By Mike Tenney
After three decades on the job and over 900 wins (901 to be exact), longtime Bellaire HS head volleyball coach Gloria “Ap” Clarke is retiring.
One of the most successful coaches in not only the history of Houston ISD but also the state of Texas, Clarke has led the Cardinals to 18 district championships in the last 19 years and twice been honored as HISD’s Coach of the Year. That’s for all sports, boys and girls.
With her retirement, the Cardinal program will be under an entirely new leadership. Clarke’s top assistant, John Turner, who has been at the school on Maple Street for two years after coaching for nearly 40 at Pearland HS, is also retiring. And the Bellaire freshman team will have a new head coach, as well, with former player Brianna Shannon, who graduated in 2013, taking over that age group.
Clarke, who has won more than 600 of her games at Bellaire alone, said it wasn’t an easy decision but one she’s been considering for some time now.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a couple of years,” she said. “It’s been a great end to my career with the success that we’ve had the past few years. I’ve been fortunate enough to coach a lot of great players and work with a lot of great coaches.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of administrative support all the way from Bill Lawson to Mike McDonough, and I’ve met a lot of great parents over the years who were committed to making sure their daughter had all the tools he needed to be the best volleyball player they could be.
“We’ve always tried to make our team one big family affair, and I feel like we’ve been able to do that pretty much every year. But after 40 years of tossing balls, it just felt like the right time.”
Clarke said she was proud of her team’s accomplishments during her time at Bellaire, but more importantly, she was happy about the strides the sport as a whole took forward in the public’s eye during her time on the sidelines.
“It has been great to watch the game grow, not just in its exposure and popularity, but in the level of play with all the teams now,” she said. “You’ve got so many more players now then when I first got into it. You have so many girls now playing club volleyball, which especially for younger players, gives them a chance to start playing the game and developing as a player at a much younger age than they used to be able to.”
She said the game has been revolutionized since the 1980s when she first started coaching, and she believes there’s been no question it’s for the better.
“It’s now best three-out-of-five, and it was best two-out-of-three. The scoring has changed. It’s rally scoring now whereas it used to be traditional scoring with you only being able to score when you served.
“The uniforms have changed. The level of play has changed with so many teams now having outstanding athletes and girls who are experienced in playing the game.”
The global pandemic has created uncertainty about the next seasons for all high school sports. Clarke said did not factor in her decision, which had already been made before the Coronavirus emerged.
She said she would be miserable were she trying to prepare for a season under the current climate.
“If I were still coaching, I would be going crazy right now trying to figure out exactly how to proceed. I think some of the kids are taking private lessons but that is really about all that’s going on right now because there is no club ball or anything like that.
Nicole Brakeman is the new Bellaire head volleyball coach, now dealing with that uncertainty. She is a Clear Lake HS graduate who coached at Clear Lake and has been the head coach at Navarro High School the last few years.
“She’ll do a great job,” said Clarke. “She’s an excellent coach. She’s done a tremendous job at Navarro. She’s got a very good core of players coming back from last year and some strong freshmen coming in, along with some other good young players, so she’ll do a great job.”
Clarke said she gave no thought whatsoever of trying to become one of those rare coaches who get 1,000 wins on her resume.
“That was not something that I was interested in. That would have taken another four or five years. My biggest concern was always only trying to win the game we’re playing today, and fortunately we were able do that a lot.
“It’s been a great time at Bellaire. It’s been a fun time at Bellaire. But sometimes you just know retiring from coaching feels right — and for me this is the time.”