Renee Zobel: Coe-Brown volleyball coach, marine biologist and mushroom aficionado

Coe-Brown volleyball coach Renee Zobel joins in the celebration of a winning point with her team earlier this season.

Coe-Brown volleyball coach Renee Zobel joins in the celebration of a winning point with her team earlier this season. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Coe-Brown volleyball coach Renee Zobel joins in the celebration of a winning point with her team earlier this season.

Coe-Brown volleyball coach Renee Zobel joins in the celebration of a winning point with her team earlier this season. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Renee Zobel examines mushrooms along the trails at the Urban Forestry Center in Portsmouth.

Renee Zobel examines mushrooms along the trails at the Urban Forestry Center in Portsmouth. ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL / Monitor staff

Coe-Brown volleyball coach Renee Zobel looks for mushrooms on a trail at the Urban Forestry Center in Portsmouth.

Coe-Brown volleyball coach Renee Zobel looks for mushrooms on a trail at the Urban Forestry Center in Portsmouth. ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL—Monitor staff

Renee Zobel digs for snails in the Gulf of Maine in Rye.

Renee Zobel digs for snails in the Gulf of Maine in Rye. ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL—Monitor staff

Renee Zobel holds up a small snail she uncovered from the sand in the Gulf of Maine in Rye.

Renee Zobel holds up a small snail she uncovered from the sand in the Gulf of Maine in Rye. ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL / Monitor staff

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 10-21-2023 4:00 PM

As she walks in the forest – a place that always keeps her grounded and at ease – the mushrooms sprouting near some fallen, dead wood excite Renee Zobel the most.

“This is a hen of the woods,” she says with alacrity, pointing to a cohort among several species of mushrooms growing in the ground. “These pop in the fall. These are super desirable. Sometimes you see them in restaurants on the menu. They grow at the base of oaks, almost exclusively.”

From as early as she can remember, Zobel has loved exploring the woods. Mushrooms are only her latest obsession.

“My parents really gave me the opportunity to just play freely,” she says. “I’m not sure how I didn’t hurt myself or get completely lost, but even as a very small child, I just played in the woods all the time.”

The Coe-Brown girls’ volleyball coach is standing atop prematurely fallen leaves on a trail at the Urban Forestry Center in Portsmouth in early October. She’s never walked these trails before, but she’s more than familiar with the nature that surrounds her – the mushrooms, the trees and even the moss, home to microscopic organisms called tardigrades, or “water bears” as they’re more colloquially known.

Zobel has only begun to talk, with enthusiasm, passion and her child-like curiosity, about her love of the outdoors and her career as a marine biologist that developed from that love. When she was still a young kid, her parents bought her a microscope.

“(That) was the most thrilling thing that ever happened to me when I was very young,” she says proudly.

She’d wander around, scrape moss off of trees and examine the water bears. “Really anything I could put on a microscope slide,” she adds, “I was trying to look at.”

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The natural inquisitiveness that guided Zobel’s childhood sticks with her, in her work as the supervisor of marine fisheries for New Hampshire Fish and Game, her general love of the outdoors and as a high school coach.

When Zobel ventured into the coaching world, her own high school coaches, Chris Dupuis and Mark Potter, had given her a blueprint to model her style – notably, the value of investing deeply in your players as people, not just as athletes. But as is the case with any young coach, it’s taken the level of success she’s had to feel validated in her approach. Her athletic director commends her; her players do as well.

“How she can open up about all that stuff in her life makes it so much easier for us to open up and tell her our interests and what we nerd out about,” says Coe-Brown junior Haile Comeau. “It leads to a really nice environment.”

For the most part, high school coaches work in schools – as teachers, administrators and counselors – and that makes perfect sense. They’re familiar with the students, they command respect through their jobs and they’re generally already involved in local community athletics. But Zobel has always been a kind of outlier in this way. She’s spent days out in the Gulf of Maine on a lobster boat and on wilderness retreats teaching women how to field dress small game animals before heading to the Coe-Brown gym in Northwood where she lives. While her job might not fit the typical mold for a high school coach, that uniqueness is what separates her; it’s what earns her respect from the players and what propels them to excel.

“I feel like every day is something new, whether it be volleyball related or related to the outdoors,” says senior Courtney Morris, playing in her first season on the varsity team. “I’d never realized how close she wants us to be as a team and as a family. … Every day, she pulls something out of us that grows us closer and closer.”

Zobel’s life is undoubtedly busy, especially during the fall volleyball season. But her purpose is unambiguous: “You’re never going to know when you have that kid who you are absolutely crucial to their success, just by being there and supporting them,” she says.

It’s a philosophy that endears her to Sam Struthers, Coe-Brown’s athletic director.

“She does just a phenomenal job coaching kids in general. These girls have such a fantastic role model to look up to,” he says. “She’s right there, top coach I think in the state.”

Mushrooms…and volleyball

Born to a father who was a pilot and a mother who worked in finance, Zobel grew up in Gilford. She attended Wheaton College, a small liberal arts school about 25 miles west of Chicago, where she majored in biology and played on the volleyball team for her first three years. She arrived in college expecting to focus on physical therapy; she left in love with the natural sciences.

After graduating in 2003, she wanted to move back to New Hampshire and latched onto a part-time role with the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game, the state agency responsible for everything from habitat conservation to hunting enforcement. Her own responsibilities evolved over time, too, leading to her current role as supervisor of marine programs.

She used to spend lots of time on the water, surveying anglers, monitoring rainbow smelt populations and studying horseshoe crabs. Working as a supervisor means less field work now, which is partly why she gravitated toward foraging for mushrooms during her free time.

