Caitlin Schweihofer didn’t know what to expect when she took over the La Salle volleyball program in 2014.
She had known winning her whole career and was suddenly inheriting a team that went 1-31 the past year as her first head coaching job with only two years of experience as an assistant coach. She was also the youngest head coach in Division I women’s volleyball at age 27.
But in Year 5, La Salle has won 17 games and has had its best year in school history, impressively bursting over the threshold of making its first-ever conference tournament.
So how did the Explorers do it?
Well, Schweihofer knows how to win. She won a Big East championship as a player on a St. John's team that went undefeated in conference play in 2006. She also was the top assistant at Lehigh in 2013 when it won 20 games and a school record 11 conference games.
But having never played in the A-10 and being a first-year head coach, Schweihofer and her top assistant Andrew Kroger — who is still with the program — had to figure out how they’d get to this point and beyond.
"I think having small steps along the way is what ultimately got us to where we are right now,” she said.
Here are three reasons why La Salle volleyball has pulled off its best season entering the A-10 tournament on Friday against Duquesne as the No. 3 seed.
1. The last time La Salle volleyball …
One of the biggest challenges for Schweihofer when she became head coach was to come up with realistic goals for the team. It was important for her to take steps each year toward a greater goal that would ultimately culminate in what she envisioned for the program.
So she and Kroger wrote a goal sheet titled “The last time La Salle volleyball …”. It listed things like the last time the program won a conference match, the last time it won a road conference match, the last time it went .500 in a season and so on.
“It just had a whole bunch of different small goals that ultimately would lead up to the main goal of winning a conference championship eventually,” she said. “Every year those goals have gotten a little bit tougher and we've been able to cross some things off the list.”
This year's goal was to make the conference tournament for the first time. The Explorers accomplished that with two weeks remaining in the season.
It was a bit of a shock in her second year, Schweihofer said, when the team failed to win a conference game with a 6-24 overall record. Three years since then, the Explorers went 9-5 in the A-10 this season.
I looked to build this team very organically,” she said. “It took a solid five years to recruit players that can compete at the A-10 level."
A coach can get the right players in the gym, but ultimately those players have to perform. Ultimately, they have to be accountable.
Sometimes there is a tone that’s set in the offseason — which there was when Schweihofer increased the intensity of the team’s strength and conditioning program — but it started the summer before that when libero Jensen Sharrits and outside hitter Madi Kuch posted inspirational messages along with photo updates of their own progress over the summer and encourage the rest of the team to do that as well. They felt this was a way to keep everyone motivated while the team was away from each other during the summer.
“That really has helped us to make sure we were all ready for preseason,” Kuch said. “Then this year's preseason was by far — everyone came in the most prepared that they have been, of the returners.”
The difference maker has been Sharrits, a three-year captain now as a senior who was the team’s lone captain as a sophomore. Schweihofer has taken somewhat of a hands-off approach to being the vocal leader due to Sharrits' “natural competitiveness and determination,” Schweihofer said.
Of course the coach is going to be the one giving direction, but Sharrits’ contributions as the A-10 leader in digs (537) and digs per set (5.42) and the emotional catalyst is invaluable.
“She just does not let things go, which is important in the fact that she was willing and able to do that as a sophomore which is why we're at a point we're so solid now."
But the improvement isn’t just from Sharrits; it has come from every position on the floor.
3. Collective improvement
Schweihofer was named A-10 coach of the year Monday in large part due to the players that received other awards.
Katie Wood was awarded A-10 setter of the year and was named to the all-conference first-team along with outside hitter Devin Corah. Sharrits was named second-team and freshman Lizzie Osborn was voted to the all-rookie team.
A team is nothing without a player who can deliver a good first pass (Sharrits) and certainly needs a great setter. Wood became that type of setter this year when she became more confident in her game and was able to set the ball with added tempo to any hitter, regardless of her position on the floor.
“Because she was so focused on her own skill and whether she was doing things correctly (last year), it kind of took away from her outspokenness to the team,” Schweihofer said. “She has gotten herself to a place where she's one of the top setters in our conference."
Then there’s Corah on the outside — the team’s leading hitter as a junior with 398 kills in the regular season — and Osborn — a freshman that has been about as good as you can ask a first-year player to be.
Corah had experience with the Canadian junior national team but was primarily a power player. This year she has added more shots to her game and has been able to read the block better, Wood said. Then Osborn has been a viable offensive option in the middle, which has only opened up hitting lanes for the entire offense.
With these pieces in place, it’s just a matter of time before La Salle makes another program first.
"The history of the program is very underdog so I think that's kind of in our blood at this point,” Wood said. “I think that we’re happy with where we are now, but it's not over."