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Clarion High to IUP Connection in Volleyball is Strong

INDIANA, Pa. – Former Clarion Area Volleyball player and assistant coach Mattie Thornton began pursuing her master’s degree in English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania this past fall and also accepted an assistant coaching position on the Crimson Hawks Women’s Volleyball Team.

(Photo of Mattie Thornton during her Clarion University playing days. Photo courtesy of Clarion University Athletics)

In doing so, she joined another former Lady Cat, junior defensive specialist Olivia Burns.

The Crimson Hawks, under Head Coach Scott Pennewill, a former head coach at Clarion University, compiled a 7-21 overall and 6-13 PSAC record.

Mattie was a Senior Co-Captain on the Lady Cats’ 2012 PIAA State Championship team and also a member of the state runner-up squads in 2010 and 2011. The Lady Cats, under Coach Shari Campbell, were KSAC and District 9 Champions all three of those seasons. Mattie was a teammate with Olivia’s older sister, Ellie, on those Lady Cat championship teams.

Gloria Kroh, who plays at Lock Haven, was also a member of those teams. Mattie was named All-KSAC and All-District 9.

Mattie continued her playing career at Clarion University of Pennsylvania under head coach Jennifer Herron, seeing time as a defensive specialist. During Mattie’s time there, the Golden Eagles made two Regional Championship appearances. Mattie finished her CUP career with 263 total digs at 1.91 digs per set.

She rejoined the Clarion Area program as a volunteer assistant coach for the 2017 and 2018 seasons where she coached Olivia as well. Mattie was also the junior high volleyball coach and coached for Clover Volleyball Club from 2013-2018.

“It’s been great being back in the gym with Liv and seeing how far she’s progressed since high school, as well as getting to coach her at a higher level,” Thornton said. “I was on staff at Clarion Area as a volunteer assistant during her senior year in 2016, and I played with both of her older sisters Ellie and Karly when I was in high school as well, so that connection was already there.

“She has a great platform and is very knowledgeable about the game, so she’s just a great player to have in the gym.”

Olivia Burns mentioned this about her time playing for the Lady Cats, “I was lucky to be a part of such a strong high school program, that allowed me to follow my sister’s steps and create my best friends through the sport I love. The memories that I have created with my high school teammates at summer camps, pre-season, district championship games, and state-playoff games. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”

Olivia Burns. Photo courtesy of IUP Athletics

Olivia was a four-year starter for Clarion Area and was named All-KSAC, All-District Nine and All-State in 2015.

Olivia is working on an undergraduate major in Speech Language Pathology and Audiology, with a cumulative GPA of 3.7. She is deciding whether to attend graduate school for Speech Language Pathology or Audiology, leaning towards the latter.

“Playing at IUP allowed me to meet my best friends for life, my teammates,” Burns said. “As a junior, I started to realize how important it is to surround yourself with great people. Volleyball has taught me many things about myself; how to be competitive, how to strategize and how to manage my time. I’ve also learned many concepts from my coach, Scott Pennewill. Let’s just say he has shaped me to be the person I am today – independent and fearless.”

Burns said she was excited about Thornton joining the IUP program.

“Finding out that Matti was going to be helping with our program was such an excitement,” Burns said. “Personally, I loved having someone from home and my high school program at my new stage of life. Cracking jokes and discussing old high school memories of Clarion Volleyball was such a pleasure.”

Burns’ teammates also enjoyed working with Thornton.

“Matti was also a team favorite. Matti being similar in age and a recent player of the game really helped our program throughout the season, especially with her knowledge of the game,” Burns said. “We are beyond thankful for Matti joining our program.”

Burns credits her family for her passion for volleyball. In addition to her sisters, her mom, Jodi, was a PIAA champion at Norwin High School outside of Pittsburgh, was an All-American at Clarion University, where she is in the school’s athletics Hall of Fame, and also was the head coach on two different occasions for the Golden Eagles.

“The love of the game started with my mother, along with the support of my father (Joe),” Burns said. “Her passion for the game has spread like a wildfire in my family. The volleyball frenzy started with all of my siblings and me being gym rats while my mother coached.

“Then the next step for us was traveling to watch high school games, club volleyball tournaments, then eventually collegiate games. Every week/weekend there is some type of volleyball activity. Whether it is one of us having a game or all of us wanting to get together to watch the sport. Now we all bond and love to get together and watch the baby, Korrin, kill it out on the court. My family is my main support. I wouldn’t be where I am without them.”

