Tradition is very important to Virginia Tech volleyball coach Jill Wilson. So, when she took her official visit to LSU as a prospective freshman to play volleyball, things just clicked.
“It probably didn’t take me an hour before I fell in love with it,” Wilson said. “I’m a big tradition person, so I love the big sports atmosphere. The culture, the tradition, I am a complete sucker for it. I fell in love pretty fast.”
Wilson turned into a 4-year starter at LSU, and later returned as an assistant coach to the great Fran Flory, one of the most successful coaches in the sport. Wilson was a part of a lot of success at LSU, including signing five top-30 recruiting classes, 15 All-SEC selections, three 25-win seasons, an SEC championship and six NCAA Tournament appearances.
Wilson loved, and still loves, LSU. It would take a lot for her to leave.
“I wasn’t sure,” Wilson said. “The college coaching world is interesting, it’s ever-changing. I knew if the right opportunity came, and I fell in love with a school the way I felt about LSU, I would leave. If that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t.”
Wilson found what she was looking for at Virginia Tech. She had coached as an assistant in the ACC twice, with stints at North Carolina and Wake Forest, and knew the conference was a good place to coach.
“I loved the ACC. Being in two different schools in this conference, I had a lot of respect for this conference, and I also had a little experience in it, so I was a little more comfortable,” Wilson said. “I knew it was a conference that was on the rise in volleyball.”
Wilson also fell in love with the Blacksburg area. When she arrived to visit and meet the Virginia Tech staff, she got an all too familiar feel.
“Once I got here and got to meet the people, I had a chance to meet the administration and Whit (Babcock), there was no question of where he is taking this athletic department,” Wilson said. “It was really exciting. It was really contagious. Everybody is excited about it. Anybody you meet on campus is talking about it.”
Sure enough, Wilson took the job and was hired in January.
“It had to be a pretty perfect situation for me to leave there,” Wilson said. “I had to kind of know, and be able to walk around and know in my heart and soul, that I could recruit and be passionate about a school like I was LSU.”
Now, Wilson heads a volleyball program lacking the tradition she’s so passionate about. Virginia Tech is by no means a bad program, but isn’t up to the level of LSU. Since 2010, Virginia Tech is 68-70 against ACC opponents, and has zero finishes inside the top-5 in the ACC. Virginia Tech’s first and only NCAA Tournament appearance came in 2010, when the Hokies finished 20-12 overall and 10-10 in the ACC.
Virginia Tech volleyball doesn’t need to be rebuilt from scratch, but some changes were needed. One of Wilson’s key tasks has been to revamp the program’s strength and conditioning, which will focus on preventing injury, and preparing players for the physicality and speed of the sport.
Preventing injuries will be key for a team that was ravaged by them in 2016. Throughout the year, Virginia Tech lost at least five starters to significant injuries, causing them to miss dozens of matches combined. The injuries decimated Tech, leading to a lackluster 13-18 record overall, and an 8-12 record in the ACC.
“The athletic trainer and the strength coach are key pieces to be able to work together to really prevent injuries,” Wilson said. “We talk a lot about prehab work, not as much rehab work, because we really want to catch things before they happen.”
For 2017, Wilson sees a team that can compete right away. Wilson says the team has a good mix of incoming freshmen and returning players to make noise this season. Freshman Ester Talamazzi brings a “veteran approach” with international experience, while junior Jaila Tolbert and sophomore Carol Raferty will help lead the Hokies on and off the court.
“We have a very solid group of players returning,” Wilson said. “They are very smart, we have a lot of depth, so our focus was a lot on the culture, a lot on our strength training program and a lot in the gym, kind of the mindset and what we’re trying to accomplish every single minute of every single day. So are we starting from scratch? Absolutely not.
“We have good depth in each spot, and we’re going to be able to have four different middles that add different things to each match, depending on who we’re playing,” Wilson said. “That’s going to be the fun part to coach, because I think we’re going to have people off the bench in different circumstances that we’re going to be able to add.”
Another aspect that should help Wilson’s cause is the creation of the National Invitational Volleyball Championship (NIVC), which will serve as a secondary postseason tournament to the NCAA Tournament. Even if Virginia Tech fails to garner an NCAA bid, the Hokies should gain postseason experience with the NIVC.
“There’s a whole other opportunity for volleyball programs who are trying to take the next step to experience postseason, to start playing before they earn their way into the NCAA,” Wilson said. “Our goal is that we start establishing postseason play, in some form or fashion, and start working our way towards being in the NCAA Tournament.”
Overall, the entire project will take time. Tradition isn’t built in one season. However, Wilson knows she can create that tradition at Virginia Tech.
“It’s going to take us a few years to change the culture. It doesn’t happen overnight,” Wilson said. “The strength training aspect is going to take 18 months. We got a new strength coach this summer, and it’s going to take her some time to get our team strong and fit, to where they feel confident on the court, and it affects their play. We definitely know it’s going to be a few years before we kind of really establish things.”