Friday, April 27, 2012

New Coaches Get Their Feet Wet by Playing in the Sand

With the 2012 sand volleyball season and varying levels of success under their belts, first-year volleyball coaches Steve Loeswick (North Florida), Michelle Collier (Jacksonville) and Damian Elder (Mercer) continue to place their stamp on their individual programs.

All three were hired in January 2012, and each came to their respective program with impressive backgrounds. They have all enjoyed success as players and coaches, and one common thread that ties them together is their experiences of having coached in the Southeastern Conference – Loeswick at LSU and Collier and Elder at South Carolina.

A-Sun Sand VB Coach of the Year, UNF's Steve Loeswick

Loeswick takes over the Ospreys program following a 14-year assistant coaching career that included the last five seasons at LSU. The Tigers finished 19-11 in 2011 and earned their fifth consecutive SEC Western Division title.

During his tenure at LSU, Loeswick was a key component in the Tigers’ five consecutive SEC Western Division titles and the 2009 SEC Championship, the program's first since 1991. The Tigers also accumulated 112 victories and were one of 25 programs nationally to string together four straight NCAA Tournament appearances (2007-10) fueled by a trio of 25-win campaigns in 2007, 2009 and 2010, respectively.

Collier comes to Jacksonville after spending the 2010 and 2011 seasons as an assistant coach at South Carolina. 

In 2011, she helped the Gamecocks to a seven-win improvement, ranking it as the second-best turnaround in school history. The Gamecocks improved in nearly every category, including a hitting percentage that rose 45 points above that of 2010. She also helped Paige Wheeler finish third in digs (4.57) in the SEC, while Juliette Thévenin was fourth in kills pet set at 3.65.

In 2010, Collier was instrumental in coaching Thévenin to the SEC all-freshman team. Thévenin led the Gamecocks in kills and aces, the third rookie ever and fifth freshman to lead South Carolina in kills. Thévenin ranked in the top 10 in the SEC in both kills and points per set, and she finished second on the team in hitting percentage.

JU Head Volleyball Coach Michelle Collier

She takes over a JU program that has been below .500 and out of the A-Sun Championship the last two seasons, so she understands that where the program is does not match up with where she would like it to be. “We are just trying to take one step at a time and slowly change the culture of the program,” Collier says. “We have to change how we approach practice, conditioning, and understand how much we have here and appreciate it. Coming here is a privilege and they are going to have to know that they will have to give a lot of things up for us to be successful. Winning more and playing better will obviously be important, but changing the overall culture will be my goal starting my first indoor season.”

Elder assumes his first head coaching role after spending 11 years as either an assistant or an associate coach in some of the nation’s top conferences. Besides the SEC, Elder has coached in the Pacific-12 and the Southern Conference.

He joined Mercer from the College of Charleston, where he was an assistant in 2011. There he helped guide the Cougars to a 25-10 (14-2 SoCon) record and a runner-up finish in the 2011 SoCon Championship. Prior to his stint in Charleston, Elder spent five seasons and preceded Collier as an associate head coach at South Carolina. The Gamecocks racked up 71 wins during his tenure, including posting a program-record 21 victories in 2002. He was also a part of South Carolina fielding its first competitive sand volleyball team. He assumed responsibility of the sand program, instituting the first sand training program and first SEC sand camp before leading the team to the SEC Beach Championship title in 2009.

Elder got his start in Division I volleyball at Stanford, spending two seasons as a volunteer assistant coach with the Cardinal. In his first season at Stanford, the team captured the 2004 NCAA Division I National Championship.

Mercer Head Volleyball Coach Damian Elder

“I am a person who has counted on work ethic and I am going to count on that from my team,” he says. “The player that I want is someone who is going to be a student first. I think being a competitive students leads to being a competitive athlete and a maturity that I would like to see for our team. Of course I would like great volleyball players, and I think we can handle great players as long as we get players who are willing to work hard and sacrifice.”

Another commonality among the trio of coaches is that they are each pioneers in the sport of sand volleyball, not only in the A-Sun but across the nation. However, unlike most current volleyball coaches who are coaching indoor and sand, these three have only seen their teams compete on sand. The transition from indoor volleyball to sand volleyball for most players is a difficult one. The physicality of the game, fewer players, no set positions, challenging conditions such as heat and rain, very limited coaching during the match – all things that make the game very different.

“The transition from indoor court to sand is very challenging for most of the players,” says Collier. “It is not about how hard you hit it, it is about where you place it. In sand you have be in the game all of the time, unlike indoor where at certain positions you get a bit of a break. It changes a lot of the way you play.”

Loeswick agrees with Collier. "No doubt sand is a completely different game. Some of the skills sets are the same, but the outdoor game has so much more to do with how you control the ball, your vision of the court and how well you communicate with your partner.”

Loeswick enjoyed immediate success during the sand volleyball season, guiding the Ospreys to a 5-2 regular season and the inaugural A-Sun Sand Volleyball Team Championship. The Ospreys were 4-0 in dual competition and won 15 of their 20 individual matches during the championship. Loeswick was also named Coach of the Year and his No. 1 pair of Dagnija Medina and Anna Budinska claimed Pair of the Year honors. Medina begins play today with Emily Strack in the pairs championship portion of the AVCA Collegiate Sand Volleyball National Championship.

“I am extremely happy that we won the championship, but I am happiest about how our team is growing as players and as people and moving the program in the right direction.

“My immediate goal was to try to help become a better team. I have been so proud of their work ethic and their being on board with what we are asking them to do.”

Collier’s Dolphins posted a 1-4 record in their first sand volleyball season, and finished 1-3 at the A-Sun Sand Volleyball Championship. JU claimed victories in nine matches during the championship, including a No. 1 pairs win by Kendall Courtney and Cari Whitmire over the A-Sun Pair of the Year, Medina and Budinska. Courtney and Whitmire were also named to the All-Tournament Team.

“My expectation for this first year was to raise the level of where we are playing,” says Collier. “I don’t expect to win championships overnight – that takes work. It is about sharing my knowledge and passion for the game with the players we have and bringing in players that share that and we’ll get better over time. A lot of it, too, is working on the mental part of the game and reteaching these kids how to win. We have a great group of players who work hard but they haven’t had those great experiences yet, so I hope that I can share the great experiences I had in the sport with them.”

Elder’s Bears also won one match during the regular season, posting a 1-6 record. The Bears did not win a match during the team championship, but got wins from No. 3 seeds Emily Rochefort/Caroline Carlton and No. 1 seeds Jamie Duffy/Cassie Roy. Duffy and Roy were also named to the All-Tournament Team.

The fact that sand volleyball was part of the head coaching responsibility was one of the main things that attracted Elder to the Mercer vacancy. “At first what attracted me to the job was that sand volleyball was part of the deal,” he says. “Given my experience with sand volleyball, I thought that was something that would be really neat to be a part of, to be a groundbreaker in the sport of sand volleyball. So for our program, I want people who are on board with me, on board being pioneers.”

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