Jenny Hazelwood - "We had started our individual training right after I got here. Then, we went to our first spring tournament at Ole Miss on March 7th and I learned more about them in one day than I had in all the individual practices. When you put a team on the opposite side of the net and you have officials, two referees, it's different. It was really useful to play in a spring tournament that early because I was able to come back and work on different things with the different players and work on team stuff.
"By the last indoor spring tournament, which was at the University of Alabama, we were night and day different. We were a completely different team. In three or four weeks of team practice it was unbelievable how much better we were. But that's part of implementing your system, getting them to do things a certain way. And the girls were great because they bought into everything that we were doing 100%. They were onboard from the beginning. That made the whole spring a lot more productive."
How were they better when they played Alabama?
"In everything. Our serving game was a lot better. We were passing the ball pretty well. Offensively, we were getting the ball to different hitters so that we could run an offense the other team had a hard time stopping. Of course, it was spring and there was only official. But we still beat Alabama two out of three. And I guarantee you that if we had played them on March 7th we would have lost all three. It wouldn't even have been close, so we made a lot of progress.
"That win gave us an idea of where we are. And the girls thought if they can do that, then they can do anything that they put their minds to.
"We also played Auburn and lost to them after we had beaten Alabama. But I think that was good for us because it gave our girls a chance to see the mental up and down that they went through. They played great and were focused and got through a good, tough challenging match (against Alabama), then they went and lost another one (against Auburn) that they should have won just from a physical standpoint. It was a close match but it shouldn't have been. But it was a good teaching point.
"It was a really good spring. We could not have hoped for anymore than what we were able to accomplish this spring. From a training standpoint, from a morale standpoint, everything was the best we could have hoped for."
Your team also played in the SEC Beach Volleyball Tournament this spring. Unlike the spring indoor matches, that was a true road test since your team was on the road for a few nights. What did that teach you about your team?
"We took the entire team down to Sarasota, Florida the weekend of April 18th. We left on Friday and came back on Sunday. We learned how they handle themselves. We really got a lot of good experience from the road trip. The girls were able to learn what we expect from them on a road trip."
Your team is going to be young this season based on the roster that I saw.
"There are going to be two seniors and three juniors and the rest will be freshmen and sophomores, so we'll be young again. But there is a lot of experience in that group."
Don't you have a new strength coach? Well maybe not new but new to volleyball.
"Yes, Richard Akins is our strength and conditioning coach. He was my strength and conditioning coach when I was a player here. And I absolutely loved working under him as one of his student-athletes. He gets the best out of his players. You can look at our men's and women's basketball programs, who he has worked with for a number of years, and see that.
"Coach Akins knows how to train players at a very high level. He's going to be a huge part of the success that we are going to have. He tells the girls when he's running them really hard or having them lift weights really hard that they are going to win championships here. That is what we are about. And when you are getting that kind of training in strength and conditioning and then you come in our gym and we are talking about winning at the highest level it shows them that we are not going to settle for anything less here."
What are your thoughts about this year's schedule?
"I think we have a good mix of matches where we will be competitive and have some success. And we will also have some tough matches.
"Our second tournament is an away tournament and it's not going to be easy. Stephen F. Austin routinely is one of the best teams in the Southland Conference. It's Missouri State's tournament and they are one of the best teams in the Missouri Valley Conference and they go to the NCAA Tournament a lot. Memphis had a great year last season, had a really high RPI and beat some tough teams.
"Our two home tournaments, we have some pretty tough matches in those as well. And SEC play is not going to be easy.
"But we are really excited about how our schedule shapes up because I think it will allow us to have some success and be ready by the time the SEC starts."
You've added a new assistant coach since I last talked to you.
"Branden Higa, who is Hawaiian, comes from California. He lived in Los Angeles. And he played volleyball at Pepperdine, which is a huge plus. When you have a guy who has played volleyball that is an added bonus. He was at Loyola Marymount for three years. He was also the head coach at a junior college in California. And he coached club volleyball there as well. So, he had a lot of connections and recruiting ties. He also coached at Lipscomb. That's where I actually met him and got to know him. He is great at teaching. He can step in and play, he can run drills very effectively. We are really lucky to have someone with his experience."
Newell-Grissom, the location of the Mississippi State volleyball court, has a new floor. How did that come about?
"Through the interview process, I told them that we really needed to redo the floor. It was old and it was more of a yellowly color instead of the whiter wood used for the new floors. That was a big part of what I wanted done."
Some people might say it's just a floor, but the floor is a huge part of volleyball.
"I think it has played a huge part in our girls believing that they will be great, that they aren't just going to settle for just being ok or better than last year. They want to be great. So, when they got back here this summer and saw the new floor I think it made them feel that much more important."
Important if for no other reason than to see that Mississippi State is spending money on volleyball.
"Yes. And that floor was not cheap. We appreciate Greg Byrne and Ann Carr for their support. And really the entire administration has been so supportive of us since I have been here. We can't build the kind of program that we want without that support."
