Nov. 18, 2009

By Justice B. Hill
Special to

In tan shorts and a blue windbreaker, coach Larry Bock walked into the gymnasium on the John Carroll University campus a few minutes before his women’s volleyball team from Juniata College was to begin practice Wednesday.

Larry Bock, nervous?

Not one bit.

He had been here before, after all. No, not just to the JCU campus in this Cleveland suburb – he’d been there before, too – but on the cusp of an NCAA Division III Championship with his volleyball team.

He has two NCAA titles (2004 and 2006) to prove.

But No. 3 might be his hardest to get, because Bock puts his team on the gym floor Thursday afternoon for the quarterfinals knowing he will see a challenge unlike any he had faced this season.  

“This is the deepest, most balanced field that we’ve seen in a long time,” said Bock, an inaugural member of the American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. “Any one of those teams could win.”

Indeed, he’s right. The eight-team field includes traditional D-III powers like Hope College, Tufts University, Colorado College and Washington-St. Louis, a nine-time NCAA champion.

Throw in Trinity (Texas), Christopher Newport, Wisconsin-Oshkosh and Juniata, and the bracket is a minefield for a coach to navigate, even for one with Bock’s experience.

He has spent 33 seasons as women’s coach at Juniata, building its volleyball program from scratch to what it is today. His success has won him acclaim (five time AVCA National Coach of the Year, and a fistful of regional and conference honors); it’s also brought him offers to coach volleyball elsewhere.

Bock has always said no, regardless of what program came calling.

“Realistically, we’ve found that our school was better and that our volleyball was better than our alternatives,” he said.

There must be something in the waters that run through the Pennsylvania countryside that keep men like Bock planted firmly in one place. He’s the Joe Paterno of college volleyball, not a bad tag to slap on a man.

For the tag shows stability, and a program with the volleyball pedigree of Bock’s benefits from that stability. The athletes he recruits know who will be on the bench to guide them until their college careers are over: Larry Bock.

He won’t leave their careers – or their lives -- in the uncertain hands of someone else.

“That gets our foot in the door,” Bock said, smiling. “But the down side of that, too, is when you get to the end of a career, we get the question: ‘How long you gonna stay?’ ”

Bock laughed after he said this, his eyes fixed on his players who were putting on their gear and preparing for a practice session inside the Tony DeCarlo Varsity Center on the JCU campus.

But he gave no hint that giving up coaching was anything his women needed to fret about. He did admit the travel wears on him these days. He blamed that on aging, though.

The players, well, they were what he enjoys.

“The kids are terrific,” he said, his voice rising to accent the point. “They are hilarious. My goodness, who wouldn’t enjoy spending time with bright, energetic people?

“So I’m blessed to be around student-athletes.”

Nothing about that has changed in Bock’s mind over the years.

He’s still a player’s coach, a man who prides himself in motivating his athletes on and off the court. He’s been that kind of coach even as the game and the athletic opportunities have blossomed for women.

From the access Title IX created for women in college sports to the changes in the broader society as well, Bock took pride in the part he might have played in this evolution.

“It’s no longer new and neat,” he said of varsity sports for women. “Now, it’s more of ‘I’m going to be the best I can possibly become.’”

His women will find out this week if their best is good enough. Can it bring a third championship for Bock?

He can’t say. But with players like defensive specialist Molly Sollenberger and setter Steph Strauss, Bock, whose program has reached the NCAA semifinals 21 times, has a team with a different style than the ones he’s brought to the NCAA Tournament in the past.

“This is little bit more like the guys -- a men’s team,” he said. “We look to end rallies faster rather than extend rallies.”