Jill Wilson isn’t used to losing. Whether it was as a player or as a long-time assistant at LSU, she hasn’t lost much in her volleyball career.
So this past season at Virginia Tech wasn’t easy. Wilson, who was hired as head coach in January 2017, had to fight through the losing just as much as her players did.
But after every match, whether it was a win or a loss, Wilson had the same message for her team — that she couldn’t wait to coach them the next day.
“As competitive as I am, I forced myself to say that because I knew this team is going to take off, I just needed to be patient with it,” Wilson said. “And if they knew how much I cared about them and wanted to coach them the next day, we would get through the losses quicker. We couldn’t let it just hang with us for weeks and weeks.”
Unfortunately for the Hokies, there were plenty of losses to endure in 2017. Virginia Tech finished the season 10-21 overall, including 4-16 in the ACC. But for Wilson, the record isn’t what matters, at least for now. What matters is the process, and how she’s transforming Virginia Tech volleyball.
“I think the most important thing, and the No. 1 thing I want to do here, is I want these women to leave here ready to just absolutely be CEOs in whatever their field is,” Wilson said. “That is my number one thing. I want to empower these women to where they leave here, and they’re going to move up the ladder because of their work ethic and their leadership. It’s starting to catch on with them.
“I want them to know that I care more than just about volleyball, because it all goes together. If they’re confident and they’re leading, it’s going to affect the volleyball. But I care more about than just what’s on the court. I want them to be successful women. I care very much about them.”
Wilson’s process of empowerment has been in effect since she took over in Blacksburg, but things are being kicked into gear this offseason.
First, Wilson is in the process of overhauling the program’s strength and conditioning. She hired Allison Randall as the program’s strength and conditioning coach, who is already putting the team through a strenuous winter boot camp. Randall is a former track and field star at Morgan State, and earned her master’s degree from Pittsburg State in Kansas.
Wilson hopes that Randall can truly develop her players both physically and mentally, as well as help them stave off injury, a problem that has nagged the Virginia Tech program for years.
“I think having our new strength coach with Allison Randall is really going to help with some of the nagging injuries and stuff that maybe the program has had in the past,” Wilson said. “So I’m pretty excited about the direction she’s going. She’s really developing their whole core and their body. She’s doing a three-week boot camp right now. Their landing technique, their balance, all of that so they stay healthier.”
Virginia Tech volleyball’s strength and conditioning is vital to the program’s success, at least in Wilson’s eyes. She’s seen firsthand what a good strength program can do, and believes it needs to be an emphasis.
“I think everybody is a little bit different in what their emphasis is,” Wilson said. “I think when I got here, I thought it was something we could really make an impact on. Allison Randall has a great mind for this. She’s finishing her Ph.D., she’s brilliant. So we really sat down and dove in to how we can help our team be healthier, more balanced, stronger in the air, be able to move their body low, defensive posture. So she put together a great program.
“For me, that’s a big emphasis because I think it goes past the physical side. When you really dive in and you get strong, your confidence level changes on the court. When you push through things together as a team that are hard, then those moments on the court, we’re going to be able to break through and be successful.”
Along with an improved strength program, Wilson is looking forward to overhauling the program’s nutrition plan as well. Wilson has worked with the Virginia Tech’s sports nutrition staff to teach her players how to fuel themselves properly, and hopes that the soon-to-be “student-athlete performance center” on the fourth floor of the Jamerson Athletic Center will take that a step further.
“Number one, recruiting, that’s a huge sell for us,” Wilson said. “It’s in our building, it’s right above our gym. The second thing is that the fuel is so important, especially since we’ve changed our training program to be able to help them balance that and learn how to fuel themselves. Jennie Zabinsky does a amazing job, but that’s going to give her even more access with our players, to really help them. I’m beyond excited.”
Wilson’s plan of empowerment also includes changing her players’ mindset. She’s striving to build a culture of leadership and work ethic, encouraging her players to work harder and achieve more in every aspect of their lives. She’s started giving out a “#GirlBoss” award weekly, in order to recognize players who are exemplifying everything the program strives to teach.
“A lot of it is developing them as strong women, to where they have the confidence in those moments that we can win that match,” Wilson said. “We’re not there yet. We stood toe-to-toe with Pittsburgh in our last match of the season, losing each set by two points, and a bit of it was a belief that we can beat them. We’re not quite there yet.”
With Wilson’s program almost entirely in place, it’s just a matter of time. While Wilson continues to hit the recruiting trail, she’s hoping her current roster makes big strides next season. The Hokies will lose six seniors for 2018, but have a few returning players that Wilson hopes can excel. Rhegan Mitchell and Jaila Tolbert, arguably the Hokies’ best two players this season, will return. Kaity Smith and Ester Talamazzi, two freshman outside hitters who started a combined 52 matches in 2017, will return as well. Marisa Cerchio and Kai Young, two freshmen in the middle, are also back.
Even with all of these returning players, Wilson expects starting roles to be competitive prior to next season.
“I think it’s a little bit up for grabs next year,” Wilson said. “We have a big class coming in, as well as maybe adding a transfer. I think there’s going to be maybe a few positions up for grabs, and honestly, it’s really going to be dependent on the investment they make with video, the strength training program, to who really takes off. I think a lot of them will. I think it’s going to be pretty competitive.”
For now, it’s all about getting better and continuing to implement Wilson’s culture. The team will work on individual technique and team practice through April, and will compete in a few scrimmages against local and regional programs along the way. After that, it’s up to the players.
“The biggest thing is, what will they do when they go home? Have they learned enough to where when they go home in May, and they don’t come back until July, have they learned enough to know how much they’re going to invest? That’s going to take a lot of leadership. It’s kind of the difference between the good teams and the great teams. Yes, you do all of this in the spring, but when they’re all home for those two months, how do the leaders make sure that everyone is staying on task and really improving, before they get back in July? That’s the testament of a great team.”