Last year was your first year to coach at Mississippi State. And you had one of the best seasons in the program's history.
"I think last season was a pretty good season by everybody's standard. We had a winning season for the first time in nine years. I think everybody was surprised that we had a winning season our first season. I think it was one of those seasons where we didn't lose any games we shouldn't have lost. But there were a couple of games that we probably left on the court. We were leading Tennessee two to nothing and we lost it. We were also beating Auburn 2-0 and los that one as well."
And you ended last season on a three-game SEC winning streak.
"We did. We won over Georgia at their place. They struggled last year, although they were in some games. But they couldn't pull out any conference wins. And they are a program that had gone to the NCAA Tournament two or three years prior to last season. Our last two games were at home. We played LSU and swept them. That was a nice win for us because they had swept us at their place earlier in the season. But I felt like we kept getting better as the season progressed. Our players worked just as hard at the end of the season as they did at the beginning of it. The win over LSU put us at 16-15 on the season. And for us to have a winning season we needed to defeat Ole Miss at home. They came in here and we won the first game, then we won the second game. But I knew what they were saying in the locker room, Mississippi State cannot hold a 2-0 lead. And I knew our kids already knew what was being said, so I didn't have to say anything. We came out and sure enough we lost the third game. But our players were determined and played the best game that we had played all year long and wound up winning 25-23."
You lost a few seniors but have a lot of players back. So, the expectations are probably pretty high for you and the team?
"Yes, we lost five seniors, three that were starters. One was Shelby Anderton, who was our starting setter toward the end of the season. She did a great job and was playing her best volleyball. She played great against LSU and incredibly great against Ole Miss. We also lost Emily Howard who so happened to have her best game of the year in the last match against Ole Miss. We also lost Alex Warren, who, in my opinion, toward the end of the season was one of the best opposites in the nation. I would have put her among the top 5 or 6 at her position in the nation. She was incredible. She signed a contract with an agency and will probably be playing professional volleyball in Europe in the next 3 or 4 months.
"While we did lose some firepower, we have some returners back who I think are going to be really, really strong. I also hope our ball control is better. We hope our defense is a little better. We better be better because we have scheduled a lot tougher."
Two that are returning that should have a major impact are Evie Grace Singleton and Blossom Sato. What are your thoughts about them and the other returners?
"Blossom Sato, in my opinion, was one of the best setters in the league last year as a freshman. She got better and better as the season progressed. She came in from a high ball setting offense and we were a faster offense. So, it took her a little time to adjust to that but she did a great job for us. Evie Grace has been with me since she was 13-years-old. We know what to expect from her. We also have coming back Payton Harris, our starting Libero her freshman year. And we have Jazmyne Johnson who started for us in the middle. Chelsea Duhs started as an outside hitter last year. We have moved her over to the right side."
Who do you expect to replace your starting seniors from last year?
"We have moved Chelsea Duhs to the right side. And we have a transfer Jelena Vujcin from Serbia originally but transferred in from Seattle. She is a good player who gives us some size and has a great arm swing. She'll be on the right side as well. We also brought in a freshman outside hitter from the Dallas area, Emily Hill."
What are your expectations for the upcoming season?
"I am optimistic that we will be better. I want to continue to develop Mississippi State into a great volleyball program. We have a long way to go but I am optimistic that we will be better this year. We scheduled a lot tougher this year. That is just the nature of who I am as a scheduler. But my team is fearless. And that is the way we train them to play. We don't care if you are number 1 or number 100 in the nation.
"We think if we can control and the ball and set with this team this year we feel like we can either win or be in any game. So, we are going to work really hard on ball control and setting during the preseason."
You have a very tough schedule this season. In fact, you start you season off by playing number 4 Kansas.
"We have number 4 Kansas. Florida will be a top 5 team. Kentucky will be a top 15 team. Texas A&M will probably be a top 10 or 12 team. Missouri will probably be a top 15 team. One of our mantras is you will remember Mississippi State volleyball."
You had a dramatic increase in your team RPI last year from the previous season.
"Volleyball is one of the sports in Division 1 that is played by more teams than anybody else. We are right there with women's basketball and soccer. We may have more than women's basketball. There are 341 Division 1 women's volleyball teams. We started last season ranked 237. And we ended the season ranked 130. It ended up being one of the biggest RPI jumps in Division 1 history. We are proud of that but we really want more. For us to be an NCAA Tournament team we have to be in the top 40. And our ultimate goal is to be in the NCAA Tournament and to go deep into the tournament. We are working really hard to get there."
To achieve that goal you are setting up really tough schedules. You mentioned some teams from this year's schedule. Talk about your scheduling philosophy.
"I think some people think I am off my rocker to schedule like I do. I have a buddy at church who came up to me the other day and said, "Coach, I think you are bitting off a little more than you can chew. I think this is a schedule you should have done 3 or 4 years down the road.' That is ok. I don't have as good of a grasp on the scheduling part as I probably should. Maybe I will get better at it as the years go by. But I do like scheduling tough. And I think it does help us because I think you can learn more things from losing to a top 10 or 20 team than you can from beating a team that is ranked 80, 100 or 140. That is my mindset from the past and what I will use now."
The fan support was really good last season.
"It was fantastic. We found out a little ago that we almost set the all-time attendance record in our first year. We were only a couple of thousand people short from setting the record. We hope to break that this year. We are trying to. And our marketing and promotion people are trying to help make that happen. Of course, the product on the floor has to be good enough."
Speaking of product on the floor, what is the sport of volleyball like in the state of Mississippi?
"I was lucky enough to be the speaker this year at the Mississippi Volleyball Coaches Association. I went to Milsaps College and there were 40 coaches there from high schools across the state of Mississippi. Those coaches were chomping at the bit to make volleyball great in Mississippi. There are so many things people in Mississippi don't know about the sport. I shared these things with those coaches. Beach Volleyball is the first sport to sell out at every Olympics. Indoor Volleyball is the second sport to sell out at every Olympics. Women's Volleyball is the number 1 sport in the world by participation. Men's Volleyball is the second most popular sport by participation in the world. People in Mississippi don't know that.
"Here in Mississippi we have great potential to grow volleyball and make it a great sport for both men and women. Nobody has as much potential as the state of Mississippi does. It is neat to be at Mississippi State at this time and it is neat to be able to communicate with all of those high school coaches across the state who want to make it great."
How many years do you think it will take to be able to recruit a lot of players from the state of Mississippi?
"It is going to take several years. The athletes are there. The track and basketball athletes are there but they haven't played this game enough competitively. You have to go to places like Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, southern California, Chicago or Indiana."
Won't you have to get club teams involved in the state of Mississippi to allow girls to play volleyball on a competitive level?
"You will. There are a lot of clubs that are now popping up in the state of Mississippi. They will need to go to Memphis to play. Go to Florida to play. And maybe go over to Dallas and play some stiff competition. Or go to Atlanta. Atlanta is a fantastic place for club volleyball to play."
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on Scout.com sports network.