WARREN - With two sister coaches squaring off in a high school volleyball match, one might think the match would be a hot topic at family gatherings and holidays.
It's an event that gains even more notoriety since one sister has a long track record of winning, and the other is just beginning her career and could be a rising star in the coaching ranks.
Yet, Hillary Allen and Heather Guthrie (formerly Hillary and Heather Pegg before marriage) and the rest of their family haven't thrown their upcoming clash out in the open.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Warren G. Harding coach Heather (Pegg) Guthrie, left, and her sister, Champion coach Hillary (Pegg) Allen will face each other on the volleyball court tonight as their teams play each other at Champion.
They prefer the more subtle approach.
"It's kind of like that big white elephant in the room," Allen said. "We try not to make a big deal of it, but someone is going to have to lose. Neither one of us wants that, but we'll both have our girls prepared, and it's going to be a good night."
That elephant must be enormous at this point.
Allen, the Champion High School coach, and Guthrie, Warren G. Harding's mentor, face off tonight in Champion, the place each of them starred at as players. The game will begin immediately after the junior varsity matchup, which starts at 5:30 p.m. (no siblings are known to be going head-to-head in that faceoff).
Allen, a 2002 Champion graduate, and Guthrie, a 2005 alumna, have good reason not to talk about it. They're both in their first year at the respective schools and are trying to make sure their teams are focused on improving and not a sibling showdown.
"I want to make this game about the girls and both of these programs," Guthrie said. "The last two years, Champion and Harding have had two different coaches. If anything, we should praise the girls for adapting to what my sister and I bring to the programs and learning from us."
Harding's acclimation to Guthrie has really picked up steam as of late. The Raiders (9-9) beat Euclid and Bedford last week. Both of those teams defeated Harding in three sets the first time they played. Guthrie, who's a fifth-grade teacher in the Warren school district, said the season started off slow because the Raiders needed time to grasp the different concepts and schemes she was implementing, but the girls have bought into the program and are starting to flourish.
"We've gotten better as the season's gone on," said Guthrie, who played at Point Park University after high school. "We've won the last few games we've had and we've been playing really well. I think the girls are starting to mesh. We've been playing solidly the last couple weeks, and I'm proud of them for coming from where we started to where we are now."
Catching on was a process for Harding, partly because Guthrie has much to teach. She said her techniques have been crafted from several different coaches, including her sister, who she worked with as an assistant at Mathews High School in 2010. She also developed skills from her former Champion coach, Michele Bonno (now Michele Stewart), traveling club coaches and in college at Point Park. She's mended what she took into her own style, which she said is similar to her sister's.
"We kind of had the same strategy (at Mathews)," she said. "I learned a lot in college, and I learned a lot from (my high school coach), so I brought those strategies and ideas with me to Mathews. And Hillary was open to me coaching them that way. She taught me a lot about how to deal with the girls. We rubbed off on each other. We're always going to exchange ideas because I want her to succeed and I know she wants me to succeed."
Allen knows quite a bit about success. She finished with a 39-9 record in two years at Mathews (2009, 2010), where she also won a pair of Northeastern Athletic Conference titles and finished as district runners-up in '09. A former Youngstown State University walk-on, Allen said she's been waiting for the position with the Golden Flashes since she began coaching. Leading her alma mater holds a special meaning for Allen, and she hopes to rebuild Champion (5-13) into a perennial winner.
"Yes and no," said Allen of whether there's an added burden to win at Champion. "Yes, there is pressure only because I'm a former player of the program and an alumna, and no because I've been other places and had success, and I know it takes time to build a successful program. Coming in, I didn't know anything about the team because I was out of the coaching circuit last year. I told them, 'It didn't matter what happened in years past. We're going to start fresh.' And the girls have been very receptive about taking in new ideas and strategies.
"It's really an awesome experience being that I'm coaching back where I fell in love with the sport, so to be able to give players the perspective of the drive and passion that I had here is awesome."
Allen is just as zealous about teaching as she is coaching, she said. Oddly enough, she's currently a permanent substitute at Harding, where she said the girls have been playfully teasing her about today's matchup. Just like Guthrie, she's taking it in stride and not allowing the bloodlines to affect the focus of her or the team.
"Everyone seems to be making a really big deal about it, but we haven't really talked about it," she said of her and her sister. "We both think our girls have made humongous strides since the summer when we scrimmaged. We both have a lot of the same philosophies and strategies, so it will be fun to see how it plays out. The things I teach my girls are some of the same things she teaches her girls, so it will be interesting."
While the Raiders may have joked to Allen about today's match, they've kept quiet about it to Guthrie. She said she's made repeated statements to her girls not to overhype the game. She wants it to be just like any other match preferably one that ended in a win.
"I talked to my girls a little bit last week after our game against Bedford, and I just told them, 'Monday's just another game of volleyball. I don't want to hear, oh you're playing your sister, you're playing your sister, because she's a coach right now, and first and foremost, she's my sister, but when we go in (Monday), she's just going to be another coach that I'm coaching against and no hard feelings,'" Guthrie said. "The girls know I'm not adding any extra pressure. I just want them to do their best, and that's all I ask for."
That sounds like a coaching strategy both will agree on for today.