This past weekend the AVP brought the tour to Phoenix for the tour championships. Each person who attended had, i'm sure, their own experience. Here is mine.
The buzz surrounding the event here in Az was awesome and when it came time for the event, volley fans from all over the state showed up and got loud for the players that were there. The tour championships brought out the top 6 men’s teams and the top 6 women’s teams in a format that was essentially win or go home. Winners advanced and the non-victors played a match to play out the place they would finish in, 1st-6th. Hometown favorite Sarah Sponcil was there and people, myself included, brought out big head posters to show their support. I was so excited to get to see her compete in front of fans that adored her but had only ever seen her play on TV. I spent the majority of the event in my courtside box with her aunt and uncle as Ryan Mariano worked she and Terese through the event. Although they didn’t have the weekend they would have liked, they still finished the season ranked number 4. While getting to work with Sarah over the years has definitely had a profound affect on me and on my coaching career, this post is about another player who had an incredible affect on the trajectory of my career and he may not even know it.
First, let me say that Ryan Mariano is incredible. I can never take for granted all the opportunities that he has created for me. It is absolutely incredible, and I will never be able to repay his kindness in doing so. In 2019 I was given the opportunity of a lifetime. I had been coaching, at that point, for 14 years but it had just been with kids. While my coaching career had taken me to winning 3 national championships and coaching 70+ athletes at that point who had gone on to play in college, I had always wondered if I had what it took to coach at the next level. I got a call from Ryan who, like he always does, had an opportunity for me that he had created. He was going to be coaching Casey Patterson and Chase Budinger for the AVP season that year and wanted to know if I would be his assistant coach. Who could turn that down? Getting to work with a former NBA player and an Olympian? I mean isn’t that kind of every coach’s dream scenario? Of course, I accepted. I can’t even begin to explain how excited I was, and how nervous I was at the same time. Would two incredibly established players even want feedback from a guy who was barely older than them, didn’t have their playing pedigree, and whose only proven success as a coach was in the junior’s world? Well, we were about to find out.
Our first practice session was at Grand Canyon University. We did two sessions a day over a period of 4 days there to kind of get a starting point for the season. I did time up on the bench hitting a ton of balls, at the back line serving, and took in all the things that the guys were capable of. Let me tell you, it was incredible first hand to see. After practices I must have sounded like a little kid asking a million questions to Ryan about things. He was super patient with me. He talked to the guys about me and made sure it was ok with them that I was part of the staff. Casey, being the veteran leader and just all-around great guy that he is, accepted me without hesitation. Ryan is my friend and long-time partner in the coaching world. At this point his trust in me kind of goes without saying even though I never take it for granted. While I am so incredibly grateful that Ryan has the trust in me, he knows me and knows what he is getting. For Casey to accept me and give me the opportunity to learn and grow, I have to say, it was a game changer.
As the season went on, I got more and more comfortable with my job. I would enter balls in practice, and when tournaments came around, I would go scout the teams we were going to play. As I got comfortable with what kinds of information Casey and Chase needed from me, I was able to give them better feedback to help to inform their gameplans. The more I did it, the more comfortable I got. The day finally came where I was no longer just feeding information to Ryan to form the gameplans. He told me that in our next pre-match meeting, I would be responsible for giving the guys the gameplan. Earlier in the year we had won the Hermosa Beach Open and we made the finals in Manhattan. The team was doing really well and I was nervous to mess up the mojo. The match I created the game plan for was against Miles Partain and Paul Lotman. I had scouted them a couple of times during the tournament and had done my homework through video as well. In order to get the guys to really trust that my game plan was solid, I felt like I had to give them something tangible to show them that I knew what I was talking about. Luckily Miles gave me that thing. I had noticed that Miles liked to settle into games with his first attack. In every match that I had watched, Miles hit his cut shot on the first play. I wrote that into the scouting report and told Chase that on the first play I wanted him to take an extra step on his 4 block and be ready to swat the cut shot because it was coming. He not only swatted that cut shot on the first play, he bounced it. The guys looked over at me with big smiles on their faces and in that moment, I knew that I had earned their trust. We ended up winning the match and the conversations with them from that point forward changed as the asked for my opinion more.
From that day forward, Casey and I had built a rapport. He didn’t know me leading into the season, but the fact that an Olympian trusted me to be in his corner to try to win matches was huge for me with my confidence as a coach. In our text messages, Casey would always call me “coach” which was funny to me. Even after the season was over and he and Chase split, he would see me at tournaments and always have a big smile for me and take the time to chat a bit. He was even gracious enough to record videos for me for my classes at school to help me to engage my students. The man is a total class act.
This past weekend I was in box 2 at the AVP Championships. 12 hours of awesome volley. In the middle of it all, Casey played against Chase in the final match of his career. Casey bounced a ball off of Chase’s head that ended up in the stratosphere, and although Casey and his partner ended up losing, the 3 set match that started with sky balls by each player was full of action, comedy, and will certainly stick in my mind for years to come. When the match finished, Troy Field made sure to recognize the moment by going over to Casey and parading him around the arena while waiving for the crowd to get on its feet. Thousands of fans gave Casey the sendoff he deserved. Geeter had the arena laughing and also put us in tears. I stood above Casey, his wife Lexi, and his kids as they smiled and cried and laughed and just took in the moment. He made his way over to referees and announcers and said his goodbyes. He said a few words to the crowd, and then, as he started his final walk off the sand, I caught his eye. He walked over to me, and raised his hand up to shake mine. I shook his hand and thanked him for all he had done for me and for the game. There weren’t the right words in that moment to express how his life had affected mine. He said to me, “thanks coach” with that classic smile and then walked off the sand a legend.
To me one of the most interesting things about a person’s life is the way that it effects the lives of those around them. That effect is almost never neutral. A person never can truly understand how they affected that person’s life either. I think a lot of the time we take for granted how much our presence can affect someone’s life. While Casey, I’m sure, never sat down and thought, hmm, I wonder if I can do something to change this guy’s life, he did. Since working with Casey I have now gone on to coach multiple players on tour including AVP Champions Julia Scoles, Hailey Harward, Kristen Nuss, Sarah Sponcil, and Terese Cannon. I had the confidence to step into the box and know that while I wasn’t their official coach for the season, that when they needed someone to step in, they knew that the input and feedback I could give them would be valuable. They all approached ME to work with them and without the opportunity that Casey gave me by allowing me the opportunity to work with him and then continuing to engage with me beyond that season were huge for the path that I am on now.