These coaches, mentors, and role models inspire kids to excel in more than sports
Elevating Their Game
Nevada Juniors Volleyball Club Club Director and Coach of 17U Team
Persistent attention to detail and a fierce competitive spirit drive Jessica Acuña, coach and director of Nevada Juniors Volleyball Club, the oldest junior volleyball club in the state. Mentored by club president and co-founder Bob Kelly, Acuña took up the sport in the eighth grade and immediately loved the pace, finesse, and strength required.
She played under Kelly at Durango High School, where she lettered for three years on a team that won the 2002 state championship, continued to work with him in Nevada Juniors, and went on to play for Saint Mary’s College of California.
Now when she designs practices for her 17-and-under team, she recalls the discipline and structure Kelly instilled in her. “Everything you did, you did the right way — being on time, warming up, how you approached your drills.”
She espouses Gold Medal Squared, a philosophy of how to teach the game, and structures practices to create the most game-like reps, insisting, “You’ve got to train ugly!”
Asking a lot of questions develops the girls’ volleyball IQ. What did you see? Why did she tip the ball that way? Why did that player on the opposing side do that? Observing key indicators quickens decision-making.
The ultimate goal for many players is to play college volleyball. “Yes, that’s scholarship money on the line,” Acuña says. “I get it, but for me, I want them to walk away with life lessons that are going to carry over into their lives well beyond their volleyball careers.”
“I adore her,” says Makenzi Abelman, who played under Acuña at Nevada Juniors for four years and who now plays at Cal State Fullerton on a scholarship. Acuña’s communication, consistency, and formality set her apart, Abelman says. “I learned to separate what’s going on personally and not let that affect me on the court,” she says.
Acuña says new UNLV volleyball coach Dawn Sullivan and her staff have pushed enthusiasm for the sport to a new level, reaching out to younger athletes and sparking connections with the local volleyball community.
“Youth volleyball has grown tremendously,” Acuña says. “What’s happened with the UNLV coaches and the investment of other programs in town, you’re starting to see Vegas really elevate its game.”
Creating Skaters for Life
Las Vegas Ice Center Skating program director and coach
A woman persuaded by her 3-year-old granddaughter to ice skate for the first time in three decades got in a good 20 minutes before hitting her face on the boards. Vassili Mourzine, skating program director and coach at the Las Vegas Ice Center, consoles her pride and applies, what else, an ice pack to her nose.
The gregarious Mourzine says he is always amused when a skater says, “It doesn’t feel natural.” Well, you’re on two sharp pieces of metal on a sheet of ice, he reminds them. “There is nothing natural about it!” But Mourzine’s passion for figure skating and the ice persists.
The Moscow-born Mourzine, who has skated since he was 4, was a member of the Russian Army skating club and in the USSR Olympic hopeful training program. He was a junior state champion of Moscow in singles figure skating in the USSR, and performed in professional ice shows throughout the world for a decade before settling in Las Vegas and coaching.
“What I like about coaching is not the result — it’s the process of giving your knowledge to someone else and then seeing that knowledge being passed down.”
Mourzine revels in the accomplishments of his skaters, some of whom are high-schoolers who’ve been with him since they were tykes. Inspire them to skate when they’re children, and they will continue as adults — and bring their kids to the ice, he says.
In part because it is an individual sport, competitive figure skating is very stressful both emotionally and physically, he says. “Sometimes I wanted to hide and cry in the locker room because I didn’t want to go on the ice. You have to overcome that inner fear to develop a stronger you, and that’s a huge part of it.”
More than 800 skaters are filling the Ice Center’s skating and hockey classes to capacity this semester, the arrival of major league hockey in Las Vegas providing an undeniable boost. “Little boys want to become Golden Knights, and of course every single Golden Knights player knows how to skate. You have to start (somewhere). You don’t become a Golden Knight overnight.”
Skating is a great form of exercise, and creating skaters for life (in addition to hitting the lottery — coaching a skater to the Olympic podium) is among Mourzine’s goals.
