MHS Awards: Nikki Bloemen was a standout volleyball player at Rampart but as a coach she led the Rams to their finest moment

Nikki Bloemen can’t help but think about the craziness that has enveloped her life in the last year. And she certainly looks at it with fondness.

Recently, she took the time to look at her career with Rampart volleyball with great perspective. She was a player, a really good player, for the Rams. During her senior season, she helped the team reach the Denver Coliseum to play in the Class 5A state volleyball tournament. But the Rams just couldn’t hang with the big Denver teams in the classification. The Rams finished third at state.

But her numbers were solid. She posted 377 kills and 105 blocks as one of the premiere middle blockers in the state. The CU Buffs noticed and signed her to a letter of intent to play collegiately in Boulder.

She started 26 matches in her freshman campaign for the Buffs but the intensity of competing for a Division I program started to get to her. And it made volleyball not as fun as it used to be.

“I had a great experience against some of the top athletes in the country,” she said on The 719 Coaches Show Podcast. “But it wasn’t necessarily what I signed up for.”

Her decision to transfer home and play for the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs was the first step in getting her to where she is now.

She’s a dedicated teacher, wife and mother. But she’s also a great coach. She led the Rams to their first volleyball state championship back in May which has earned her the honor of being selected as the Mile High Sports High School Coach of the Year.

Like anything, her state championship win as a coach had been something that has been in the works since she decided to enter the coaching world. Upon graduating from UCCS, she began student teaching and joined the volleyball coaching staff at Doherty High School where she worked with future Olympic gold medalist Haleigh Washington.

At the conclusion of the school year, she was licensed to teach and in search of her first classroom job. She didn’t have to look far from home. Rampart athletic director Andy Parks had hinted to her that an English job was available at Rampart. So was the head volleyball job.

She interviewed and the job was quickly offered.

“I still don’t know [how I got that job],” Bloeman said. “I know they value alumni coming back and taking pride in our school. I think I said in my cover letter that I spent some of the best times in my life at Rampart as a student. Being able to cultivate that kind of experience into my athletes was a big selling point for them.”

She entered her first season with the burden of coaching the preseason No. 1 team in the state. The Rams were loaded with collegiate-level players and were seen by many as a shoo-in to win the 5A title.

They got to the Coliseum and rallied to beat Chaparral in a five-set thriller but lost to Chatfield in the semifinals. Hindsight is 20/20 but Bloemen knows that a big reason that a heavily favored team didn’t even reach the championship match had a lot to do with her inexperience as a coach.

“I didn’t know my rotations as a player, I just went in and did my job,” she said. “As a coach, it took me a little while to re-learn the game in different positions and be able to train my setters and train my passers. I never had to play back row. I had to learn the game as a coach in order to train people back there.”

The next few seasons weren’t as promising. The Rams advanced to regionals each of the next four seasons but couldn’t get through to state. In that time, however, there was some serious culture building happening within the program. Bloeman had established a vibe that was akin to treating the team as a family.

It’s a very stereotypical thought in high school athletics, but with Bloeman’s team, it was different. That was evident when Rams got in a major out-of-state transfer. Anjelina Starck, a finalist for MHS High School Athlete of the Year, who came in from Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas.

She was a nationally ranked player and was already committed to playing collegiately at Penn State. It would have been easy to adhere to a D-I bound player, but Bloemen was insistent that the Rams stay true to their systems and play as a well-rounded team, not just one that was going to be centered around a single hitter.

And that mentality got them back into the state tournament and into the quarterfinals where they lost to eventual runner-up Valor Christian.

After that loss, the girls looked to 2020 with one goal. It was time to win state.

The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the fall 2020 season to the spring of 2021. But this was a patient group of Rams and Bloemen has matured since her early coaching days to match the patience of her girls.

So they waited. Then they performed like champions.

They had to play their way through a tough field of 5A teams and there weren’t a lot rumblings from the media in attendance at the Broadmoor World Arena that Rampart was a favorite to win state.

That was fine with Bloeman and it was fine with the Rams. They swept Legend then dropped just one set to Ralston Valley in the semifinals.

In the championship match, they faced a Grandview team that had taken down the No. 1 and No. 4 seeds in the tournament. But Bloemen’s squad had Starck and another big hitter in Riley Simpson (who now plays volleyball at Baylor).

They combined for 44 kills to help Bloemen win the state title that she couldn’t win as a player.

“I’ve wanted to win since I was a player,” she said. “I’ve talked to a lot of my old teammates. When we won, a lot of them came back to our assembly.”

