Upward Arc For WVU Volleyball Continues
MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — There was a time, a couple of years back, after Reed Sunahara’s first season as West Virginia’s volleyball coach, that he looked around and had this sinking feeling.
“After the first year, I’m going ‘Oh, man, I’m in trouble here,’” he said to himself.
A one-time player at UCLA, he had a nice, safe job at the University of Cincinnati when Jill Kramer, who seemed to have begun to turn around a WVU volleyball program that had grown stagnant, jumped ship for her TCU alma mater and brought all her best players with her.
Going out and finding a coach to step into what was a messy and long-time losing situation was not going to be easy, until Sunahara was recommended for the job by no less a WVU alum and contributor by the name of Bob Huggins.
The two had worked together at Cincinnati and had become friends.
“He’s been a big-time supporter of me and he helped me get this job,” Sunahara said of Huggins a couple of years back. “I’m fortunate to have a friend like Huggs, who is a big-time Hall of Fame coach and it’s good to be here.”
That first year, though, he was wondering just what he gotten himself into.
His team was 6-23, 0-16 in Big 12 play.
The only thing Sunahara could do was build from the ground up and that 6-23, 0-16 record went to 12-18 and 3-13 the next year and then this year to 19-12 and 6-10 with a spot in postseason play for the first time since 1991 for WVU.
True, it’s the National Volleyball Invitational Tournament, a new postseason event, but nonetheless a large step forward.
“When I got here it was tough,” Sunahara admitted. “They didn’t know me. I was trying to change the culture, new players, new coaching staff. It took a while to get adjusted.”
The first year, he hardly coached.
“At first when I took the job, it was just me. I had to go to all these different places. I spent half the time here and half on the road. My players didn’t even get to know me,” Sunahara said.
“We knew we had to recruit. The first thing I did was hire Becky Rudnick. She’s a tireless worker. We were on the road, I don’t know how many days but we were hardly here.”
The cupboard was bare.
“With Gianna Gotterba and Morgan Montgomery, they stayed with this program and are committed to this program and I’m grateful for that,” he said. “They are the leaders of this group. They are both captains and they are captains for a reason.”
His biggest get, though, was sophomore Payton Cafferty out of Chuluota, Florida, who in her sophomore year has become an All-Big 12 performer.
How do you sell kids on a program that has languished at the bottom and had a coach that seemed to be turning things around abruptly leave?
“It’s a great university. It has a great tradition. It has a great athletic department. You look at all the sports across the board, they are all successful. We were the one that wasn’t up there yet,” Sunahara explained.
“What we said was you’ll play in a great conference for a great university and can make an impact on our program.”
They came and they bought in, led by Cafferty, who proved to be an easy sell.
“My two biggest offers were here and the College of Charleston,” Cafferty said, who was obviously under-recruited. “I came here, they set standards for us. As soon as I drove by the Coliseum here, it was ‘I want to play here’. On my visit, getting tours I knew this would be my second home and I could call this my second home.
“Halfway through my visit I looked at my Dad. We have a bond and he knows when I like something and when I don’t. He saw that look. Once I came up to Reed’s office, I told him I really want to come here because I feel like I can come to you and you can be my Dad away from home.”
Now Sunahara had someone he could build around and a group of players eager to be part of something bigger than themselves.
“To trust a new coach coming in, it could have gone either way. Either they are going to buy in or not,” Sunahara said.
“After our first year, that winter when we came back they were bought in, they worked hard, listened to everything we wer saying and trying to apply it. You look at them now, if you ask them they would say I’m glad I’m here. I know I’m glad they bought in.”
So what is the potential for volleyball at WVU and where do things go from here?
“I think it’s unlimited,” Sunahara said. “When I first got here there were some questions … obviously. As we progressed we got better. We are making the strides we want. We want to be in the top half of the conference. If you are in the top half of the conference you are going to make the NCAA Tournament.
“The first goal was to reach the postseason. Next is the NCAA. Hopefully to one day win the NCAA championship, but we have to take baby steps. We are not going to win the NCAA championship tomorrow. That’s not realistic, but I think we are going in the right direction.”