by Marcos Aragon
SALT LAKE CITY — It’s been more than 450 days since the familiar sounds of referee whistles and sneakers gliding across the court have been part of the routine for a multitude of college volleyball coaches, which made the noises Friday inside the Salt Palace Convention Center a welcome diversion.
The West Coast Invitational, a debut event produced by Triple Crown Sports, is designed to give teams an opportunity to play teams across the country that they’ve never seen before, but also get in front of college coaches who may also be unfamiliar with those in attendance. For Kai Nielsen, head coach with Club V in Utah, he’s been waiting long enough for the opportunity to place his players in front of college coaches and showcase what they can do.
“It’s wonderful,” explains Nielson. “It gives them a chance to finally go out there and show these high-level coaches, ‘hey look, this is what I am working on and I’m going to show you that I can do these types of things — I can learn and get better.’”
He added, “Without this type of environment, we don’t have a chance for coaches to be able to do that type of stuff, to see these kids just show up and play some volleyball and do what they love doing.”
College recruiting took a major hit when the coronavirus pandemic descended and forced coaches to change how they recruit in a short amount of time. Sam Atoa, head coach at Utah Valley University, explained how he and his staff had to make use of their time away from the road.
“Who knew about Zoom? I didn’t know anything about Zoom until this and all of sudden it’s like ‘I wish I would have had some stock in Zoom.’” says Atoa. “We had to figure out ways on social media, technology-wise, we had to familiarize ourselves, if we hadn’t already, with FaceTime, Teams, and Zoom.”
University of Washington head coach Keegan Cook describes the environment of the tournament with a profound enthusiasm.
“I told somebody that this was the happiest I’ve ever been walking into a convention center and staying on courts for eight to 10 hours.” says Cook. “Usually, we start with the NIT in February, but starting here just feels right.”
“We’re coming out of a tough year, people are happy to be in this space together,” he added.
Cook explained that the challenge of recruiting during the pandemic was that so much of player scouting relies on the things that don’t pop out on tape, such as how players handle adversity, how they react around teammates and other hidden intangibles that don’t show up on a computer screen. Now that he and his staff can get back out on the road, they plan on utilizing their time better than before.
“We tried to watch a lot of film through various online mediums to be a little more efficient, but I think we’re going to see a lot of coaches just spending all of June in places like this one,” said Cook.
Atoa echoed Nielsen’s sentiment about the importance of the competition and growth value that the tournament provides, but adds that the community of friends and colleagues that are at the tournaments are his favorite aspect of the games.
“This is volleyball; you have a fairly close network of friends,” explains Atoa. “Anytime we have that and we’re able to get together — we go to lunch together, go to dinner together, and just kind of visit. It’s good to kind of see how everybody is doing.”