As a volleyball player, Heather Kahl Holmes proved her toughness over and over again.
At 5 feet, 6 inches tall, she might have been one of the smallest outside hitters around, smashing kills past the long arms of opposing blockers. While she was on scholarship at Clemson University, her coach told her to consider becoming a setter, perhaps the most important player on a volleyball team. She retreated to her old high-school gym and worked for hours with her dad, Larry Kahl, a legendary high school coach.
Holmes took that toughness to a new level in the fall of 2012, when she coached the Wake Forest volleyball team while undergoing breast cancer treatments and caring for her infant son. Even as she worked through crushing fatigue, the emotional gut-punch of a cancer diagnosis and bone-aches from chemotherapy, Holmes found refuge in Reynolds gym, overseeing practices and coaching most games, a tight-fitting wig squeezing her head.
Holmes attacked cancer with that same grit before dying of the disease at age 45 Wednesday morning, surrounded by her family.
As head coach from 2005 to 2012, Holmes compiled a 108-141 record, the most wins in Wake Forest history. Her best season was in 2010 when the Deacons went 19-12.
Holmes resigned as head coach in January 2013, citing the desire to spend more time with her husband, Michael, a former Wake Forest baseball player, and son, Landon.
She had a selfless motive as well, telling the Journal that she wanted her players to focus on their college experience and “not worry about their head coach.”
Jennifer Averill, the longtime field hockey coach at Wake Forest, described Holmes as a private, eloquent person who could turn outspoken when it came to advancing the progress of women athletes at the school.
And her players loved her.
“The kids thrived off her energy,” Averill said. “She was so incredibly passionate. And while she was private, her personality was infectious. One of the hard things for her was when she had to shave her head. It’s not because she was vain, but because she didn’t want the attention drawn to her. I told her, ‘I’ll shave mine, too, and we’ll just tell people it’s part of some feminist movement.’”
In 2014, she received the Pete Moffitt Courage Award from Wake Forest athletics in recognition of her courageous fight against cancer.
Holmes and her sister, Heidi Kahl, played together at Clemson. Once she settled into the setter position, Holmes thrived. Jolene Hoover became her coach after her sophomore season.
“She was the catalyst, as far as the transition when I came in,” Hoover said in 2012. “And she dragged everybody with her.”
Holmes led the Tigers to NCAA tournament appearances in 1993 and ’94 and finished among the school’s leaders in assists. She was also named to the Atlantic Coast Conference’s 50th anniversary team. After graduation, she joined the Tigers’ coaching staff as an assistant coach. She joined the Wake Forest staff in 2000.
Holmes remained active in the local volleyball community up until recently.
She is survived by her husband, Michael, and son, Landon.
A celebration of her life will be held in Wait Chapel on the Wake Forest University campus on June 11. Further service details are pending.