Most gratifying is seeing the faces of kids in the Las Vegas Ice Theatre class preparing for the U.S. Nationals Theater on Ice competition in Alabama in June. They usually hit the rink at 6 a.m. on Saturdays.
“They want to be there, and you can see it in their skating. You see it in their eyes. They say, ‘Listen, I’ve been waiting the whole week for this.’ Talk about the joy of coaching. Your heart melts. You make a difference.”
Adapt and Overcome
Aces & Arrows Co-owner and coach
What’s a former competitive Brazilian jiu-jitsu athlete, a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef, and onetime Mensa member doing opening an indoor archery range, Aces & Arrows, in a nondescript business park in Henderson?
Helping people of all ages, including those who thought they would never be able to shoot an arrow, advance in a sport he pursued long before Katniss Everdeen made archery cool.
A.J. Hanagata, who opened the 22-lane range, retail, and pro shop with business partner Ryan Sidor in 2017, brings a cerebral approach to a sport that demands a low heart rate, agility, and concentration.
“It’s definitely a highly mental game, but there’s a level of physicality to it,” Hanagata says. “It is completely reliant on what you do.”
It also has a quality other shooting sports don’t have: silence.“You can achieve a more zen-like or meditative state because it is so quiet. You are not jarred by loud noises,” he says.
Hanagata, who began launching arrows when he was Boy Scout, met Sidor when Sidor’s fiancé, Kara, was shooting at a Las Vegas range. Hanagata asked Sidor why he wasn’t shooting, and Sidor showed him his arm, missing a hand since birth.
“I looked at it, and I was like, ‘Man, eff that. If you want to shoot, I’ll figure it out.’ I kept badgering him and ended up designing a way for him to pull back the bow and release the string despite him missing that hand. After I designed that, he was like, ‘I’ve always wanted to do this, but I thought it was one of those things that was out of reach.’”
Since the two opened Aces & Arrows, making the sport accessible for those with physical issues has been a priority. Its motto: “Adapt and Overcome.” The shop assists with adaptive physical education, helping kids in wheelchairs, with cerebral palsy and those missing limbs. Participants in the Paralympic Sports Club Las Vegas, Opportunity Village, Angel City Games, and Wounded Warriors have benefited from Hanagata’s expertise.
In addition to helping those with physical challenges, for the past year Hanagata has assisted at least one Henderson teenager already shooting at a high level take it up a notch.
“A.J. helped me by instilling a whole new level of confidence, by motivating me whenever I shoot, and consistently letting me know that I belong,” says 18-year-old Elek Miller, a senior at Coral Academy of Science Las Vegas who in February won his fifth consecutive Nevada State Indoor championship, setting the U.S. Archery Nevada State indoor record. “He assists me with technical elements, physical-training guidance, and the mental game, but it’s especially his mental advice that has helped me move on to the next level as an archer.” Miller won a team gold last year at the U.S. Outdoor Nationals in Raleigh, North Carolina, and finished in the Top 10 nationally in 2018.
“It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” Hanagata says. “Being a chef is cool and being able to make good food is awesome, but you’re stuck in the back so you don’t get to see people enjoy it. We’ve gotten to see kids in the short time we’ve been here get good at something. You see them feel good about themselves, and they want to give you a high-five and get excited and get out of their shell. It’s worth more than money.”
Entry-level archery is relatively cheap and families can compete together, says Hanagata, cultivating a unique community, one arrow at a time.
Attracting National Attention
The Rock Center for Dance Founder/owner, artistic director and instructor
When 12 young dancers from Las Vegas wowed judges on NBC’s World of Dance last year for their Oct. 1 tribute, their dance company’s owner-coach Quinn Callahan took heart.
The emotional performance kicked off four months of stressful work that ended four months later with The Rock Center for Dance group in the junior divisional finals.
“I wanted to do it for our city and do our best to show Las Vegas off and give a wink and high-five to our city and mention it each time. I felt like we did that,” says Callahan, who began teaching in Las Vegas in 2000 and who opened The Rock Center 10 years ago.
