Profile of a Legend: Coach Balfour and the Renowned Success of HB Girls Volleyball

Aiden C. Barker

Since its inception 22 years ago, the girls volleyball program at Hollis Brookline High School has enjoyed plenty of success. Coach Rebecca Balfour (affectionately known as “Balf”), who started the program in 2000, deserves much of the credit for its success. Although Balfour is quick to dismiss it, the team’s impressive statistics under her direction are hard to argue with: nine championship banners on the gymnasium wall, many other impressive seasons ending in championship appearances, including four consecutive undefeated seasons where they won 75 games in a row. But where does that success come from?

Balfour grew up in Amherst, NH, and attended Milford Area Senior High (MASH). Although she was interested in playing volleyball in high school, MASH didn’t have a volleyball program, so she played soccer instead. Eventually, she got an opportunity to play pick-up volleyball at Beloit College in Wisconsin.

“We immediately had some success with really good coaches that showed us what a championship team looks like,” Balfour said when asked about her pick-up college games. Being exposed to some great coaches herself even as an adult helped her understand the perspective of the player and shaped her player-centered coaching style today. 

After graduating in 1991 from Beloit, where she majored in history and education with a minor in social studies, Balfour started teaching at Mascenic Regional High School in New Hampshire, but she wanted to do something besides teaching. 

Balfour talked to the volleyball coach at Mascenic about taking on a coaching position. Coincidentally, the coach was the person who started girls volleyball in New Hampshire in 1975. The team had won four titles at that point and won their fifth title in 1992, the year Balfour was awarded the JV coaching position. 

After working at Mascenic for a few years, Balfour took an assistant coaching job at St. Anselm College while still teaching at Mascenic. She enjoyed experiencing that level of volleyball, but she did not want to coach at the collegiate level while teaching high school because it was a lot of work. But Balfour didn’t want to be a college professor either; she wanted to continue teaching high school. So after just one season, she “peaced out” and went back to coaching at Mascenic and took over their volleyball program, leading the team to the finals that year. She stayed for a few years, then accepted a teaching job at Milford while still coaching at Mascenic. But Balfour wanted something more.

“I’m coaching high school but it’s not my high school,” she explained. “It’s hard when you’re stepping into somebody else’s program.” 

It was around this time that Balfour got a call from Hollis Brookline High School. The athletic director was also the social studies department head at the time and heard of Balfour’s affection for volleyball. He needed a social studies teacher and wanted to bring girls volleyball to HB, and lucky for him, Balfour could do both of those things. Being able to teach social studies and start a girls volleyball program at the same school appealed to Balfour, so she accepted the position and started in the fall of 1999.

The next fall was Balfour’s very first season coaching varsity at HB. Through the years, Balfour has worked to instill the same coaching philosophy from the middle school volleyball program to high school varsity. The skills taught are the same, and every coach in the volleyball program has completed the same training. Everyone is on the same page. 

“It’s a more player-centered way to coach,” Balfour said. “The style that we use is you learn while you play. We try to make every single drill we do as game-like as possible.” Balfour feels that having consistency in the volleyball program throughout all grade levels is what has made them successful. “The best learning happens when you’re doing the whole mechanic, but you’re talking about that one thing,” Coach Balfour said.  

Another reason Balfour and her coaching staff are so successful is because of their motto: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” They kept that motto in mind and paced themselves through the entire 2022 season, finishing the regular season 16-2. For the third season in a row, HB met Bedford in the championship. Ultimately, the team fell short of the finish line and lost to Bedford 3-2, an improvement over the previous two years where HB got swept by Bedford 3-0 in both the 2021 and 2020 championships. This year was the first championship girls volleyball match to ever go to a fifth set in NH Division I history. 

“We put it all out there,” Balfour said. “We asked the non-seniors to play their hearts out for the seniors, and we asked the seniors to lead, to make these non-seniors want to play hard for them, and they all did that.”

Many coaches look up to other coaches for inspiration, and that is true for Balfour. Her inspiration is Plymouth State girls volleyball coach Joan Forge, the winningest coach in NH high school volleyball history. Balfour has incorporated pieces of Forge’s coaching style and methods into her own, such as how to develop leadership within the team, especially the seniors. Balfour’s practice of throwing T-shirts into the crowds at HB home games to hype up the fans was also inspired by Forge. 

After Balfour’s historic 450th win this season, Forge reached out to Balfour and told her that she’s pretty close to beating Forge’s record of 542 wins, which she set during her years as head volleyball coach at Gilford High School. Although Balfour said it would be exciting to beat her idol’s record, she was honored and encouraged by her role model reaching out to her, telling her she plans to be there to cheer on Balfour when she breaks that record. Surely the HB community will be cheering on “Balf” too.