McGrath's story is one shaped by sports, faith, and family, and she has made her mark in the history books at Country Christian

PIONEER PHOTO: CONNER WILLIAMS  - Country Christian volleyball head coach Janin McGrath just led the Cougars to their fourth Class 1A state championship in a row. In this story, she reflects on her small town influences, the challenges of being a coach with a daughter on the team, and leaning on faith when life throws challenges your way. 
Adorned on the walls of Janin McGrath's home office are four 20-inch by 30-inch photos that every coach wishes they could one day pose for.

They're photos of McGrath standing with four state champion teams as they pose behind an enlarged playoff bracket, boasting trophies and medals.

Soon, she'll add one more photo to that wall.

McGrath has been the head coach of Country Christian High School's volleyball team for seven seasons, in which she has built a Class 1A dynasty that just won its fourth state title in a row.

It's a feat few coaches have accomplished in any sport at any level, and it began when McGrath decided she wanted to be involved in coaching Country Christian sports about 13 years ago.

After watching a Cougar boys' basketball game in 2003, McGrath inquired with then-boys' team coach and current girls' team coach, Russell Halverson, about potentially joining the girls' team staff or becoming involved with the program in some way after being a bit idle since her college basketball days in the 1990s.

McGrath joined Halverson's staff the next season and stayed for seven seasons as she simultaneously became involved with the youth volleyball programs. Talk loomed of a change coming to the high school's team as Becky Lehman decided to step down, and when McGrath was offered the job, she said she decided to talk to her family first before making the decision.

Her oldest daughter, Courtney, was in eighth grade at the time, and McGrath knew that if she passed up the opportunity, it wouldn't come around again while her daughter was in school.

And while the Cougars had made the playoffs before, McGrath's focus in her first season was skill- and culture-building, and that has led to the formation of one of the most formidable volleyball programs in the state.

Small town influences

McGrath grew up in Hebo, a small town with a population of about 230 people at the intersection of Highways 101 and 22 a few miles east of Pacific City. She graduated from Nestucca High School and migrated to McMinnville for college, where she attended on a basketball scholarship when the school was a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.

Her mother, Donna, raised her alone, and McGrath said basketball was "kind of the catalyst" that allowed her the financial possibility of going to college. McGrath said her mother had always been her biggest fan, and always preached the importance of furthering her education.

"It just was a big feat; my mom truly was a single mom, there wasn't any other support there," McGrath said. "My mom, essentially from the time I could understand what college was, it was 'You'll go to college, you'll go to college,' she really pushed for me to further my education."

After graduating in 1995 with a degree in Mathematics, she took a job in the Beaverton area in the insurance industry. She met her husband, Mike, shortly after, who was also from a small town. McGrath said she knew that once they had kids, she wanted to raise them in a small community like the ones she and her husband grew up in, where one could "play on the streets until dark, and [her] mom could step out onto the porch and holler for [her] from a mile away."

McGrath began work at the Federal Reserve Bank, and when a coworker that was being relocated put her house in Colton on the market, McGrath saw an opportunity that was too good to pass up.

She went from northeast Portland to Shibley Road in Colton about 16 years ago, and for her and her husband, it felt like they were going home.

McGrath had her second daughter, Meghan, as Courtney was about to enter school, and they had to make a decision for where to send her.

She said she and Mike had gone to visit The Country Church, where they began attending and ultimately enrolled Courtney in preschool.

McGrath then soon found out the high school had basketball programs, and when she decided to go and watch them play, there was no looking back.

"Short of saying 'saved my life,' I just think athletics was an avenue for me in high school that kept me out of trouble, and I had something to focus positive energy on," McGrath said. "And when I wanted to get back into it (at Country Christian), it was to give back; I wanted to be able to work with kids and get involved."

McGrath said she loves working with kids, and while her original plan for attending college to become a teacher wasn't feasible due to the cost and poor job prospects, she said she has always wanted to be able to work with and give back to kids, particularly teenagers.

Against all odds

After winning their third state title in a row in 2016, the Cougars were the overwhelming favorites to repeat yet again in 2017 as they graduated just one player and returned a class of seven seniors.

That's when a curveball came their way, delivering a blow that reverberated throughout the whole Cougar community: season-ending injuries to two key seniors.

Both Anna Farner and Maddy Weyer suffered significant knee injuries either before or early on in the season, throwing the Cougars' chances at another title into question. In addition, senior Meghan McGrath was still working through the rehabilitation process after for her own knee injury suffered during the previous basketball season.

"What we were expecting to come in with and what we ended with, I go back and I rehash the year, and it was absolutely nothing like anybody had planned," McGrath said.

"We came in as the overwhelming favorite with everybody healthy, and as those injuries started to stack up, one of the things that had to cross the coaches' minds was 'Do we need to realign our goals?' and 'Are we being unrealistic?' … We did a lot of talking and I did a lot of praying, and, ultimately, when I looked at the girls and had the conversations with the coaches, we felt like a state championship could still be in our reach, and to set our goals at anything less than that meant we wouldn't be striving for what we wanted with or without those injuries."

At that point, McGrath had to reevaluate some of her coaching strategies for practice time, shifting the focus towards skill-building and figuring out how to fill the rotation, pushing players into unfamiliar positions and into spots they maybe wouldn't have been in until the next season.

