The legend of volleyball coach Jan Kirk: profile and legacy
The volleyball world in the Tacoma-Pierce County area lost a giant this week when longtime Fife High coach Jan Kirk was found dead in his north Tacoma home on Thursday.
Kirk coached the Trojans from 1987-2011, achieving one of the most successful volleyball streaks in state history at levels 3A and 2A. Her teams won four state championships during the 90s and she ended her career with an overall record of 671-124.
But his influence went far beyond victories and defeats.
“She was a force of nature,” said her son and Sumner High athletic director Kelly Kirk. “She could rub people the wrong way sometimes, but deep down somewhere they always knew she was right and they had to get along. The game is so much better for its influence. I don’t think she left for that. She just took the opportunity that she saw.
Kelly Kirk saw her mother last Saturday, before heading to Las Vegas for a few days. He said he arrived home late Wednesday and went to see his mother on Thursday, where he found out she had died.
“My sister (Shawna) contacted me and told me that she hadn’t heard from him for a few days,” Kelly Kirk said. “It wasn’t unusual, however. She was 80 years old. Her phone wasn’t her life like many of us.
Jan Kirk had taken blood pressure medication, Kelly Kirk said.
“Paramedics said it looked like a heart attack or stroke,” said Kelly Kirk. “Maybe it’s because the drugs just caught up with her.”
Jan Kirk lost her husband Jerry, a former WSU football player and longtime football and wrestling coach to Kentridge High almost exactly three years ago on December 20, 2018.
The impact of Jan Kirk’s training began almost as soon as she returned to Fife, the school from which she graduated in 1959. Although she just found her own way in the first three or four seasons in As a first-time high school coach, Kirk had already planted seeds that would expand and improve volleyball throughout the region.
In 1989, she and Kelly founded the Puget Sound Volleyball Club. Kirk knew that in order for Pierce County teams to be competitive beyond the local level, area girls needed to be given the opportunity to play beyond the two months of the school season.
In other parts of the state and in other states, club volleyball was already having an impact.
“She would take teams to the Portland area and get beaten up first,” said Kelly Kirk. “She liked to win. But they were so far ahead. After a few years, we started to catch up.
Soon after starting Puget Sound volleyball, Kirk started a summer league and invited teams from across the region to participate.
“That’s what I mean by impact on other programs,” said longtime Puyallup High School coach Tony Batinovich. “It was a fundraiser for her in Fife. But it wasn’t just for Fife High School. She did it for sports, to make the children better.
Kirk’s own schedule saw its first huge bump when Sarah Silvernail transferred to Fife. The Silvernail team in 1992 won league and district titles before advancing and defeating Kennedy for the first of four state championships.
It’s one of the many memories Silvernail has of his last high school coach and lifelong friend and mentor.
“I thank God for landing on his knees as a senior,” Silvernail said from his home. “I remember one practice in particular. I was 17 years old. I had never been told that I was a good passer. I was the big boy outside, you know. Jan gave me a demo at this practice. At that time, I knew. She would find anyone’s strengths, even if you weren’t the most obvious.
Understanding that Silvernail could pass allowed her new star to grow into a six-rotation player, and it is the thing, said Silvernail, who ultimately saw her reach the U.S. national team. Silvernail said she has always kept in touch with Kirk over the years.
“She was more than just a volleyball mentor,” said Silvernail. “It’s pretty cool, isn’t it. When you are gone, the number of people you have reached really indicates how you have been living your life. She set the bar pretty high.
The Trojans peaked again in 1995, when Fife went 36-0 and beat Selah for the title. The Trojans faced each other the following season, defeating Selah again in the Championship game behind sisters Lisa and Renee Beauchene, Erin Miller and Kelby Saxwold. Fife won the state again in 1999.
The Beauchênes were two of four sisters who completed the Fife program under Kirk, along with Angie and Suzanne. These are just a few of the plethora of successful young women Kirk and his program have produced over the years.
“They always used to call Mike Holmgren ‘The Big Show’,” Kelly Kirk said. “I’ve always thought of her the same way.”
Kirk’s teams have won 20 league titles and 14 district crowns, finished second, third, sixth and seventh in the state and fourth three times in addition to the four championships. She was inducted into the Tacoma-Pierce County Hall of Fame in 2016.
When he wasn’t a coach, Kirk even found time to officiate high school volleyball for nine years.
“I just respected her,” said Marc Blau, the transferor of the Tacoma-Pierce County Volleyball Officials Organization. “(As a coach) she would scold you, make her point, but then go and sit down. There have never been a lot of arm gestures and drama. She was one of a kind.
Kirk’s competitive nature was well known and also respected. And this nature went far beyond the court.
Batinovich recounted a time in Las Vegas, after a tournament involving multiple Puget Sound teams, when Kirk wanted his coaches (including Batinovich) to try a specific restaurant. When the approximately 25 coaches and their relatives arrived, they found the restaurant closed.
But Kirk saw someone inside and got their attention.
“It was the leader,” Batinovich said. “And somehow she convinced him to open the restaurant for those 25 or so people, and we had this wonderful Italian dinner. She had a way of getting things done, like she did that night.
Once the competition was over, however, Kirk surrendered wholeheartedly. Kelly and Batinovich said she just enjoys talking about the game, finding out why the other coaches did what they did.
Kelly Kirk said he believed his mother would count the endless number of players who have gone through his programs, many of whom have played and coached long after leaving Fife, as his biggest legacy.
“It’s like stone in the pond, creating the ripples,” Batinovich said. “Her ripples last forever.”
This story was originally published December 26, 2021 5:00 a.m.