By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For any young coach, the opportunity to run a Division I volleyball program would be appealing. For a native Virginian to be handed the reins at the University of Virginia, at the age of 32?
“It’s incredible,” said UVA’s new head coach, Aaron Smith, who was born in Harrisonburg and grew up in Richmond.
Smith spent the past five seasons on Dennis Hohenshelt’s staff at UVA, the last one as associate head coach. When Hohenshelt stepped down in January, Smith was named interim head coach. The interim tag was removed last month, to the delight of Virginia’s players.
“We were all really excited, because we all love Aaron,” said outside hitter Harley Sebastian, who’ll be a junior in the fall. “He’s so fun and energetic, and he always plays with us, which is really nice, having a coach actually play with you. He knows so much about the game. He loves volleyball so much, and his enthusiasm just radiates when he coaches and in the locker room.”
Smith, who has family in Richmond and Lynchburg, played at Penn State when Hohenshelt was an assistant on the men’s team there.
“I still respect Dennis so much,” Smith said, “and him bringing me in five years ago was a huge deal, and I told him that I wasn’t looking to leave anywhere and that this was a place I could see myself as his assistant for a long time.
“He’s a great coach, a great friend, still a great mentor for me. And so, yeah, it’s a little awkward for me, but the team has been great in terms of responding to me. I have a really good relationship with all of them. Since his resignation, I’ve met with all the girls in many team settings, but I’ve also met with them all individually. I’m excited about the support they’ve had for me and about the parents that have reached out and are excited about the direction we’re going to go. I feel very blessed about the opportunity.”
In five seasons under Hohenshelt, the Wahoos posted a 69-88 overall record. They had a run of three straight winning seasons — 2013, ’14 and ’15 — before dropping to 7-25 (4-16 in ACC play) last year.
“In the midst of it we were just kind of stuck,” Sebastian said.
“Now, looking back on it, I think a lot of it was we got so frustrated with ourselves so easily, just because we were losing. We were so scared to make errors that we didn’t play aggressively, which is how volleyball should be played. Making errors is part of the game. We were definitely tight. And we had so many tight sets. We’d lose 26-24 three sets in a row.”
After the 2015 season, Virginia lost one of its most talented players, middle blocker Anna Walsh, who transferred to TCU. Hohenshelt had scheduled ambitiously for 2016, believing Walsh would be the team’s centerpiece.
“Non-conference we lost a few tough games that we still felt like we could have won, but having Anna would have made a difference,” Smith said. “We had three freshman middle blockers rotating through last year, and we were just young. It was a weird dynamic last year. The heart of our core players, in terms of playing time, were very much fourth-years and first-years, with a little bit scattered in between … It was just one of those anomaly years.”
Even if they add a transfer or two, as the coaching staff hopes to do, the `Hoos figure to be extraordinarily young in their first season under Smith. Their projected roster for the fall includes only one senior, middle blocker Haley Fauntleroy, and one junior, Sebastian. (Another middle hitter, Kat Young, enrolled at UVA with Sebastian in 2015, but she’ll be a redshirt sophomore in the fall.)
“It’s going to be tough to lead [the underclassmen],” said the 6-4 Sebastian, who’s from Atlanta, “but I’m really excited.”
Smith is working with eight players this spring: Fauntleroy, Sebastian, Young and rising sophomores Kelsey Miller, Jane Horner, Chino Anukwuem, Kiley Banker and Jennifer Wineholt. (Another rising sophomore, Caroline Scrafford, is recovering from a torn ACL but hopes to play this fall.) UVA’s freshmen played extensively last season.
“We’re a young team,” Smith said, “but a young team with experience, and we’re bringing in some players that have high-level club experience.”
Virginia’s incoming recruiting class consists of four players: middle blocker Hannah Barcus, outside hitter Sarah Billiard, outside hitter Alexandra Spencer and setter Megan Wilson.
“We have a couple of really, really nice incoming freshmen,” Smith said, “and we are on the transfer market right now, looking for another [outside hitter] most likely, to help and come in and compete for playing time.”
The Cavaliers’ priorities this year, Sebastian said, include bonding with each other and building connections, “passer to setter, setter to hitter.”
She noted Georgia Tech’s recent strides. In 2014, the Yellow Jackets finished 13-18 overall and 6-12 in the ACC. In 2016, they posted records of 24-8 (overall) and 15-5 (ACC).
“This is the year to build as a team, grow, connect, work hard, and then it’ll just progress from there,” Sebastian said.
Smith said: “It’s a cool time to be taking over the program.”
Another holdover from Hohenshelt’s staff, assistant coach Stephanie Ross, will continue to serve as the Cavaliers’ recruiting coordinator.
“Steph has done a ton for program the last three years,” said Smith, who’s in the process of hiring another assistant coach.
Smith worked as an assistant coach at Wake Forest and then Northwestern before coming to Virginia in 2012. At Northwestern, he worked under head coach Keylor Chan.
“After two years,” Smith recalled, “[Chan] said, `Hey, Smitty, you’re pretty good. People are probably going to start coming after you, and I want you to know I want you to stay here as long as you can.’ ”
He loved Northwestern and loved Chicago, Smith told Chan, but if an opportunity to coach at UVA ever came up, he’d be interested. And so he returned to his home state in 2012. Five years later, Smith is looking to elevate a UVA program that has made only two appearances (1998, ’98) in the NCAA tournament.
“We’re a year or two away from saying we’re going to battle for the top couple spots in the ACC, but we’ve spent a lot of time this spring already trying to figure out what it is we want, what is our identity,” Smith said.
“Have we figured it out yet? No, I don’t think so. But with the response and the commitment [the players have] shown to me, I have no doubt in my mind we’re a program that’s on the rise, and we’re going to make some noise here pretty soon.”