H.S. Volleyball Coach Wins 900th Match
When Donna Dulle took over as volleyball coach at Mount Pulaski High School in 1981, the school was looking for a little continuity in the program.“They’d had a different coach come in every couple of years,” Dulle recalled. “They hadn’t had the same coach for more than two years in a row. So when I came back for the third year, it was like, ‘Hey! She’s been here three years now!’”
Multiply that modest third year by 10, and a little continuity has become a study in long-term consistency and excellence on the hilltop.
In her 30th year as the Toppers’ coach, Dulle has seen her teams chalk up two state championships, 11 total state appearances, 25 regional titles (including 21 straight) and — as of Thursday night — 900 victories.
“I’ve had really good players who’ve been very dedicated, and good parental support too,” said Dulle, who became just the fourth Illinois high school volleyball coach with 900 career victories when Mount Pulaski took a 25-15, 20-25, 25-20 win at Petersburg PORTA Thursday night.
“It’s been more about them than about me. When you have players like Tina Rogers and Sallie Bowles and Mallory Clements and Mary Olson and . . . I’m just a good cheerleader, I think. But I’m not thinking about records and stuff like that.”
Dulle, an Arthur High School and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale graduate, now stands fourth on the state list for career victories. And three of the top four are still coaching.
Immediately ahead of Dulle is another central Illinois coaching legend who’s not related to the Mount Pulaski coach despite sharing the same last name: Sacred Heart-Griffin’s Helen Dulle, whose Blazers won 921 matches over 35 seasons. That includes the 2008 campaign when she returned to serve as interim coach at SHG.
Nos. 1 and 2, meanwhile, have surpassed 1,000 wins and are still going strong after starting their careers in the mid-1970s: Wheaton
St. Francis coach Peg Kopec and Breese Mater Dei’s Fred Rakers.
Donna Dulle has one distinction in the 900-win club. She’s the first public-school coach to reach the milestone. But while non-boundaried schools have wider areas from which to draw student-athletes, Dulle has been able to develop her players at a younger age through her additional role as Mount Pulaski Junior High School coach.
“It makes a difference, being able to coach the junior high kids,” said Dulle, whose Mount Pulaski Grade School Honeybears have won a total of 10 seventh- or eighth-grade Illinois Elementary School Association state titles since she started coaching them in 1990.
“Right or wrong, at least you’re doing the same thing at the younger level as you are in high school. It gives them a head start.”
Donna’s husband, Ron Dulle, wasn’t at PORTA Thursday night to watch his wife of 34 years reach her latest milestone. He was officiating a volleyball match in Pontiac, a job he’s taken on since Ron and Donna’s daughters — Kathy and Bethany — wrapped up their playing careers.
Earlier this week, Ron said Donna’s career couldn’t be measured by victories and championships alone.
“I don’t know if people know how much work she really puts in,” said Ron, who met Donna in college after he graduated from Breese Mater Dei. “It’s not just the coaching, but all the extra stuff she does when (Mount Pulaski) hosts tournaments, making sure the concession stand is ready to go.
“The money they make from additional things like that goes toward new uniforms, or being able to take a charter bus to a tournament in Chicago or Belleville.”
Beyond 900 victories, Ron Dulle said the Hilltoppers’ postseason consistency stands out on Donna’s resume. The small-school Toppers won 21 straight regional titles from 1984-2004.
“I’m not sure how she did it, but she always got the girls ready for the postseason,” he said. “There have been years where people expected them to do well and other times where she got them farther than people thought they’d go.”
Coming off a Class 1A state runner-up finish last year, Mount Pulaski will begin postseason play later this month. At some point after the high school and junior high seasons are over, Donna said she’ll probably assess things and decide whether to return for season No. 31.
“I take it about one year at a time now,” she said, not elaborating. But her husband doesn’t envision her calling it a career anytime soon.
“She just takes it year to year,” Ron said. “But has she slowed down? I don’t think so. She’s working as hard as she did 20 years ago, doing all the extra things and pre-planning.
“How much longer? I have no idea. It’s up to her. But when coaching’s in your blood, it’s hard to give it up.”