What are your long-term plans for the volleyball facility?
"We are going to have some major renovation type things in line with the master plan for all the athletic department facilities and the facilities across campus. But we don't want to do something, then a year later completely redo something else that would affect that. We don't want to makeshift a number of things then end up doing a major renovation that completely wipes out about half of what we had previously done."
Are there any short-term things you would like to do in the next year or two that wouldn't be affected that much by major renovations?
"The lighting is an older system. With the current lighting structure the way it is, we could go with a lot less fixtures and wattage and actually save the school money by using energy-efficient lighting. We just have to make sure it is in-line with the facilities plan.
"But we are doing some things in addition to the new floor. All of the maroon around the court is being repainted. We are also replacing the window covers with new banners from a company that is working with football. Our window coverings are going to have pictures and the Mississippi State logos. All of that will really brighten up the gym."
You and your two assistant coaches have really good contacts when it comes to recruiting. How many of you can go out recruiting at one time?
"All three of us can recruit but no more than two of us can go out at one time. It was Lindi and me out, Lindi and Branden out or Branden and me out recruiting all spring."
Do you do a lot of the recruiting yourself?
Is it normal for a head coach to do a lot of recruiting in volleyball?
"I think it is pretty normal in volleyball. In volleyball, the recruits know who the head coaches are. So, as a head coach, you have to establish that, at least so that the people on the club teams know who you are. I've been doing this for ten years, so when I go to the club tournaments I know club owners, club directors, club coaches. That gives you that much more of a connection."
How big, team-wise, are the club volleyball tournaments that you go to to recruit?
"In volleyball, especially the big tournaments, a convention center typically has anywhere from 60 to 100 courts and there are four teams per court. And there is a morning wave and an afternoon wave of different age groups. There are also different divisions within the age groups. And you are talking about a three-day tournament that is played Friday, Saturday and Sunday."
How much time do you spend in the gym when you go to one of those tournaments?
"We are typically in the gym for 13 hours. And you rarely sit."
Which parts of the United States are your primary areas when it comes to recruiting?
"All over. I'm from Texas originally, so I have a ton of ties to the club team people and the high school coaches. I also have a lot of ties in the midwest. And Lindi Bankowski is from Michigan and she knows a lot of people in the midwest. Branden, being from California, has a lot of ties there.
"If you were to ask someone what are the top three recruiting areas they would say the west coast, the midwest and Texas. And we have those areas covered."
Do you recruit high schools or mostly the club tournaments?
"We don't recruit a lot out of high school because it's difficult to do that. They are in-season the same time we are in-season. They normally play Tuesday and Thursday when we have practice and have to travel for our matches. We'll do some high school recruiting, but the majority of our recruiting is the club tournament recruiting because we can see 1,000s of kids in one weekend."
You didn't mention Mississippi as a fertile volleyball recruiting area. Where is volleyball in Mississippi compared to the areas that you mentioned?
"It's not even close because this state is so far behind. But we haven't had high school volleyball for very long in this state, and there really isn't much of a presence of club volleyball unless it is in Memphis or in Mobile. A club (team program) was started in Jackson, Mississippi but I'm not sure if it will keep going because it is very expensive to run a club.
"In the strong recruiting areas that I talked about the major clubs have 10 (year-year-old) and under volleyball. My niece played 10 and under volleyball in Texas. When you talk about kids playing from the age of 10, by the time they get to high school they have played a lot of volleyball experience. Whereas in Mississippi we are getting kids who may have played some volleyball in the 8th grade but mostly in high school. The girls in Mississippi are athletic. This state has some of the best athletes. Look at the kind of football players it puts out, look at the basketball and baseball players. It's not that we lack athletes, it's just that they aren't getting the experience. We are working on that by doing whatever we can. I spoke at the hight school coaches clinic. We have team camp next week. And we've had our skills camp."
Do any Mississippi girls play with any out-of-state club teams?
"The travel is hard and it's really, really expensive, so it's tough. It would take a lot of dedication on a parent's part. With the major clubs in some of these states, the ones that are really good, you are probably talking about $5,000 a year. And that is just for being on the team, paying for uniforms, paying the coaches, paying facility costs. That doesn't even cover hotels, flights and travel expenses."
The talk of last week's Central Mississippi Extravaganza was a player of yours - redshirt freshman Hilary Hunt. How did you wind up choosing her to go to the extravaganza?
"The first criteria was that they couldn't have a class at the time. That narrowed down our choices quite a bit. And I knew the uniform unveiling was going to be something special. They were going to walk around in a crowd of people and we wanted someone who would stand out. And Hilary is 6-3, blond, a very attractive girl, very friendly and very good with her communication skills.
"At one point when I saw her there she had the Mississippi State stickers and they were giving them out to some people and she was really good at that. I also heard her talking to people about coming to our matches. She is a good ambassador for Mississippi State volleyball."
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing email@example.com.