Virginia Tech volleyball might have a sour taste in their mouth after last season.
After starting 9-3, the Hokies went just 10-10 in conference play. Tech missed out on a postseason berth, and hasn’t made one since 2010.
“We just played bad matches at the wrong time,” said Head Coach Chris Riley. “The really good teams are the ones who can get through that and still win those matches, not playing your best but still winning. We’re trying to learn how to do that.”
However, there are reasons for optimism for Virginia Tech heading into this season. Riley, who has coached in Blacksburg since 2006, says that the Hokies return a bunch of talent and had a productive offseason.
“We worked extremely hard to identify the way we’re going to play, what we’re going to bring every day,” Riley said. “We played and won so many matches, not that they counted for anything, but we played against really good teams and we held our own, beat some of them and I just thought we created a really good atmosphere for what we’re trying to do and what culture we’re trying to accomplish.”
Riley’s offseason has also included a lot of recruiting, trying to bring top-level talent to Blacksburg.
“We’re on the road every weekend from January 17th through July 4th weekend,” Riley said. “Somebody from our staff is gone almost every weekend at a recruiting event. Most of the times there’s two of us in two different places. It’s extremely taxing.”
Recruiting is also very different in volleyball, as compared to a sport like football. High school teams and coaches are still very important, but club teams and club coaches. Riley is also recruiting players younger and younger every year, which is becoming the prevailing trend in the sport.
“Most people don’t understand, but for volleyball, we’re recruiting ninth and tenth graders,” Riley said. “Those kids commit unofficially and for volleyball, it’s usually pretty binding, but they commit in those times so we recruit them at that age. We’re not dealing directly with the kids, we have club coaches we have to handle, high school coaches we have to talk to and communicate with because we cannot communicate with the kids unless they call us. So, setting up unofficial visits for kids and getting them on campus to see what an amazing experience it is to be at Virginia Tech and a tremendous school it is.”
Recruiting players who are just 14 or 15 years old isn’t easy. Riley says there is a lot of guess-work that goes into figuring out which recruits will turn into solid players. Instead of focusing solely on a player’s physical attributes, Riley focuses on character.
“For me, character is an essential part of what we do,” Riley said. “I’m not going to let every kid who can touch 10-foot-3 come in and play if there not what character we’re looking for here at Virginia Tech. We spend as much time as we can getting to know them and their families, who they are and what kind of ambassador for Virginia Tech will they be when they graduate. Those are important pieces for us to identify, but it takes time to do that. We might spend more time than others do on that, because it means more to us.”
Riley has turned Virginia Tech into a solid program in his 10, going on 11 seasons. The Hokies have won 57 percent of their games since Riley took over (182-133), including the 2010 season where the Hokies went 20-12 and won their first game in the NCAA Tournament.
Performing at a higher level means that Riley and his staff must start recruiting better and better players, which often pits Virginia Tech against elite schools on the recruiting trail.
“We’re a top-50 program in the country, so for us, there might be 100 kids in the country than can help us,” Riley said. “We’re at that level where it’s not everybody. It’s a very specific number of kids than can make us better by coming in. We’re competing against everybody for the same kids, but we’ve gotten to that point, which is a success for Virginia Tech and the volleyball program. It wasn’t that way when we first got here 10 years ago. Now, we’re at a level where we are competing for National Team-level players and we’re getting them. We’re really excited about where the future is going, but it’s a whole other level if work that goes into it.”
Recruiting kids who have yet to get their driver’s license can be hard enough, but things can be even more difficult when the coach has to recruit players of the opposite sex. That said, Riley says that it all boils down to one thing.
“I think the kids learn that either trust you, or they don’t trust you, what you say is what you’ll do, or what you say you’ll follow through on,” Riley said. “I think that jumps the gap of male or female and relationship building. It’s all in how you build your relationships with those players and if they can trust you, and if they understand who you are and they know you are there to help them get better with whatever their goals are, that they understand you’re here to help with their academics, their athletics and that their social is a distant, distant third here at this level. Our kids are very clear on those parameters and that’s how they want it. It goes back to the character of the kids you recruit. That’s the important piece and I’ve got great kids.”
Riley has even used his friend and colleague Buzz Williams, who coaches men’s basketball. The two talk often and give each other advice on a host of topics.
“I’ve been able to bring recruits to him and be able to go to him and ask him some difficult questions about recruiting,” Riley said. “’What would you do here? What do you think? Give me your philosophy on this.’ I like to surround myself with people that I think know more than I do and try to learn as much as possible, and Buzz’s door is always open. That’s what I feel like, as a staff as Virginia Tech athletics, we need to take from each other. I’m sure I’ve been in situations that other people haven’t been in and I’d love to share my experiences if they need it. I want to help everybody and he’s been great for me. He helps me whenever I need it. I always want to reciprocate for him whenever he needs it.”
