For someone whose life revolves around volleyball, Jason Leppo doesn’t consider the sport to be his main area of expertise.
He’s been a bigger fan of basketball for most of his life.
And even after racking up wins and championships and earning adulation and respect throughout the state for his success on the volleyball court, Leppo believes the secret to coaching volleyball is that it’s not about volleyball.
“I coach people,” Leppo said over the phone Wednesday. “Yes, volleyball is the sport I coach, but teaching culture and teamwork is so much more important than what I know about passing and digging.”
The Delone Catholic girls’ head coach is adamant that teaching principles like work ethic and perseverance is more important than worrying about accolades.
Still, he’s earned quite a few of those over the past decade.
Leppo earned the 200th win of his high school head coaching career Oct. 8 with a 3-2 win over Littlestown. He’s believed to be the YAIAA’s active leader in career wins among girls’ volleyball coaches. Longtime Dallastown head coach Shannon Werner has won 166 matches over 18 seasons.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Leppo’s win total is how quickly and efficiently he’s reached it. Coaches like to joke that a big part of reaching milestones is being old, but Leppo is just 35 and entering his 10th season as a head coach — all at Delone Catholic.
“The one thing that is kind of cool is how quickly we got here,” Leppo said of the achievement. “I’m sure I’ll appreciate this more down the road. In the moment I don’t think about these things too much.”
His teams have averaged 22 wins per season his first nine years, which is extremely impressive considering most schools schedule around 20 matches in a normal regular season. The Squirettes have only lost 26 times over the past 10 years — matches he admits stick with him more than the wins do. He has a ridiculous .884 career winning percentage.
And the wins have led to plenty of hardware: Delone Catholic has reached eight straight District 3 title matches and won five times. The Squirettes won four straight league titles from 2012 to 2015, often beating bigger schools in the process. They’ve reached the state championship match three times in 2012, 2013 and 2017.
The program’s crowning achievement was winning PIAA Class 2A gold in 2013 with a five-set win over Fort LeBoeuf, the program that beat them in the final the previous season.
Along the way, Leppo has earned lasting respect from his competitors, players and assistants for things that go beyond on-court strategy.
“He gets so much out of his players,” said York Catholic head coach Phil Autrey. “People can say he has great athletes, but he’s beaten a lot of large schools in Class 3A and Class 4A. He’s not just winning in Division III. That speaks to his program’s culture. He gets a lot out of his kids commitment-wise and they buy into his philosophy.”
“What he can get out of every single kid is what sets him apart from other coaches,” added Nate Staub, his lifelong best friend and top assistant at Delone. “He builds chemistry and a family atmosphere every year.
“It’s really about the relationships that he builds.”
Becoming a coach early
In some ways, Leppo’s motivation as a coach stems from what he didn’t know as a player.
A three-sport athlete who also played soccer and basketball for Spring Grove, Leppo was YAIAA Boys’ Volleyball Player of the Year his senior season in 2003. He helped lead the Rockets to the state playoffs back when there was only one classification.
But he admitted he didn’t know much about college volleyball, and ended up playing on a club team while attending Shippensburg University.
“One of the reasons I love coaching is I didn’t know anything about the recruiting process as a player,” Leppo said. “I thought that if I was good enough someone would knock on my door. I didn’t know how anything worked and I didn’t do any of the things we encourage players to do now to find opportunities.”
Still, not playing high-level college volleyball might have been a blessing in disguise for Leppo, because it got him into coaching when he was still a teenager. His high school coaches knew he was interested in the profession, and they helped him get a volunteer assistant position at Big Spring when he was a 19-year-old college student.
That led to a club position and another volunteer gig at Chambersburg before he was hired as Delone Catholic’s JV coach when he was 21. After four years learning under head coaches Chad Zimmerman and Steph Zortman, he was promoted to the top job in 2011 at age 25.
The Squirettes were coming off a first-round loss in the District 3 playoffs, but Leppo is quick to point out that the program was in a good place when he took over. They went 18-2 but lost early in the District 3 playoffs his first year. The following season, they went 27-1 and won districts before reaching the state title match.
“I wish I had that first year back,” Leppo said. “From a management standpoint, I knew the culture of the school so it wasn’t a huge adjustment. But it was definitely an ‘ignorance is bliss’ situation where I didn’t know things and could just wing it.
“I think now, the day-to-day management stuff becomes easier. The biggest adjustment over the years is learning to control what you can control. As a coach, you’re wired to come up with plans for everything, but you have to adapt and learn to roll with the punches.”
A mentor to his players
Katie Laughman still remembers the advice Leppo gave her in the fifth set of the 2013 state title match.
With a PIAA championship on the line, he was stern — yet straight-forward — with his sophomore setter.
