Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Influential Coaches #8: Tessa Paganini

Previous entries: Series Overview
January: Paul Westphal (basketball)
February: Tara Gallagher (basketball/softball)
March: Robert Joseph Ahola (rugby)
April: Rickey Perkins (swimming)
May: Bob Smith & Mike Craig (baseball)
June: Michael Minthorne (strength & conditioning)
July: Steve Radotich (football)

Of all the people in this twelve-part series, I spent the least time working with or playing for Tessa; we were co-head coaches of the National Cathedral School varsity volleyball team for one season, which lasted all of three months in the fall of 2009. But those three months turned out to be very influential in my development as a coach, and helped greatly the following season, when I had my favorite season working with any team that I've ever coached.

I suppose that I had designs on becoming the head coach of the NCS volleyball team as early as August of 2008, when the coach at the time abruptly left her position (and teaching position) to move back to upstate New York. I say "abruptly" because if I recall correctly, she made the decision with something like two weeks to go before the start of preseason practices, leaving the athletic director limited time for a search. I threw my hat in the ring, but the job went to the other varsity assistant instead. That turned out to be a good thing, because not only was Evan a much more knowledgeable coach when it came to volleyball, I was starting my first year of full-time graduate school that fall and could not possibly have run the team effectively as well. For his part, Evan was likely to only take the job for that one year, as he had a full-time job and was exploring his options for medical school as well. That meant (to me) that I could learn more and try again later.

In that 2008 season, we wound up having a team of just ten players, with seven seniors and three sophomores but no juniors or freshmen. The three sophomores were all first-timers on varsity; two had played JV the year before,* and the third had just moved east from California. Since we opened the season with our best hitter in a walking boot thanks to over-training during the summer, two of the three got some opportunities to play early on, and demonstrated that they could play at an acceptable level for our team, which had three seniors who would play in college, two of them in Division I.

*Although one of those two absolutely could have and should have been on varsity as a freshman, in my opinion, despite never having played volleyball before entering high school.

Towards the end of the season, because I happened to be around the school frequently (I coached year-round) and because I knew that those three girls would need to carry the team the following season, I approached all of them about trying out for club teams, specifically for Metro American. Meredith, who had played the most of the three and had the biggest impact on our fortunes throughout the year, declined because basketball was her first sport, and she was likely to start for the varsity team that winter. Alex, who had come from California and played the least of the three, readily assented to try out for a team (volleyball was her primary sport) and made one of Metro's regional teams. Izzi, meanwhile, hemmed and hawed, and wouldn't commit. I told her that because of her late birthday (September, the youngest in her grade at NCS), she should try out for a travel team, because at 5'9" with strength and ability, as well as two seasons of experience at the high school level, she stood at least an outside chance of making a travel team, where she would get much better (July 31/August 1 being the age deadline cutoff, meaning most of her competition would be freshmen). Still she dithered, and I distinctly remember that I told her (and her mother) that I would drive her to tryouts myself if that was what it took, despite the fact that I didn't have a car of my own at the time. She took the hint, and assented. Not long after tryouts, she called and told me that the coach of the fifteen-and-under travel team had taken her, with the caveat that she would probably be the twelfth player on a team of twelve girls and spend most of her time on the bench.

That coach? Tessa, who was finishing her senior season at American University, which has dominated the Patriot League in volleyball since joining in 2001, failing to win the league championship just twice during that span. Tessa was a defensive specialist from Sonoma, California, and she made the most of her talents as a player, bringing the same drive and tenacity to coaching. Over the course of one club season, she played the biggest part* in transforming Izzi from a competent varsity player to one of the seven or eight best players in our entire league, which was evident from the first day of preseason practice in 2009.** One of the reasons for that was that Izzi made Tessa's post-tryout prediction a lie, becoming a rather indispensable, if not exceptionally flashy, member of that team.

*Other than Izzi herself, obviously. She did have to put in the work.

**I should take a couple minutes here to point out that if Tessa turned Izzi from a "pretty good" player to a "very good" player, then the following winter and spring Sam Danai, the coach of the sixteen-and-under travel team, made her a rock star. At the beginning of the season Sam also told Izzi to expect plenty of pine time, but then couldn't keep her off of the court, because she made good things happen, and when the seventeens coach asked for someone to take to nationals as a roster replacement, guess who Sam recommended? Yep, Izzi. Sam's work with her changed her ceiling from "one of the top players in the ISL" to "Gatorade Player of the Year."

When the head volleyball job opened up again prior to the 2009 season, I once again applied immediately. The athletic director told me that she still wasn't sure that I had enough volleyball coaching experience to get the job outright (totally fair), but that she was considering a rare co-head coach arrangement with another candidate (whom she mentioned was Izzi's club coach) as an acknowledgement that I knew the athletes and their personalities better than perhaps anyone else. I said that I would be fine with that setup so long as the two of us could meet and talk beforehand, and make sure that we could work well together.

So Tessa came down to the wellness center, where I was working that summer, on a day in early August, and we started putting together a plan. I gave her a rundown of our meager list of likely tryout attendees, and what to expect talent-wise; I remember that she was somewhat taken aback that we had just sixteen names for varsity AND junior varsity, which I suppose is what happens when you have a sizable graduating class, no rising seniors, and two years of eight or fewer girls playing in middle school. Tessa shared her ideas for training the team early in the season, and when we parted I was pretty sure that the partnership would work.