"In practice, there were some hard times; we had to push some kids to be a little bit more than they were maybe ready to be at times, or we knew they weren't going to have to be until the next year or the year after," McGrath said.

The Cougars kept in their schedule the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix, Arizona, which rounded out their preseason play and allowed McGrath to evaluate and lock in new positions, primarily junior Katie Sandberg into a setter role and senior Sierra Ross into the front row.

That experience, plus the return of Meghan McGrath into the lineup, allowed the Cougars to steamroll the Valley 10 conference and earn a bid into the playoffs with a home matchup in the first round.

Leaning on their faith

Injuries to the Cougars' roster weren't the only things on their mind as they asked for guidance from God; other unfortunate circumstances arose that McGrath said challenged their faith.

One week out from her reconstructive surgery, Farner was involved in an accident that resulted in her vehicle being totaled after rolling four times.

She walked away with nothing but a seatbelt bruise.

"Our faith got challenged, and I wouldn't say it got rocked, but we had to make a conscious decision to not let these things affect our job daily," McGrath said. "We do devotions every day, and whoever does the devotion and the quote for the day also does our prayer, but we spent a lot of time in addition to praying as a group for our injuries and our athletes."

One week out from her reconstructive surgery, Farner was involved in an accident that resulted in her vehicle being totaled after rolling four times.

She walked away with nothing but a seatbelt bruise.

At the 1A season preview tournament at Country Christian, North Douglas had a freshman player that didn't make the trip who was involved in a vehicle accident with her brother while they were on their way to a rodeo. Their vehicle rear-ended a semi-truck and caused severe damage to both vehicles, though both she and her brother survived. Crosshill Christian had a player get involved in a head-on collision this year. Hosanna Christian faced similar struggles.

"There was some coaching stuff behind the scenes too; a lot of us have each other's cell phone numbers, and because we were together when some of this happened, there was a real camaraderie there as well, checking in on each other," McGrath said. "We want what's best for these kids, it doesn't matter who they play for."

"So when that stuff started to happen, yes, there's a huge opportunity for it to rock your faith, but I just felt that without those pieces and without the ability to take it to the Lord and say 'I need your help here, I need to know how to proceed, I need to know what to do,' I just felt like we had to get demanding a little bit and say 'No, we will not accept this, we will move forward, you will protect us,' and we were heavy into that; we were not just praying for our girls but for teenagers period, because I don't want to see anybody hurt or unhealthy or any of that," McGrath said.

"I think that the magnitude of Anna's car accident, which came on the tail-end of us really changing that stuff, because you always do a general prayer … and it almost gets to be routine, and I think this season we had to get out of that routine a little bit and be more purposeful with where we were going."

The Class of 2017

This season, the Cougars were led by a group of seven seniors, many of which played integral roles in the team's success the past three seasons. And while chemistry and history are obvious contributors to a team's potential, McGrath thinks there's more to it than that.

"I think that chemistry is critical, but I think this is the most selfless group I've ever coached," McGrath said. "In athletics, it's hard to forgo your desire for personal accolades and put it to the side for the betterment of the team, but with this group, I see them do that not just on the floor in sports, I see them do it off the floor."

McGrath said she coached a number of this year's seniors on a U12 team in Canby when they were in fifth grade, and she took a good bit of her high school coaching tactics with her when she led that team.

"It was a year where I had some parents come up to me and say 'Man, are you pushing them a little too hard? You're doing some things we've never really seen those girls do,' and I had coached at the high school and then turned around and coached these guys, so I learned a lot that year about coaching," McGrath said.

"But as a result, that group grew a ton, a lot of them becoming gym rats … these guys have just been in the gym, they've been around it, so those pressure moments just don't seem to faze this group."

Moving forward

McGrath has now seen two daughters come and go through the program, and has one more, Audra, who will enter high school next year.

She said she's had to remove herself a little bit from time to time in order to make sure that she was not favoring her own kids over other players on the team, seeking out advice from other coaches and volleyball minds around the state.

"[Meghan] was a freshman, and I had to reach out outside the program to someone who had seen us play and who knew the game, and I said 'I need to know what you're seeing because it seems to me that I need to move Meghan into the starting lineup, but I really don't want to deal with some saying that she's starting because she's the coach's daughter,'" McGrath said.

"When you have your kid [on the team], it can be the best thing or it can be sometimes the worst thing because some people think I might be favoring at times, but sometimes I also think I might be too hard on them, expect too much from them, so it presents a lot of challenges, but there's also a lot of joy in being able to celebrate with them."

That will continue for McGrath as Audra will be in the program next season, but whether or not she makes varsity is up for grabs.

McGrath said she often thinks back to the feelings she experienced coaching the team while Meghan was standing on the sidelines during her rehabilitation process.

"I wasn't sure when Meghan went down with her injury how it would feel to coach with her on the sidelines because there would be personal heartbreak in me," McGrath said. "I found myself being as brokenhearted for Anna and Maddy as I was for Meghan, and when I was on the court I found I really could step into that coach's role."

McGrath said that while many have asked her if she's going to keep coaching, she said she reminds people that she didn't get involved with coaching in order to coach her kids, but because she wanted to be involved in athletics again and give back to the community.

And as Audra's time with the program begins to come to a close, McGrath said she's going to take things one year at a time.

Conner Williams
Sports Reporter/News Contributor
503-829-2301 ext. 341
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