Cari Bauer became the Centennial girls volleyball coach thanks to an almost unprecedented grass-roots display of community support that caused the Peoria Unified School District board to override a previous hire and name Bauer coach.
But four years later, she did not want to force herself to stay in the role too long. Two decades as a Centennial assistant and four years as head coach left her fulfilled.
On Dec. 9 Bauer announced on Twitter that she was stepping down. But the thought crossed her mind months earlier.
“I kind of knew right as the season started,” Bauer said. “I don’t like to do anything not full heartedly. It got to the point where I was forgetting little details and thought maybe it was time for someone younger to come in. And there was a spot during the season where I felt really good about the years I had here. I knew this senior group was an amazing group to go out on.”
Two of those seniors, Ashley Lifgren and Nyjha Marcelin, started as freshmen on Bauer’s first team, the 2016 state champions. Senior setter Kacey Stewart, senior right side Trinity Weidinger and senior libero Diana Lozano stepped into key roles in time and seniors Jaiden Duff and Reagan Walker were crucial in perpetuating the program’s unique culture.
The Coyotes will return seven varsity players, but only three who played regularly. Bauer had to decide whether she was up for that kind of rebuild and talked to several coaches — including another Centennial stalwart who faced the same choice two years ago.
“I’ve heard stories of coaches saying they stayed one or two years too many. I didn’t have a bad day in the gym and I felt like it’s kind of important to leave like that,” Bauer said. “There’s a couple coaches on campus that I picked the brains of. Matt Visintainer, the former girls basketball coach, helped me with that. He had no regrets.”
Centennial athletic director Peter Jelovic stated in an email that he and Bauer met after the volleyball team banquet.
“I typically visit with the coaches at the conclusion of the season. This allows the time for the coaches to gather their thoughts on the season and finish any other duties associated with being the head coach,” Jelovic stated. “I was not aware that Coach Bauer was going to retire after the conclusion of the season.”
Jelovic came in after former athletic director Brett Palmer left in May 2018 to accept the same role at Chandler Hamilton. A month after Carly Bourland stepped down in late 2015 to finish her master’s degree studies — she is now the athletic director at Kellis High School — Palmer hired Livewire Volleyball club director Chad Speer as Centennial’s coach.
Within days, a change.org petition for Bauer’s hiring received about 1,400 signatures. She was Bourland’s top varsity assistant and JV coach for 16 years at this point, and also filled those roles under Bourland’s predecessor Diane Pavia. Bauer has been, and will remain, the Coyotes only boys volleyball head coach.
By Feb. 18, 2016 the groundswell of support caused the PUSD board to announce Bauer’s hiring. Nearly four years later, she still finds the whole experience overwhelming.
“I’m very thankful for the administration I’ve had the last two years,” Bauer said. “I heard from people I hadn’t heard from for 15 years. It was cool not just to see people standing up for me but for the program — for loyalty and those kind of terms.”
Then the 2016 Centennial team went out and added Bauer’s name to Bourland’s and Pavia’s in the archives by winning the program’s third state title.
The Coyotes beat powerhouse Phoenix Sunnyslope in an epic final, clinching the crown with a memorable 32-30 fourth set win.
“The coolest thing about winning it all that first year was that there was never that expectation. I remember Kara Spicer joking around at the beginning of the season’ ‘We’re winning a state championship.’ There wasn’t any pressure,” Bauer said. “That did set the bar kind of high. The three years following that we had the talent to do it. The stars have to be aligned for you to win one.”
Centennial was a 5A semifinalist in 2017 and 2019 and quarterfinalist in 2018.
Jelovic stated he quickly learned what the Coyotes program was all about.
“The volleyball team has been enjoyable to watch. We have great student-athletes in the program. They represented the program in a positive way. On the court, in the classroom and the community,” he stated.
Now Jelovic is in the early stages of deciding the program’s next step.
The position is posted on the district website. Jelovic stated the school received inquiries from potential candidates and applicants for the position.
“We are looking for a candidate that will continue to enhance the program. This includes success on the court and in the classroom,” Jelovic stated. “We are also looking for a candidate that will embrace our school culture and continue to build relationships in the community.”
While the essence of Centennial volleyball has not changed during her tenure, Bauer said high school volleyball was so different when she started.
The slower game mostly multi-sport athletes in the 1990s would be almost unrecognizable in this era of specialization, speed and national club and high school tournaments.
“It’s been cool to watch the game evolve. Some of it, I’m like ‘Nah. I’d like to see a few things go back,’” Bauer said. “And the game has given me so much, like friendships with coaches and all the players coming back to campus. I’m very thankful.”
Her favorite memories will be of the kids and parents that responded so well to her coaching. And, Bauer said she always had a great experience with Coyote parents
“The coolest thing for me is both my daughters played in this program. They had the best experience and life lessons and many of those friendships they still have. The coolest thing for me also is seeing former players come back and grow up. I’ve coached against some of the people I coached. Or they’re successful moms and businesspeople. What happens after they leave Centennial is fulfilling,” Bauer said.