McALLEN — During her first week teaching physical education outside at J.T. Canales Elementary in Brownsville, Paula Dodge vividly remembers how hot it was.
“It was 108 degrees that first week,” she said. “The heat was hard for me to adjust to that first year.”
Coming from Red Wing, Minnesota, it would be understandable if Dodge, now head volleyball coach at McAllen High, would high-tail it back to her home state.
She gutted it out, however, and hundreds of athletes have had the opportunity to be mentored by the woman whose first coaching job was track at Brownsville Hanna, at age 23.
In 1996, Dodge made the move to McHi, where she took over the volleyball program. And this year, she led the Bulldogs to a 46-3 record and a spot in the Class 6A regional semifinals, garnering her The Monitor’s All-Area Volleyball Coach of the Year award for the second time in four seasons, winning it also in 2016.
Next year, Dodge could close in on her 600th career volleyball coaching victory. She said those numbers remind her of the people she’s been surrounded by.
“Those numbers are because of the great young women I’ve had the opportunity to work with,” she said. “I’ve had some really great teams — and that means really great young ladies who work hard and are dedicated.”
Dodge said she never dreamed back in 1984, when she arrived in Brownsville, after a 24-hour drive with her older brother, that she would remain in the Valley, away from all that was familiar (including beautiful summers and autumns) and all of her family, for 35 years. She said, however, that just like she is surrounded by what she calls the “McHi family,” she also fell into open arms as a 23-year-old just looking to gain some work experience.
“The first day I walked on campus in Brownsville there were people there to help me and assist me in that transition from being a college student then a teacher than coaching,” Dodge said. “The same thing happened with my first job at Hanna, coaching track: it was another family and a tight staff. We did a lot of things together professionally and socially.”
The Bulldogs were ranked as high as No. 3 in Class 6A in the state this season by the Texas Girls Coaches Association. They lost their first match of the year in five sets at Laredo Alexander and then ripped off 27 consecutive victories before rival McAllen Memorial ended that streak on the Bulldogs’ court.
Dodge said the Laredo loss set the tone for an impressive season.
“I think that was a big piece of motivation for the girls,” Dodge said. “I’m blessed to have a real competitive group and they were not happy losing that first. They were not happy at all and they set their minds to it and went to work after that.”
Laredo Alexander finished second in its district, behind Laredo United, and McHi ended up paired with the United powerhouse in the regional quarterfinals. They dropped the first set and, just as it looked like it was going to be a short match for the Bulldogs, something clicked. And after being behind in the second set, they came back to win that set and the next two. It left a deafening silence in a gym that had a much larger Laredo crowd, the only noise coming from the euphoric celebration led by Dodge, who admits that match was one of the most intense matches she had coached. In fact, she told her team that she would let them dye her hair purple, and theirs as well, if they made it to the “Sweet 16.”
“They forgot about it, I guess,” Dodge said, laughing. “It’s too late now, though. It’s basketball season now.”
Dodge — whose first love as a player in high school was basketball, but she also played volleyball and softball — will return to the volleyball court next year.
She, however, hasn’t determined her future beyond that.
“Right now, I just know that I will be here next year,” she said. “I will make that decision after that in probably February or March. Volleyball really, really makes me happy. I love coaching, I love the girls. That’s what keeps me here.”