By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the world of Division I women’s volleyball, the giants include Penn State. The Nittany Lions won NCAA titles in 2007, ’08, ’09 and ’10. They were NCAA runners-up in 1993, ’97 and ’98.
The Penn State coaching staff’s perception of University of Virginia volleyball?
“Sleeping giant,” Dennis Hohenshelt said. Which leads, Hohenshelt knows, to an obvious question:
“Why hasn’t it been better?” he said.
Hohenshelt, the Cavaliers’ new head coach, was hired to make the program better. That is not, he believes, an impossible task. After 16 seasons as a Penn State assistant — the first 10 with the school’s powerful men’s team — Hohenshelt knows his way around the college volleyball world, and he’s convinced UVa has everything in place to win big.
“I know when something’s nice,” Hohenshelt said in his McCue Center office. “I’ve been all around the country. Not too many areas that are nicer than the Grounds, right? You get kids here, you get parents here, it’s gorgeous.
“See the smile on my face? My head’s spinning, but the smile’s stayed on my face the entire time, because this can happen.”
Hohenshelt (pronounced HO-en-shelt) was hired last month to replace Lee Maes, who resigned in late November after four seasons as Virginia’s head coach. Under Maes, the Wahoos went 28-52 in ACC play and 53-70 overall.
From a team that finished 4-6 in the ACC and 10-20 overall in 2011, 10 players return: rising seniors Rachel Gray, Tobbi Farrar and Jessica O’Shoney; rising juniors Rachel Clark, Mallory Woolridge and Emily Rottman; and rising sophomores Sydney Shelton, Abbey Welborn, Tori Janowski and Morgan Blair. At least two recruits will join the team in the fall — 6-2 Natalie Bausback of California and 6-4 Vivian Burcescu of New York, who signed letters of intent with UVa in November.
Before moving to Charlottesville, Hohenshelt had seen Bausback and Burcescu play, and he had some familiarity with the team he inherited, too.
When Penn State was preparing to play Long Island University last season, Hohenshelt said, he watched a tape of UVa’s match with LIU.
He saw some talent in orange and blue, Hohenshelt said, “but there were six kids out there playing individually. There weren’t six kids playing as one, and I think the kids understand that. And they admitted to me that that was their issue: They never felt they could come together for some reason. I don’t know what that reason is, but my job is to figure out what it is and make it so they come together.
“Everyone I talked to — and I talked to a lot of people about this job — said there’s a lot of talent on this team. I would agree with that statement. My job as a coach is to figure out how to get them all together.”
Hohenshelt grew up in Harrisburg, Pa., where his parents still live, and played volleyball at Juniata College, from which he graduated in 1993. He later coached at his alma mater. After two years as an assistant, he was promoted to head coach of the men’s team and guided Juniata to an 18-8 record in 1996.
Then came his long tenure at Penn State, where his wife, Tara, is an assistant women’s lacrosse coach. (She and their two children, son Jake and daughter Reese, will join Hohenshelt in Charlottesville in June.)
In Hohenshelt’s 10 years on head coach Mark Pavlik’s staff, the Penn State men went 237-82, and in 2006 they advanced to the NCAA final. (Two years later the Nittany Lions, led by players Hohenshelt had helped recruit, won the NCAA men’s title.)
“Could I have stayed in that job forever? Sure. It was a great thing,” Hohenshelt said. “Mark and I got along tremendously. I had a lot of responsibility, which was great. But at that point, 10 years, I just maybe wanted something a little different. And the pay scale was a little bit better in the women’s game than it was in the guys’ game, which was nice.”
Also, Hohenshelt noted, there are fewer Division I volleyball programs for men than for women. “I knew if I wanted to be a head coach, that was the route I was going to have to go — the women’s game.”
When the UVa job came open after the 2007 season, Hohenshelt was intrigued, but he didn’t consider himself familiar enough with the women’s game to be a head coach then. When Maes stepped down, however, the timing felt right to Hohenshelt, who had helped the Penn State women compile a 199-18 record in his six seasons with head coach Russ Rose.
His friend Jay Paterno, a former graduate assistant in UVa’s football program, encouraged him to pursue the position.
“He was nothing but complimentary of the University of Virginia,” Hohenshelt recalled. “He said if it happens, go. He said it’s a great school, it’s a great area. He was very proud to say he coached here at one point. That was nice at least to get a perspective from him.”
Hohenshelt already had a favorable impression of the University. On Dec. 1, 2001, he and his wife had attended the UVa-Penn State football game at Scott Stadium.
“We were actually tailgating right out here” — Hohenshelt pointed out his window to the University Hall parking lot — “and then we walked [down Alderman Road] to the game. We thought it was the coolest thing ever.”
Penn State’s 2011 roster included players from Virginia, Colorado, Indiana, California, Texas, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, Kentucky and New Jersey. Hohenshelt plans to recruit nationally at UVa, too.
“Is it going to be harder to pull kids from across the country? For sure,” he said. “That’s the case everywhere. But I want to get those kids that want a good education and come to a great school and win volleyball matches. And so schools like Duke, Stanford, the Ivies have been able to get good kids. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to do it.”
Hohenshelt’s closest friends include Alan Knipe, head coach of the United States men’s team.
“He’s really just a phone call away,” said Hohenshelt, who has been active with USA Volleyball. “And if I watch some of his matches on TV, I can ask him, ‘Hey, what are you trying to do here? What’s your thought process? What’s going on?’ So he’s a great resource to have.”
Under NCAA rules, Hohenshelt is allowed to spend two hours a week in the gym with his players, who also have an offseason strength-and-conditioning program. He’s been impressed with their work ethic and their skills.
“I don’t think the problem is them as individuals,” Hohenshelt said. “I think the problem is them as a team.
“I think there’s some really nice things. Some things we really need to work on, but that was going to be the case no matter what. I knew there were going to be things that I was going to be happy with. I knew there were going to be things that I wasn’t going to be happy with. That’s called coaching.”
In his first meeting with UVa’s returning players, Hohenshelt said, “I told them, ‘I didn’t walk in here with a magic wand and I wave some dust over you and all of the sudden we’re going to be good. It doesn’t work like that. I do my part, the staff does their part, you do your part.’
“The nice thing about it is, they actually openly admitted that some of the losing’s on them. Which was one of the most refreshing things in the meeting, I thought. At least we have some perspective. You don’t lose because of one person, you don’t win because of one person. You win as a program, you lose as a program.”
The Cavaliers aren’t likely to become NCAA title contenders overnight, and Hohenshelt knows that. Still, he’s excited about the coming season. This is a guy, after all, who has never been part of a losing team as a college coach.
“Most people don’t get to say that,” Hohenshelt said. “I feel fortunate. I expect my winning seasons to continue for a 20th year. I made that very clear to the girls: That’s what I’m here to do. We’re here to win.”