After a 2011 season filled with turmoil, it was not clear how quickly the Oswego State volleyball team would be able to recover. At the 15-game mark a year ago, former head coach Betsy Hayden left the team, which left the team wondering what direction it was heading toward.
Hayden, who was in her first year as head coach, told the team on the first day of tryouts that she was going to come into the program blindly and treat everyone equally. She held true to her word, cutting five returning upperclassmen from the team and replacing them with freshmen. Her decision to do so was completely unjustified, according to the girls, as they played very little actual volleyball during the shortened three-day tryout.
Instead, Hayden had them run and do calisthenics for the majority of it, paying almost no attention to their volleyball skills. After only one exhibition match, the five returning players who did make the cut made the difficult decision to hand in their uniforms and leave the team.
One year later, through their first 15 games, the Lakers have already matched their win total from all of last season. For the first time since 2006, they won their season-opener, and this past weekend they won their first SUNYAC league game since 2008.
The consensus seems to be that head coach J.J. O’Connell deserves all of the credit. After leading the Stevens Institute of Technology volleyball team to a record of 272-92 over the last 10 years, he has brought a tremendous amount of knowledge to pass along to Oswego state.
His coaching style is “a lot more organized and structured, and he really knows what he is talking about,” said senior captain Chelsea Crump, one of the returning players who left last year’s team. “He is relaying things to us a lot clearer and it works for us. Everything makes sense.”
O’Connell was faced with a serious challenge when he accepted the job. With many of the upperclassmen who were either cut from or left Hayden’s team looking to return for one last season, this year’s tryout was taken very seriously. O’Connell had an opportunity to work with the team during their spring season before the 2012-13 academic year started. This gave him the chance to get to know the girls and get a feel for who was willing to make the commitment and buy into his plans.
“The spring season kind of weeded out all the people that weren’t really serious,” senior Jenna Sniffen said. “He was very straightforward with us on who would get playing time and who wouldn’t, and how he would give the people who he saw in the spring more time.”
The roster now consists of eighteen players, with a balanced number of upper and lower classmen. Thanks to O’Connell’s efforts, it has been easy for the girls to accept their roles.
“The old freshmen that made it and us veterans had to mesh back together. Our coach did a great job of settling that right away,” said senior Kelsey Ihle.
Another major factor in the team’s success this season has been O’Connell’s willingness to develop a quality relationship with all of his players.
“He is awesome,” Ihle said. “He gets to know every single person on an individual level.”
O’Connell stresses teamwork, but at the same time encourages the girls to focus on individual goals to improve upon their skills, and rewards those who are flourishing. Not only does he focus on making them better on the court, he also holds team study halls on Monday nights to emphasize the fact that they are students first.
“He really pushes us to not only succeed on the court but outside of the court, and that’s huge with him,” Crump said. “He’ll always give us little snippets of life lessons in there, and academically he has high expectations for us.”
In fact, according to Ihle, he wants the team grade point average to be about 3.3. This has also allowed the team to develop their chemistry on and off the court. The girls have been able to get to know each other and become comfortable with all of their teammates.
Alongside O’Connell’s excellent coaching has been the Lakers’ desire to put last season far behind them, which has driven them toward a higher level of achievement.
“Obviously last year was a rough year in seeing the other girls on the court in our place, and having Betsy as the coach for that while. It really lit a fire under us,” Crump said.
After last season, it can be assumed that the conference will have low expectations for the Lakers this fall. Although they are comfortable with being the underdogs, the girls are looking to prove themselves. They have more league games in Canton this weekend.
“I feel like we are just done with being a bad team, honestly,” Sniffen said. “If we really just buckle down and do what we’ve been taught, we can get it done.”