
“He had fun with us but knew when to push us to be our best,” Hawkes said. “I look up to him.”
Her UMF coach also made a point of having fun, but pushed harder, given that it was an elite level and making mistakes meant time on the bench.
“It pushed me to be better,” Hawkes said.
For Hawkes, being a good leader means someone who can bring out the positive in people.
“Leaders help to build confidence, teach lessons and inspire others to do their best,” Hawkes said. “I always tell my players that I’m not just there to coach them as athletes, I want to help them grow as individuals.”
Autumn HawkesAutumn Hawkes started playing volleyball in high school and still plays in area leagues today. Hawkes shares her passion for the sport as the coach at South Portland High School.Autumn Hawkes South Portland volleyball coach, second from left, huddles with her team during a game. Hawkes is leading the team in their first year as a sanctioned varsity sport.