Dana Cranston wasn’t born in a gym, but if her mom had decided to sneak in one more rec-league match in the volleyball-mad city of Fort St. John, B.C., before racing off to the hospital to deliver the first of her three children, no one would have been surprised. Volleyball was just that important.
“I literally grew up in the corner of a gym,” says Cranston, who joined first-year Montana volleyball coach Allison Lawrence‘s staff recently. “My sister and brother and I would play in the corner and get yelled at whenever the ball would roll onto the court. We were around it all the time and loved it.”
Cranston, a 6-foot-3 outside hitter, developed into one of her nation’s top players and took that talent to Colorado State, where she become one of this nation’s top players, earning Mountain West Conference Player of the Year honors as a senior in 2012.
She played for years for Team Canada, alongside former Griz Jaimie Thibeault, until their Olympic dreams came to an end 14 months ago, and she played professionally in both France and Germany before starting her coaching career last fall as a volunteer assistant at her alma mater.
Not surprisingly, it took Lawrence just a few minutes into her first phone call with Cranston to find the second assistant coach to round out her staff.
“My top priority was to find someone who would be an outstanding role model for the young women in our program,” said Lawrence, who also has second-year assistant coach Giedre Tarnauskaite on staff.
“And they needed to be a high achiever. If that was as a player, that was a bonus, but someone who is a high achiever in their life. Someone who is driven, focused on player development and wants to coach for the long term. We found everything we were looking for in Dana.”
Cranston was discovered at a Canadian recruiting event by Colorado State coach Tom Hilbert, who coached at Idaho from 1989-96 before moving to CSU.
The Rams have made the NCAA tournament 20 times in 20 seasons under Hilbert. That included 2009-12, when Cranston was a player in the program. Over those four years the Rams went 96-25, won three outright Mountain West titles while sharing another and advanced to four NCAA tournaments.
“Dana holds a place as one of the best leaders and most mature collegiate players ever to participate at CSU,” said Hilbert. “When she expressed a desire to enter the coaching world, it was a no-brainer. She understands every aspect of the game and is a great teacher and mentor to young women.”
Cranston was named the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year as a senior in 2012, when she averaged 3.62 kills on .241 hitting and more than two digs per set, numbers that will mean something to volleyball cognoscenti.
The Capital One Academic All-American graduated with a degree in business administration after the 2013 spring semester.
All of which puts her experiences, at least on the court and in the locker room, at odds with those of Montana’s players from the recent past, many of whom have seen their careers marked by team dysfunction and losing seasons.
Montana, which has had two winning seasons since 2000 — and both of those were just one win over .500 — hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1994 and has won just a single match at the Big Sky Conference tournament since 1996.
The program’s last three coaches, Nikki Best, Jerry Wagner and Brian Doyon, who lasted just two seasons, all stepped aside with the program in no better shape than they found it. It continues to stand out, and not in a good way, in a department of championship-seeking programs.
Even with a program carrying around that much baggage, Cranston found what she was looking for in her first full-time coaching position.
“There is a large gap in the spectrum from what I experienced to where this program is now, but it’s the potential of the program that appealed to me,” she said.
“I was kind of nervous to see what it was all about, but after I saw the resources available to the players, the recruits who are coming in and the coaches I’ll get to work with, the potential is even more than I thought it was. There is so much that is untapped.”
Montana went 6-23 in 2014, the Grizzlies’ second six-win season in three years, in Wagner’s final year as coach. He was replaced by Doyon, who went 13-41 in two years, with a 6-26 Big Sky record.
Lawrence, an assistant under both Wagner and Doyon, was elevated to head coach in January. She is the right person at the right time to lead Montana out of its doldrums.
“She is dreaming big for this program. It’s awesome to step into a program where the head coach is saying, Okay, I want to open this up and see where we can go,” said Cranston. “She’s really invited me into that process, and that is so attractive. I’m pumped.”
Fort St. John, which sits alongside both the Alaska Highway and Peace River, which the Cranston family home overlooks, is closer to the Northwest Territories than it is to the U.S. And volleyball is a big sport in town.
It was played at a high level by Arley and Karen Cranston, and they passed that passion and those genes on to their three children, all of whom have played collegiately.
Dana played at Colorado State and for her national team. Barb played at Grande Prairie Regional College and MacEwan University. Blain started at GPRC as well and is now playing at the University of Calgary.
Cranston, by which we mean Dana, and say it as DAN-ah, not DAY-na, spent five years in the Team Canada system, starting on the B unit with Thibeault.
Her first full-time experience with Canada’s A team came in the summer of 2013, when she and her teammates competed at the NORCECA Championships in Omaha, Neb., and at a tournament in Russia.
She played professionally for a year in France, for half a season in Germany, always returning home to represent her country during the summer season of national-team competitions. She played in tournaments in Italy, Cuba, Argentina and Mexico.
“The things Dana has learned from those environments, at Colorado State, professionally and with her national team, are the things we want to instill here,” said Lawrence. “For her to go through what our players are going through, but at the highest level, makes her a powerful role model.”
In January 2016, Cranston, Thibeault and Team Canada competed at the NORCECA Olympic Qualifier in Lincoln, Neb. They came up one match short of qualifying for the upcoming Summer Games.
She returned to Fort Collins in August, got married and joined the staff at Colorado State as a volunteer assistant.
“A big thing I have to offer is that I just recently came from the stage of life that our players are in, and I had a super-positive experience,” said Cranston, who made a trip to Missoula before agreeing to take the job.
“When we visited, it felt familiar in an almost weird way. In Fort Collins, everybody is Ram everything. Everybody here loves the Griz. It’s a unique experience for an athlete to have fans so invested in you. The potential of the program mixed with that was so attractive to me.”
For those invested in the Montana volleyball program and for those standing by in wait-and-see mode, their hope is that its growth reflects Cranston’s development as a player, from little kid playing in the corner to third-team All-American as a senior at Colorado State.
Cranston was 11 years old before the adults on the court (think: Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado, North Dakota) finally allowed her to play a rotation across the back row. It wasn’t long before she was dominating, showing the grownups a thing or two.
“We have a cultural base to set,” said Cranston. “We have to establish what we want this program to be. After that is set, I feel like the sky’s the limit for us to succeed.”