And the Burns family provides another Clarion Area Lady Cat connection to the IUP program, as Olivia and older sister Ellie were teammates on the 2017 Crimson Hawk squad. Ellie, a former member of the University of Pittsburgh Volleyball team, was a graduate student at IUP, playing libero and Olivia was seeing playing time as a true freshman.

“We finished first seed going into the PSAC tournament,” Ellie Burns said. “Although the outcome we wanted did not happen, we still made it to the NCAA Division II playoffs. We made it to the second round of the tournament- putting us as one of 32 teams left in the nation.

“Another really interesting fact about this year was that my sister, Olivia and cousin, Madison were both freshmen on the team at the time. Olivia and I are four years apart.

“Prior to this experience, we never had the opportunity to play together. (Olivia) was always around during my high school career, in fact, she was our team manager (as an eighth grader) when my high school team won states my senior year. Olivia is a very versatile player. She has done it all much like our older sister, Karly (who is only one year older than me and was on my team during our state championship run in 2011).”

Ellie Burns is currently a Speech Pathologist at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, in Pittsburgh, an assistant coach and junior varsity head coach, for the Moon Area High School Lady Tigers and an assistant on the Pittsburgh Elite Volleyball Club, with their 16 Premier and our 13 Elite teams.

She coaches younger sister Korrin, who was an All-State player for Clarion Area this year.

“I am very excited to work with my sister and to have her in our gym,” Ellie Burns said. “Korrin is a very extraordinary player and person. She has been around the game since she was born. Her volleyball IQ and knowledge of the game are extremely high and I think she has the potential to do great things.”

Ellie, who was an All-State player for Campbell’s Lady Cats also talked about her relationship with Thornton.

“I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to play for Clarion volleyball,” Ellie Burns said. “I was part of a legacy that was determined to leave the place better than we found it- even though that was very hard to do. The girls prior to my years at Clarion volleyball set the bar very high.

“I was a member of a team who made it to the state final match three out of four of my years at Clarion volleyball. Our goal each year was to win that golden ball. My sophomore and junior year, we fell just short of that. I remember my freshman year after we lost in the final four, I promised Coach Campbell that we would win her a state championship. Freshman me, little did I have any idea of the blood, sweat, and tears it would take to accomplish that promise. It wasn’t until my senior year, that we won that title. It was one of the most amazing feelings.

“I was part of a class size (on the volleyball team) of eight. Matti Thornton, being one of those eight. Matti did/does it all. In high school, she played front row, she played back row, you name it, she probably did it.

“Matti and I were and still are very close. In most of high school and college, we both were considered defensive players; therefore, we spent most of our time diving all over the floor, comparing bruises, and supporting each other. Till this day, she will forever be one of my dearest friends and forever teammate.”

Ellie Burns talked about what volleyball means to her.

“Volleyball will forever be a major part of my life,” Ellie Burns said. “I have come to realize that yes, there is more to life than a sport such as volleyball. However, I owe the sport of volleyball a major thank you.

“I owe my parents, my previous coaches, and the sport a major thank you. It has brought me the opportunity to learn from the best of the best coaches, learn from my mother who played/coached, play as a teammate with two of my three sisters, coach my youngest sister, and gain 20+ adopted sisters that will forever be a major part of my life, and it has even brought me to my fiance through coaching.

“Volleyball will forever be a major part of my life. I hope that I will take all of the life lessons this sport has brought to me and that I can use this knowledge to help young women throughout their journeys.”

Though not another Lady Cat connection at IUP, there is a Thornton family connection.

“My cousin Brittany Torsell (Gates) actually played volleyball at IUP and was named to the first teams with the AVCA Atlantic Region and PSAC in 2003, 2004, and 2005,” Thornton said. “She was named AVCA Freshman of the Year and PSAC Rookie of the Year in 2002, also the year IUP won the PSAC Championship.

“She finished her IUP career with first place all-time in leader blocks; ranking first in kills in 2004 and 2005, as well as second place all-time in “kills” with 1,658.”

Thornton’s younger sisters also excelled in high school and college.

Maci was a standout soccer and all-state basketball player at Clarion Area. She went on to play basketball at Messiah College where she was named an All-American and scored 1,000 points in the 2018-2019 season (her senior year).

Maya was an all-conference, all-district, and all-state volleyball player at Clarion Area, where Matti coached her during her junior and senior years. She currently plays volleyball at Westminster College.

This story was written by Dave McClaine of Clarion and shared with EYT Media/