Drawn to dance from an early age, Callahan choreographed dances for children whom her aunt was babysitting. A career in professional dance resulted in severe hip arthritis and hip-resurfacing implants. She says her “Quintuition” soon told her she could make a difference by teaching.
“When you share that common denominator with somebody who is a fraction of your age, it’s like this plane that you both live on. I just want to help them along the way and teach them.”
Callahan says she is always amazed at the energy her dancers bring to the studio. “I work with these Type A kids. They’re workhorses. They work harder than any adults I’ve ever met in my life. They’re nonstop. They’re tired but when it comes time to dance, they’re ready.”
Among The Rock Center dancers working especially hard these days is 13-year-old Sabine Nehls, who was on World of Dance and who will perform as “Drop” in One Night for One Drop on March 8 at Bellagio.
“Miss Quinn has helped me so much,” says Nehls, who has been with The Rock Center for three years. “My technique is better than ever, and I couldn’t have done it without her. My turns would never be the same without her. What she does with all of us is special, and I’m so thankful for her training.”
Another World of Dance alumnus, 11-year-old Savannah Kristich is taking time away from The Rock to film Season 8 of Lifetime’s Dance Moms, which begins airing in June.
To reach the highest level of competitive dance — or, really, any sport — is like climbing a thousand stairs, Callahan says.
“What they want takes a crazy amount of hours, and they understand that. They come to me and The Rock to train like that, but I want them to look into somebody’s eyes and speak confidently. I want them to be able to put their phones down and have a decent conversation and not just be a dancer.”
Momentum on Ice
Vegas Jr. Golden Knights Director of coaches
Perpetuating the Vegas Golden Knights’ brand in youth hockey propels Del Truax, director of coaches for the Vegas Junior Golden Knights, as he glides across the ice at City National Arena.
The 47-year-old former New York City fireman has been coaching hockey for more than 25 years. Truax has seen local interest in hockey boom in his four years in Las Vegas. The Golden Knights brand brings prestige, responsibility, and expectations. “Our kids wear the same uniform, the same sweater as the NHL club. For the kids, it’s that identity. We are the Junior Golden Knights, and that carries a lot of weight in how hard they’re working.”
The association with the major league team helps when they’re scheduling games and enticing teams to travel. For parents, the VGK Foundation provides scholarship money and matches fundraising efforts. And for Truax, it’s nice because people want to coach in the same rink where stars such as Marc-André Fleury and William Karlsson practice.
Truax helps hire and place three-dozen coaches, and develops weekly skills plans for the 11 teams under the Vegas Junior Golden Knights’ banner. There are 236 skaters in the Junior Golden Knights travel program, and more than 600 playing in other programs.
Truax grew up in Long Island, New York, has skated since he was 4, and played through junior hockey. What first started as a way to help friends who were coaching became a career when he retired as a firefighter after developing lung issues in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City.
“It was not really a calling,” Truax says of those early days. “Then you realize how much hockey has given to you — the life lessons, the teamwork, time management — all those skills you learn being part of a team and then how it benefited me as a fireman and that same kind of teamwork.”
When kids ages 6-8 hit the ice, it’s about having fun, always moving, keeping their balance, stick-handling, competing in small games to work together and to teach them how to play away from the puck, Truax says. Then it’s about enhancing skills and introducing more sophisticated concepts such as how to move into the offensive zone, how to back-check, and how to pass off the pad.
The ability to teach to your specific audience is the most important aspect of coaching, Truax says. “If you’re out there with 6-year-olds, you’ve got to have that ability to get down on one knee and act like a fool. Laugh, whatever it takes to engage with a 6-year-old mind.”
Building a cohesive team and developing leadership skills are just as important as teaching the fundamentals, he says. “The biggest thing for me is to stay with the vision, work with the guys here and with the big club, and to keep using these best practices and these proven development models to give these kids everything we can give them.”