“What I love about Buzz is that he shoots it straight,” Riley said. “He tells you exactly how it is, ‘Nope, that isn’t going to work,’ or ‘Yeah, I think I like that idea.’ The more you communicate with people, the better understanding you have of who they are. I love his kids, his family, they are great people and everybody in his staff works in the same mindset. They want to get it done. There are no limitations. You can find excuses anywhere you want, they just don’t come in here.”
Something that helps recruiting is the development of the ACC Network. Thought the traditional TV network won’t launch until 2019, the digital supplement, ACC Network Extra, will start streaming games this season.
“From a recruiting standpoint, it helps us to compete with the SEC, it helps us to compete with the Big Ten and that part is fantastic,” Riley said. “It doesn’t really change much, as far as financially and budget-wise, because every team gets the same thing. Every ACC school is going to get the same thing. It doesn’t help us or put us in front of anybody else because we’re all getting the same. I just think from a notoriety standpoint, the ability to capture those feeds and send them to people and say, ‘Hey, go watch our match,’ vs. anybody.”
Director of Athletics Whit Babcock certainly deserves some credit for working with the other teams in the ACC to get the network off the ground and running. Riley says that Babcock, along with Deputy Athletics Director Desiree Reed-Francois and the rest of the administration, have done a great job making sure the volleyball program goes without wanting for much.
“I couldn’t be happier with the way we’ve been treated,” Riley said. “I think we have the best facility in the ACC to play with. We’ve got a practice gym that we can use at any time. We don’t have conflicts with basketball and we’re treated very well when it comes to basketball, we still have priority as an in-season sport. I know that’s not the same at a lot of places and people don’t get to practice on the court they play on and we’re here every day.”
Riley says that along with some infrastructure improvements, he was able to add a Director of Operations position, something many sports have.
“Every program has things they could use, but we don’t have a glaring need,” Riley said. “We don’t say, ‘We need a brand new locker room.’ No, we have a brand new locker room. We don’t need a great playing court, we have a great playing court. We have everything we need to be successful and I think they’re very good. The first question always is, ‘What can we do to help?’ I love the fact that they want to do everything they can to help us.”
“I’m really happy with the way we’re treated here,” Riley said. “I’ve been at four other places and this is by far the best we’ve ever had.”
On the floor, Virginia Tech will rely heavily on seniors Lindsey Owens, Amanda McKenzie and Katie Kruger. Owens was Second-team All-ACC last season, while McKenzie and Kruger both had career years in 2015, registering a kill percentage higher than 25 percent.
“They expect that,” Riley said. “They know what the role is. I think we’ve coordinated our preseason with an understanding of treating them as professionals because that’s what their bodies kind of need and that’s where their mental capacity of what we’re trying to accomplish takes over. The more fatigued they get, the harder it is to stay mentally focused on what we’re doing. We’ve kind of curtailed our entire process into more of a professional atmosphere for them.”
Riley said that Kruger is currently dealing with a nagging foot injury, but that she should be ready to go soon. Riley knows that keeping his players healthy is going to be important moving forward and is taking advantage of a new technology to help monitor his player’s wear and tear.
“We have a new editing system to allow us to monitor how much they’re jumping every day in practice,” Riley said. “We can know when they get to a threshold where they start to deteriorate and we need to take them out. That’s our way of being able to look out for them and say, ‘It’s not performance based, but you’re hitting your max jump time, I need you for Friday more than I need you for Wednesday.’ We’re not going to drastically change what they do at this point in their careers but we are going to help them perform better.”
Riley believes that with Owens, McKenzie and Kruger leading the way, with Regan Mitchell, Ashley Battle, Jaila Tolbert and Carol Raffety making an impact as well, the Hokies should be a force to be reckoned with.
“I think we’re going to be a pretty consistent team,” Riley said. “I think we’re going to be a good serving team, a really good passing team and that should make us a good offensive team. If we can do that, I think we’ll be pretty solid.”
The Hokies start their season this weekend, as Virginia Tech hosts the Virginia Tech/Radford invitational. They’ll start the season Friday night at 7 p.m. vs. Appalachian State. Tech will play two games on Saturday — Siena at noon and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) at 7 p.m.
“I expect everybody to give us a challenge and give us an opportunity to test us,” Riley said. “I want the test of who we play against to be something where we’re pushed. I don’t want to roll the balls out there and beat everybody 3-0. I want us to be pushed and our team needs that to really figure this out and what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Beyond this season, Riley is confident in where the program is headed.
“I think if you look at what we’ve done, from an RPI standpoint, were steadily increasing,” Riley said. “I think when I get here, it was in the 120s, now we’re in that 35, 45, 50 range. Those are the things that allow you to make an NCAA Tournament as an at-large. Our conference is very strong, so we have to be in that top four or five to have a chance to make that jump. The program is headed in the right direction.”
Even though things are going well for Virginia Tech, Riley says that his hardest work is still ahead of him.
“I feel comfortable saying for the next six to seven years, I’m confident that this is going to keep growing,” Riley said. “To get from 120 to 50 doesn’t take as much work as it does to get from 50 to 30 because you have so many good teams and there are only so many kids who can help you get better.”