In the dimly lit Blue Gym on the campus of South Forsyth High School, Steffi Legall-Riddle faced the large collection of freshman, JV and varsity players leaned up against the folded up bleachers to address them before her first practice as head coach.
It’s a position she was promoted to just three weeks ago, and being an assistant at South last year, her players knew her well. Having grown up in Germany, she had a small trace of an accent in her voice, but her manner of speaking was clear and matter-of-fact, with the team’s goals laid out in a manner that resembled a college coach.
That’s because at one point, she was. Yes, Legall-Riddle has had plenty of success at the high school level, previously leading Oconee County High School to three state semifinal appearances as that team’s head coach, but she’s also had the opportunity to lead Division I college programs like Georgia and Marshall over her long career. During her younger years in Germany in the 1980s, she played on her country’s youth and women’s national teams before coming to the United States to play collegiately at the University of Florida.
“She's very organized, she's very determined,” senior Olivia Grady said. “She knows the game, so she knows exactly how to help us, which I think is a very important (aspect) of her. She really wants us to enjoy the sport.”
With all that coaching and playing experience, Legall-Riddle has a perspective that not many high school coaches can say they have. With all that knowledge, she’s looking to lead South back to the playoffs a season after coming up just a win short of an Area 5-7A title.
One thing she’s learned over her decades of volleyball is that success starts with team chemistry.
“It's about camaraderie,” Legall-Riddle said. “Ultimately, we don't remember the wins and losses. I can't really tell you much about (mine), but I can tell you about the great friendships that I've built with my teammates over the years on all those different teams that I've been on.”
Legall-Riddle pulls from all of her experiences to shape her coaching style. She’s seen every aspect of the sport – she knows what it’s like to be a starter and what it’s like to sit on the bench, and uses that to relate to every one of her players.
“She's really dedicated to helping us know why we do things and not just making us do this just because,” junior Avery Svehla said. “She's great about the why and how it's supposed to benefit us in the future. I love being coached by her. I feel like the advice that she gives you can really help you throughout your entire career, especially as you get into higher levels of volleyball.”
Legall-Riddle could have stayed at those higher levels of the sport, but to her, teaching is what she enjoys the most. She teaches German at South, and being able to also teach the game that has shaped her life is what drives her. At the college level, simply teaching volleyball is not always the main focus.
“College athletes are capable of playing at a much higher level, there's no doubt about that,” Legall-Riddle said. “But high school is a little purer right now, at least in my opinion. I love watching the college games and I have really good friends that I coached in college, but in college so much has become about recruiting. It's a really tough balance to find what I get to enjoy -- this is the part I really love. I get to do that every day during the season, and I don't have to go out recruiting and travel and convince somebody to come to my university.”
And that teaching might be very beneficial to the War Eagles, a team that’s replacing some key players like the departed Molly Bergin, who was South’s top scorer last year. Legall-Riddle says the scoring responsibilities might be more spread out amongst a few different players, and that could also lead to a more balanced attack.
“I think we have a lot of people who are really willing to step up and to fill that role,” Svehla said. “I think that it’s going to be competitive but I think we're going to be ready for it.”