Jeff Mahler

Newly hired Stevensville coach Jeff Mahler watches on during a volleyball practice. Mahler led Florence to three third-place finishes during his stint in the early 2010s.

MISSOULA — Jeff Mahler won just about everything he could at Florence. All he was missing was a state volleyball championship.

Mahler will get some more shots at winning a state title as he’s back coaching in the high school ranks after spending time on the club volleyball circuit. He has a challenge in front of him as he takes over a downtrodden Stevensville program that hasn’t qualified for state since 2017.

But Mahler has built up a program before as he led Florence to three third-place finishes at state. And while he likes to focus on the present, those shortcomings still seem to be a source of motivation several years later.

“I didn’t finish what I wanted to finish at Florence,” he said. “I wanted to see if we could win the whole thing. I felt like I left earlier than I should. It’s just unfinished business. That was always lingering.”

Mahler has been learning more about building a program since leaving Florence after the 2014 season. He now has a larger network of coaches he can bounce ideas off of after he left to coach in his hometown of Seattle and then returned to Montana to coach club volleyball at multiple stops. He's currently at the Montana Volleyball Academy.

When the high school season starts, Mahler will get to test out the lessons he’s learned in club volleyball, like better game management and how to run more efficient practices, among other things. He can also incorporate into his plan some of the technological advances that have come since he left Florence.

“I want to create a competitive program,” he said. “That means being competitive within ourselves, with each other and against other teams.”

Mahler didn’t want to take over at just any school. He’d like to run the program the way he sees fit, like when he revamped his whole on-court approach at Florence after attending a coaching clinic, and he needed a place that was going to let him run the show how he wanted.

Mahler also wanted to lead a program where he was going to be challenged and could test how much he’s grown as a coach. He had found that success at Florence by winning four conference championships, five district titles, five divisional crowns and making five trips to the state tournament in five years.

“I didn’t want to go somewhere that was established,” he said. “I want to build a program. I look back at what we did at Florence and there’s some things I want to do differently.”

Mahler also missed the personal nature of high school volleyball. At MVA, he coaches the U-16 team and gets to be with players for only one or two years before they move on to the next age group.

He’ll now get to know players more from their time in middle school through high school. Another added benefit is that the high school season isn’t the same type of grind like an eight-month club season on top of his daily job in construction.

“It’s the whole community thing, the relationship thing that I miss,” he said. “At Florence, I was involved with the kids from junior high through high school. They’re like family, and I really missed that. And the whole community pride thing, the competitive rivalries, I like that.”

Mahler is replacing Kyla Paulsen, a 2014 Stevensville grad who resigned after three seasons. He’s the first head volleyball coach hired by first-year athletic director Chance Edman, and he came highly recommended.

“I want to see us take forward steps competitively,” Edman said. “I’d like to see us qualify for state on a regular basis and be competing for titles. Winning is a byproduct of a strong culture and a bunch of kids who care about each other and playing for the right reasons. If we have the right building blocks and a strong culture, winning will take care of itself.”

Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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