It did work. What we did for the first week of practice/tryouts was devote the entire day's session (two and a half to three hours) to one fundamental skill, starting with passing. Tessa began by explaining, clearly and with the help of a whiteboard, why we were going to work on our passing first, and then it was time to teach technique and drill. I had warned Tessa during our first meeting that due to a dearth of girls playing volleyball other than during school season, the ability level (especially early in the season) would be lower than what she was used to, but I think she was still surprised, and we exchanged plenty of significant looks related to that surprise. Still, we soldiered on, and worked on overhead passing the next day, before taking the third day of preseason to work on finding ourselves a setter.

The setter for the previous three years had been a brilliant All-ISL and honorable mention All-Met performer, but she had graduated and was playing for Bucknell. Just two of our sixteen prospective players had an iota of setting experience even in a JV game, and one of them had missed the previous year with an ACL tear. We didn't find anyone that day about whom we truly felt confident in the role (a good setter is as important to a volleyball team as a good quarterback or point guard is to their respective teams), although we were maybe not looking clearly at who was available to us.* In the end, we found someone to set, and figured that the two girls with some JV experience could play other positions and serve as her backups. Then the next couple of days were devoted to hitting technique and competitive play.

*This will be explained before the end of the column.

The basic model of using the preseason to teach, reteach, and/or reinforce each skill in succession that Tessa first suggested became the model I would use for the next three seasons. Still, after two weeks of preseason we were rather bearish on our chances in the tournament with which we opened our season over Labor Day, having "settled" on a temporary roster of eleven, at least a couple of whom we would have to bump down to JV in order to have enough for two teams.* I don't think we coaches (here also I should mention our terrific assistant, Micah) thought that we would be able to do more than put forth a good effort the next day.

*And it was always our intention to have two teams. Just keeping one larger varsity team and eliminating the JV would have resulted in a few girls not playing at all in actual matches, which would stunt their development and weaken the program down the road.

Fortunately we were wrong in that assessment, as two weeks of our training (again, primarily led by Tessa) came together all at once, and we found ourselves winning our first match, followed by a couple more strong performances to get out of group play and into the eight-team knockout round. We lost there, but I believe that everyone was pleasantly surprised by how well we played, including the players and parents. That tournament set the stage for a rebuilding year that really wasn't a rebuilding year (in some ways).

Tessa had great attention to detail in practice, and at the same time sought to instill more fire in a group of girls who were largely not accustomed to high-level athletics. One of her favorite sayings was "It's time to put your big girl pants on!" when there was a low level of effort in practice, or when the team needed to complete a set of sprints in a certain amount of time in order to get back to practicing actual volleyball. Her methods helped light a fire in a couple of girls who were new to varsity.

I allowed earlier as to how we had a small number of players. After one girl left the team in mid-season to focus on tennis, we had so few players that we were actually allowed to have girls play varsity and JV in the same game. When some "itis" swept through the school in October and left us with thirteen healthy girls for TWO TEAMS, we effectively played for two weeks without more than one available substitute (depending on who was missing). One of those matches was scheduled against mighty Flint Hill, easily the best team in our league and on their way to a spotless Virginia state championship season (33-0!). I recall that the match was on a Thursday, and one of our freshman middle blockers, Tyler, had been home sick on Wednesday. Although our chances of beating Flint Hill were essentially nil even with a healthy roster, Tyler argued her way into going to school that day so that she could play, even though her mother told me she could barely get out of bed. And not only did she play, she played well (although in the end we were predictably swept aside 3-0).

Another varsity newcomer, a junior, had made varsity because of her work ethic and attitude, even though she wasn't strong enough to serve overhand, and often wasn't fast enough to make three runs from the endline to the net and back in thirty seconds or less during conditioning drills (which meant that everyone ran again). But Tessa kept pushing her, and she kept responding, breaking through the thirty-second wall and getting her serve to the point where she could, in fact, get it over the net on a consistent basis in practice. When she finally did so in a game it was a high point in our season and a realization that all of that hard work had paid off. The next year, after Tessa had gone, this particular girl continued to work harder than anyone else, fighting her way into a starting spot and then making it back from a nasty ankle injury in half the allotted time, just in time to start again in front of a packed house for homecoming. I think that Tessa's motivational skills had more than a little to do with the growth of Katie's career.

I also think that our co-head coach relationship worked out remarkably well. Tessa had the final say in all technical matters, but we consulted about everything and frequently worked out good solutions, even when there was little time to discuss matters, such as the three minutes in between sets of a match. Earlier I mentioned how we had picked a setter who had never played that position before, because she was fairly athletic, left-handed, and had great hands. She could also be a space cadet whose attention wandered from match to match and even set to set. One of the more important traits of a setter is consistency, so you can see how this might be troublesome. In one of our early non-league matches, at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, we got off to a really slow start and were not playing well at all. Just after Seton finished obliterating us in the second set, Tessa turned to me and said, "We can't do this anymore. We have to make a change. You think Izzi can set?" I thought about it quickly and replied, "No, she has to hit and pass. Let's go with Meredith and have Alex go to outside." Tessa paused for a second to ponder it, nodded decisively, and went to make changes to the lineup sheet while I started informing the girls of the changes. Although Meredith had never set before, not even in practice, we were instantly a better team, and that happened because of a joint decision Tessa and I were able to make in about twenty seconds.

Like I said earlier, I think that my single season working with Tessa was one of the most important developments in my coaching career. I adapted and utilized many of her coaching techniques during my subsequent three years coaching volleyball teams, and I would do so again should I re-enter the field. I think her expertise and motivation was a major factor in helping a team with no seniors, just three returning letter-winners, and so few players overall finish just as high (third in the upper division) as they had the year before with a senior-laden team that had three collegiate-bound players. Tessa is no longer coaching (she works in international development), but I'm fairly certain she had a great influence on most of our players, and she definitely had a major impact on me.