Stephen Pierce will be in an unfamiliar position during Eden girls volleyball games this season — cheering from the stands.
For the first time in nearly three decades, it won’t be Pierce running one of the top programs in New York State. The longtime coach retired after a 28-year run that included 995 career wins and 14 state championships, both NYSPHSAA records.
The torch has been passed inside the Raiders family to Hailee Herc, who already has an impressive résumé of her own.
Herc won her third state championship as a senior in 2009, the year Eden started its current run of eight in a row. The defensive specialist went on to play at Division I Stony Brook on a full-ride scholarship while also coaching at the Long Island Volleyball Academy. From there she became an assistant from 2014-16 at Cortland State, where she earned her master’s degree.
Still, despite the credentials, it's impossible for anyone to stack up with what Pierce has accomplished.
How exactly do you follow in the footsteps of the winningest volleyball coach in state history? The answer is simple for Herc.
“I definitely think there’s a lot of pressure. People have come up to me asking me if I can fill Stephen’s shoes,” Herc said. “But I don’t think anything is going to change. I still have those high expectations, regardless if anyone put those expectations on me.”
Pierce and Eden athletic director Marisa Fallacaro discussed their visions for filling the opening on and off for about a year or so.
“We had a goal to see if we could get former students who we knew were respected around the community,” Pierce said, “and Hailee came to mind because we heard that she wanted to come back to the area and look for teaching jobs.”
When Herc found out her former coach was retiring, she reached out to him and Fallacaro to see if they were still looking for candidates to fill the position.
“He said he would love it if a former player of his would take over the program,” said Herc, who’s teaching special education at Gowanda, “and it all kind of went from there.”
Herc interviewed shortly thereafter, and the hiring was made official in April.
“I was very excited,” Pierce said. “I can’t imagine any other person I’d want more to take it over. She was one of those kids who leaves a real positive impact on a program. She worked to make it better when she left it than when she found it.
“I was also relieved as well, hoping to get not only a volleyball person but somebody we knew would dedicate themselves right from the start.”
That 2009 group certainly left an impact on Pierce. There have been some great teams during his time at Eden, but he places that one in some exclusive company.
“Hailee was a leader and a starter on possibly one of the two or three best teams ever in New York State,” Pierce said.
Players from that year also earned scholarships to Kent State (Hailee’s twin sister Hannah), Georgia, North Carolina, Syracuse and two to Penn State.
“It was a pretty dynamic team, and she played a vital role on it,” Pierce said. “She knows how to win.”
She also brings with her expertise, an incredible amount of energy, a positive attitude and a way of interacting with young girls, according to Pierce.
“I coached a lot of them at the Eden summer camps when they were younger, so right away they had that respect,” Herc said. “They really like my coaching style, and I think it’s definitely a lot different than what they’re used to.”
Pierce was very skill-oriented, focusing on the little things like passing and hitting form. Herc recalls still doing the same drills when she was 18 years old as she would when she was 12.
“I kind of like to build a team atmosphere, where the focus is together as one team, not one player,” Herc said. “I want it to be a program that has a fun atmosphere that everybody wants to be a part of while keeping the prestige of Eden volleyball.”
While Pierce still remains an english teacher in the district, he has made it a point of emphasis to keep his distance from the program. He’ll be available to answer any questions and will make his way to games and tournaments over the course of the season, but he doesn’t want to be “one of those coaches who linger around. I want it to be her team from the start.”
“He’s kind of stayed away,” Herc said. “He’s wished me luck and things like that but I think he’s trying to let me figure it out on my own.”
One thing on her plate this season is to fill the voids left by the graduation of a stellar senior class.
The Raiders lost six-time state champions Sam Burgio and Molly Breier, but do return senior middle hitter Sam Logan, an All-Western New York small schools selection a year ago, and juniors Peiton Bazinski and Emma Sutfin.
“It’s a very young team and we have room to grow, but I’m definitely confident in all the girls that we have on our team,” Herc said.
Between Pierce and the head coaches at Stony Brook and Cortland, Herc has taken bits and pieces from everyone who has influenced her along the way. Now it’s up to her to put it all together where her journey once began.
“The Eden volleyball program was able to provide me with so many opportunities and open so many doors after high school,” Herc said. “I’m excited to provide that to the girls now and give them the same opportunities that I had as a player.”