“He asked me what I was thinking out there and I said ‘I don’t know,'” Laughman said Thursday when remembering the championship win. “He said, ‘I want you to set every ball to (star outside hitter) Cambria (Wierman) until her arm falls off.’ It was actually kinda funny for him to say that in the fifth set.
“His willingness to make his players better is what makes him consistent.”
Though friendly and easy-going, Leppo was more intense with his players early in his coaching career. Staub said his friend has gradually calmed down from his previously “fiery” behavior on the sideline.
Even as a younger coach, Leppo has been able to connect with his players while still acting as an authority figure.
“He held us to such a high standard and let us know that we weren’t supposed to be going out and doing anything wrong,” said Wierman, who went on to be a standout outside hitter at Pitt-Johnstown. “He was protective of us and we wanted to make him proud so we were always at our best. I trusted him a lot and we were so lucky to have him.”
“I’d describe him as a mellow goof,” added Laughman, who went on to set Millersville University’s career record for assists. “With us he could be a tough guy, but at camps around (younger) kids is when he’s goofy. He was the one who wanted me to be a setter, and he completely shaped me as a player.
“He was kind of like a father figure.”
Though very detail-oriented and deeply invested in his program’s success, Leppo has always found time to talk to his players about things beyond volleyball. Laughman said there were days when the team barely practiced so that coaches could catch up with what was going on in their players’ lives.
Staub said that mindset comes from a meeting with a college coach early in Leppo’s tenure. The coach asked what three words Leppo would use to describe Delone’s team, and it was determined “love, effort and commitment” would be the program’s building blocks.
Those principles have rubbed off on Delone’s players. Wierman is now a nurse at Gettysburg Hospital, and she said the lessons she learned from playing high school volleyball taught her she can “work to get through any hard moment.”
“What sets him apart is he’s built it where being a part of the volleyball program is not just an activity, it’s an experience,” said Delone Catholic athletic director Tim Bonitz, who competed against Leppo in high school for Susquehannock. “Sure, he’s an expert with Xs and Os, but it’s the extra little stuff he does to get to know them. And that’s crucial at that age to help them bridge gaps and make good decisions.
“He’s just a wonderful human being.”
Excited for the future
Leppo said it’s difficult to calculate how much time he spends on volleyball. He admitted his girlfriend will say he puts “all of it” into the sport.
A big part of that is because he works full-time as the volleyball director and arena manager for Ballyhoo Volleyball Club at Heritage Hills in York. That position allows him to work with players of all ages and throughout York and Adams counties.
It’s also allowed him to get to know many of his competitors in the YAIAA on a more personal level, since a number of local coaches also lead teams at Ballyhoo.
“It’s a testament to Jason that a lot of (high school) coaches coach club there, because that doesn’t happen everywhere,” Autrey said. “Coaches tend to be territorial and watch out for their own players. He sets the tone that it’s not about the coaches or the individual (club) teams, it’s about helping the kids.
“When I took the York Catholic job, Delone was the gold standard to emulate. A team like that helps the greater volleyball community in the area.”
Leppo admitted he’s a sport nut who can become consumed by what he does. Still, he said he’s made more of an effort recently to find balance by doing things as “simple as walking and running and trying to enjoy the weather.”
And he’s become accustomed to the questions that seem to pop up every year. Will he try to find a job at a bigger school district? Is he interested in college coaching?
Leppo said he’s happy where he is.
“It’s easy to coach (at Delone). We get along great with the families and the administration and we love the culture,” Leppo said. “As for the collegiate level, maybe sometime down the road that becomes more appealing, but I love being a part of this (high school) world and I think I can have more of an impact here.”
Delone Catholic is 8-2 this year with a young roster after graduating a standout senior class last season. After winning at least a share of the past 10 YAIAA Division III titles, the Squirettes have already lost twice to a loaded York Catholic team this season.
Still, local coaches fully expect Delone to remain a local powerhouse. And Leppo is excited to keep the program chasing the same lofty goals.
When asked how long he wants to coach, Leppo was reminded of his team’s loss in the 2017 state championship match. As his players wiped away tears and gathered for pictures, they kept asking if the team could still meet for practice the following Monday.
Leppo still feels the same way about heading to the gym every day.
“It’s reasonable to think that there could be a time down the road to take a break, but I just had the longest break from coaching since I was 19 from March to June,” he said of sports being shutdown this summer from the coronavirus pandemic. “That did a good job of recharging my batteries and showing me how important coaching is.
“It’s not about the records and the accolades. Hopefully these kids can have a great experience.”
Matt Allibone is a sports reporter for GameTimePA. He can be reached at 717-881-8221, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @bad2theallibone.
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