NASHVILLE --- Tiger volleyball is halfway through the season and are 5-1 in Ohio Valley Conference play and 7-10 overall. Head coach Donika Sutton checks in with the Tiger family to give the scoop on TSU volleyball.
Q: The team is now 5-1 in Ohio Valley Conference play, the first time this has happened in program history, what did it take to get here?
A: It took a lot of hard work. Honestly, it took a lot for the team to grow together. Preseason did not look like this at all. We went through many trials and tribulations as a team, off the court and on the court the girls have worked hard. It started in the summer, it started with the recruiting process, it started with just changing the culture of this program and what we were looking for to create this standard. I mean, it’s been a long process and we just continue to work through it. It’s great to see that this is the validation for the hard work that everyone has put in.
Q: It’s your second season at the helm of the Tigers. What is the difference between year one and year two when becoming the head coach at a new school?
A: Honestly, the difference is just the feel. It’s the commitment, it’s the fight. This is a different group of girls. We’re being very consistent and very adamant about the culture, the hard work, discipline and heart that it’s going to take to get there. We’re constantly trying to help and guide the girls off the court as well as on the court. We’re helping to create and shape a lot of great leaders for this program, not just one or two. That is the difference. The commitment to the process has been different compared to last year. I’m really excited to see how we’ll finish out this season, but also where this program is going to go years to come.
Q: The win over Jacksonville State was your 100th match as a head coach. What’s the difference between your first match, 50th and now?
A: I think in the beginning, it’s all adrenaline. You know, it’s that new shoe feel; you’re just getting in to it. You’re not there yet, but you have your foot in the door. With the 50th match its more of you trying to get comfortable and get situated, but you’re still not there. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll ever be there, but right now there’s just so much more growth that I’ve attained for myself, personally and professionally as compared to where I was at the beginning of my head coaching career. One of the keys to life is that you have to continue to grow because the moment you choose to stop growing then you’re not looking to get better. And how am I supposed to help others get better if I’m not willing to.
Q: What are your thoughts on the conference so far now that we’re about halfway through league play?
A: I’m really excited about the conference. The conference is extremely competitive this season. Even with the new coaches and the new programs, this is my fifth season in the Ohio Valley Conference, so I can go back and reference teams back to 2014, 2015 and 2016. To see the growth in so many different programs it’s like wow. It’s extremely competitive. No longer are we just looking out for one or two teams at the top. No. We have to be ready every single week for every single match we play, and I think it’s great because it keeps that competitive spirit each week, and you can’t take any plays off, any days off. You have to go hard every single day.
Q: TSU is ranked second in the conference and 74th in the nation in opponent hitting percentage, what has been the focus defensively, and what happens in the gym to make this happen?
A: It starts with recruiting. We recruit good defensive players. Not only are these players great defensively, but they’re also great offensively. Coming in, that’s a standard in the recruiting process. Therefore, what happens in practices is us continuing to fine tune what you’re already great at, and we work on weaknesses. So, yes, we’re going to have great blockers like Rachel Henderson and Hinalei Fihaki, Julia Pierson, Aria Holmes, JoJo Kruize. Those are great blockers. And even our smallest blocker, Laken Te’o goes up and get those touches as well. But, that’s an expectation. That is our minimum expectation. You know, we’re not doing anything different from anyone else in our gym, it’s just all about the process and the expectations.
Q: What has the team done off the court to gel?
A: These girls have worked really. Really hard. I will commend our returners Kylie Hayes, Rachel Henderson and Julia Pierson, as well as Hinalei Fihaki came in in January, so she’s been here a little longer than anyone else. These girls have worked really hard to commit to the connection to the new players we had coming in. Apparently, they do something weekly, that I found out about recently, as a team. They’re always together. They make time for each other. They’re committed to the camaraderie off the floor, because they know it’s going to help on the floor. And, of course, we’re not perfect, and I don’t expect everybody to be best friends or like each other, but I really think that they really and truly do enjoy the company of each other, and they love being around each other.
Q: You have 10 matches left in the regular season. What are you hoping for?
A: I’m hoping for consistency. I think it was great. We started off really hot. We were all excited for that, but at the same time, not getting caught up in the wins and losses. I’m hoping for consistency. When you start off that hot, sometimes it’s like you start off at the top, you don’t have anywhere to go or to grow, but I still want us to grow. We’re going to continue to work on that. Practices will be broken down a whole lot more – whether it be isolated drills or whether it be team drills. It’s going to be a lot of focus on individual growth or team growth moving forward.