She came to the realization of a couple of things. If she was the coach that she was in 2014, when the Rams fell short, she doesn’t think this team wins a championship. On the flip slide, if she was the coach that she is today back in 2014, she has another championship ring in her possession.

Part of what draws her to high school athletics is the ability to help kids develop and grow both as athletes and people. But reflecting on her path, she understands it’s also a two-way street. In her eight seasons, she has matured and learned about the game on a more cerebral level. Winning state championships are never easy and Bloemen knows that simply learning from past failures does not guarantee a championship in the future.

But it’s all a part of the process as a coach and as a human. She understood the process and utilized it to help her come full circle in her volleyball career. And because of that, she’ll forever be tied to Rampart’s first state volleyball championship.

***

Finalists

Derek Byron
Battle Mountain, hockey
Twice had Battle Mountain gotten to the state hockey championship and twice had the Huskies been denied a win. So, it was third time’s a charm and Derek Byron was the man calling the shots from the bench. The Huskies beat Crested Butte 5-4 in overtime at the Budweiser Events Center to claim its first hockey championship in school history. Oddly enough, it was a mid-season loss that Byron credits for the championship run. He had been watching his team coast through the motions and it got the best of them when Steamboat Springs got a shocking 4-2 win. “Up until the point of that loss, we had been on a slow decline,” Byron told CHSAANow.com during the season. “We were complacent, staying No. 1 but not really playing like a No. 1 team, in my opinion. We lost and that next day we started playing the way we’re supposed to play.”

**

Jessika Caldwell
Valor Christian, girls basketball
For the last several seasons, it seems like Jessika Caldwell can’t coach an entirely healthy team. Twice she lost standout guard Kindyll Wetta to knee injuries and prior to the 2021 season she lost center Raegan Beers. Caldwell just sucked it up and coached her girls to the 5A girls basketball title anyway. The Eagles marched through the state tournament, beating each team they faced by at least 21 points. They capped the season at the Broadmoor World Arena where they beat Regis Jesuit 67-42 to win their first girls basketball championship since moving up to 5A. Caldwell led Valor to 4A titles in 2015 and 2016.

**

Zac Lemon
Eaton, football
Ever since Eaton topped Resurrection Christian in the 2A semifinals in 2020, there hasn’t been a team that has played football as well as the Reds. They rolled through an unbeaten regular season and entered the 2A playoffs in 2021 as a clear favorite to win the 2A title, which would be their second in as many years. Lemon was named the Denver Broncos High School Football Coach of the Year for the 2020-21 season, and he hasn’t lost a step at all this year. As long as he’s putting on a headset while standing on the Eaton sideline, this is a football program that will thrive and always be among those able to come away with a state championship on any given year.

**

(Photo courtesy of Jon E. Yunt)

Mark Liggett
Discovery Canyon, girls golf
Discovery Canyon has a brief and modest athletic history. In fact, the northern Colorado Springs area school has just two team state championships to its name. And Mark Liggett oversaw both of them. After leading the Thunder to the 2016 boys golf title, Liggett matched the feat for the girls this past spring at CommonGround. The Thunder finished the two-day tournament 34 strokes ahead of second-place Windsor. His three scoring players all finished in the top 16 of the individual leaderboard with Emily Cheng getting the team’s top finish at third place overall. While the school is sure to add additional team championship trophies to its display case, the one thing in common with the two they’ve is that Liggett’s name is inscribed on both.

**

Tony Lindsay Sr.
Far Northeast Warriors, football
Everyone loves a good redemption story. The school formerly known as Montbello has been in dire need of football success. When Denver Public Schools decided that all football teams would play in CHSAA’s spring season (Season C), the district had no idea that it was about to give the program the very boost it needed. The Warriors beat Boulder 34-0 to claim the 5A Season C championship and Lindsay was ready to declare that moment as a pivotal one for the future of his program. Among the many things he intends to do as the head coach at Far Northeast is “keep Montbello kids at Montbello.” Winning is always a good step to take and Lindsay was able to provide the neighborhood kids with a winning team for which to play.

**

Darin Reese
Mead, boys basketball
It could be easy for any coach to lose a key player to a stroke and use it as an excuse for his team not finishing a state title run. But Reese and his guys decided that excuses are no good. Motivation is better. When Nick Basson was airlifted to Children’s Hospital as a result of a stroke, his basketball season was certainly over. But the Mavericks were happy to play in his honor. About a week after the stroke, Basson was on the bench watching Mead beat Montrose 68-44 to win the 4A boys title. Instead of letting his guys feel sorry for themselves during the team’s darkest moment, Reese helped them find inspiration in Basson, and filled them with the burden of succeeding for their teammate. And they succeeded at the highest level.

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