Curious, outdoorsy and a culinary enthusiast, becoming a mushroom aficionado was a natural fit. She didn’t dive into it until years after starting work at Fish and Game, but now, she’s a regular in Facebook groups with New Hampshire mycologists who help identify different species.

“You never, ever, ever want to eat anything unless you are 100% sure about what it is,” she says. “That can be really scary when you’re new to it.”

Usually, her refrigerator is full of fresh mushrooms. If the stockpile ever runs low, she’s off into the woods to find more.

“I’ll just go grab toppings for pizza,” she says.

As Zobel navigates the trails at the Urban Forestry Center, conversation veers from mushroom spores to her athletic career.

She attended Concord Christian High School where they didn’t offer soccer, the sport she wanted to play. Instead, she settled for volleyball. If soccer had ever been an option, she never would’ve been introduced to volleyball and by translation, coaching.

In 2005, Zobel joined NHTI’s volleyball program as an assistant coach. Three seasons later, she took over as the head coach. From 2008 through 2014, she led the Lynx to a record of 117-67 and three Yankee Small College Conference championships. She was named YSCC coach of the year in 2012.

After seven seasons as head coach, she decided to step away from the hectic schedule. For the next three years, she assisted Jonathan Flower with the Concord High School volleyball program, before taking over at Coe-Brown ahead of the 2018 season.

‘Someone you can go to’

Zobel’s practices begin in a room adjacent to the gym at Smith Hall. The players sit in a circle, awaiting their “Question of the Day.”

“I can’t imagine starting practice without ‘Question of the Day,’” Comeau says. “You gotta do ‘Question of the Day’ first. It’s just how it is.”

Before this particular practice, Zobel asks the players, if you had to decide right now, what career would you pursue?

Answers range from pediatric physical therapy to veterinary sciences to working for the FBI. Sometimes, the questions are less serious, like asking the players to share their favorite salty snack.

“Every year, my first goal – and it happens some years and it doesn’t other years – is to build trust and vulnerability and for the kids to get to know each other,” Zobel says. “As the season goes on, I tend to ask bigger and bigger questions, both about life and volleyball, and the goal of that is to try and get people to open up a little bit more and feel safe to do that.”

A high school coach doesn’t have to go to these lengths. Struthers, the Bears’ AD, even notes that many of his other coaches have since adopted some of Zobel’s coaching philosophies, seeing the success she’s had with them. Coe-Brown won the Division II volleyball championship in 2021 and was the runner-up last season.

Zobel’s ultra-competitive – she wouldn’t still fly to Dallas for her own volleyball tournaments if she wasn’t – but she knows her off-the-court impact transcends anything that happens during a game.

In a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control, over 40% of high school students reported feeling persistent sadness and hopelessness; nearly one-third said they’ve experienced poor mental health in the previous month. It’s a growing problem to which Zobel looks to be part of the solution.

A conversation with a close friend, Joy Gabrielli, made her double down on this commitment.

Gabrielli, now a professor at the University of Florida, studied foster youth and building resilience with kids who grow up in challenging circumstances as a Ph.D. student at the University of Kansas. A strong predictor of success for those kids: Having an adult mentor from outside the family. In sports, that’s typically a coach.

“That hit me like a ton of bricks,” Zobel says. “I think it should hit every coach like a ton of bricks. That’s why when I can’t connect with a kid or when people are struggling, that hits me really personally because I don’t want them to hate the sport that we love. I don’t want them to have something impact their mental health.”

And that doesn’t just hold true for kids who grow up in unstable families. Any high school athlete would benefit from the glass-half-full approach Zobel takes with her players.

“Sometimes coaches make you feel that you’re not good enough,” says senior Mackenzie Nadeau. “But she’s never made me feel like that.”

Sofya Gunderson, a sophomore, echoes that point.

“If you’re struggling with something,” she says, “you always have someone you can go to.”

‘One special person’

On a rocky beach on the Gulf of Maine in Rye, Zobel slips on her water-resistant boots and grabs a large blue Lowe’s bucket. It’s low tide, and she’s off to look for snails.

Tossing away handfuls of sand under rocks, she discovers a few, but they’re small – not worth the hassle of needing to break the shell to cook. The homemade escargot will have to wait.

Twenty-four hours from that Sunday afternoon, Zobel is back in the gym preparing Coe-Brown for the final stretch of the regular season and a potential deep playoff run. The first round of the NHIAA playoffs begins on Tuesday.

As she stands among the radiant red-painted walls at Smith Hall running practice, sharing tidbits about mushrooms and talking with her players about careers they might want to pursue, Zobel views her role as merely paying it forward, building on what her own coaches did for her and imprinting valuable life lessons along the way.

“From Renee, I’ve learned that I can have my job, whatever it is, and still go out and do the things I love,” Comeau says.

Mushroom harvesting tends not to be a favorite activity for Comeau or most of her teammates, but they’ll still send their coach photos of ones they find outside.

“She’ll text me like, ‘If you saute it with a little butter and garlic, it’s delicious with rice,’” laughs junior Emma Zeblisky.

The players are always amused at their coach’s stories – about sitting in meetings about oysters and shutting down fisheries, to name a couple. They’ve also come to appreciate the bigger picture of what Coe-Brown volleyball is about: Zobel’s commitment to cultivating a comforting environment, connecting with each player and pushing them to succeed like she knows they all can.

She’ll be the first to admit that she’s not perfect by any stretch. But in a stressful high school athletics landscape, Renee Zobel’s presence as a role model for these student-athletes provides much-needed stability and comfort, even though she might have to race over to a game or practice after spending a day out on the ocean or in the woods.

“I think that’s just amazing how she can just shift gears and go from being out in a swamp or at a meeting and then show up and put on her red shoes and off she is coaching,” Struthers says. “She’s just one special person we have here.”