BILLINGS — Laurie Kelly has had enough.
Kelly announced Tuesday afternoon she is retiring after 14 years as head volleyball coach at Rocky Mountain College. Four-year assistant and former Rocky phenom Yang Yang has been tabbed as the new Battlin’ Bears coach. Former RMC player and seven-year assistant Sarah Irigoin will stay on board as Yang’s top assistant.
Kelly, who has been coaching volleyball in the state of Montana for the past 40 years, simply said, “It’s time,” at Tuesday’s media conference.
“I have no bucket list. I absolutely do not want to travel,” Kelly said, laughing. “When people retire, they want to travel. Not me.”
Since arriving in 2007, Kelly has taken the Battlin’ Bears to record-breaking heights. The former Roundup High School head coach led the program to six NAIA National Tournaments, including two Elite 8 appearances. The second Elite 8 trip came this past season.
It was the 2014 season that truly put Rocky on the national map. Kelly guided the program to the No. 1 ranking in the nation. The Battlin’ Bears finished that season with a record of 32-3; the most wins in program history.
Kelly said it was a challenge at the start, but she quickly realized what had to be done if she wanted to turn Rocky into a national powerhouse.
“We had to go play the best teams in the nation,” she said. “I needed to show them what we could become. We got a budget and got on the road where we could play those California teams that were really controlling the league. You know, when they hear Rocky Mountain College, they are to be reckoned with and everybody respects all the things our athletes do here in Montana.”
The school has won four Frontier Conference regular-season titles under Kelly’s leadership and she won the conference’s coach of the year award in 2014 and 2018. In 2014, she was also named the Northwest Region coach of the year.
Kelly coached three Frontier Conference players of the year and produced 15 NAIA all-Americans. One of those players of the year is current head coach Yang.
“Yang brought a little different situation. She took us to No. 1 in the nation. I mean, that was amazing, but we had to work hard to get there because Montana wasn’t on the chart yet,” Kelly said.
Kelly was inducted into the Montana Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2005 and finished her Rocky Mountain College coaching career with an impressive 274-124 record.
Kelly leaves the program in great hands. Yang was the Frontier Conference player of the year in 2014 and the major force behind the school’s only No. 1 ranking.
Yang started her college playing career at North Idaho College before transferring to Rocky in 2013.
The 6-foot middle blocker became one of the nation’s top players under Kelly. Yang took home third-team all-America honors as a junior and followed that up by leading the nation in kills her final season.
She graduated in 2015 and immediately stepped into the role of assistant coach. In her four seasons, she has proven to be one of the top assistant coaches in the NAIA.
She makes it look easy, but Yang claims that coaching is much harder than playing.
“Coaching is kind of hard for me, a little bit in the beginning,” she said. “Because as a player, I knew when I couldn’t get things done. But when I was a coach, it’s hard. I don’t have control of the court and then you have to motivate the players in saying, ‘Hey, you’re doing fine. We can figure more things out in practice.'”
Yang won the Frontier Conference assistant coach of the year award in 2016 and 2019. This will be Yang’s first head coaching job at any level, now tasked with continuing Rocky’s rich tradition instilled by Kelly.
Yang arrived in the United States from Yong An, China and will always remember her first few days ashore.
“Oh, the first day in the country the only thing I could say was, ‘Can you help me?'” she admitted with a big grin.
Yang’s English has drastically improved and so has her ability to lead.