At Weber State University, the football program has taken the state by storm with its frequent trips to the FCS playoffs, but if you were to take a walk down the hill from the stadium and enter the Swenson Gym, you would find yourself venturing into the home of the Big Sky champion volleyball team.
Last season, the Weber State Wildcats had their best season in program history while posting a record of 26–9 and came up just short of winning the conference tournament after losing in five sets to the Northern Colorado Bears. This year? Times have changed.
With their season beginning in March instead of August due to COVID-19, the ‘Cats have shown symptoms of being elite, losing only one game up to this point as they get set for the NCAA tournament. WSU was 18–1, with the lone loss coming against Northern Arizona. Each game was against a Big Sky opponent.
Along with a record like that came a plethora of awards, as they’ve won the Big Sky regular-season conference championship for the first time in program history, placed first place in the conference tournament and sixth-year Head Coach Jeremiah Larsen was named the conference coach of the year.
“I couldn’t be happier for my kids,” Larsen said. “Most of them were ones that we recruited a long time ago. Rylin was the first commit I ever got here … it’s a bunch of kids that believed what we were selling. When we first got here, we weren’t very good, but we tried to sell that if you give us the time, we’ll develop you as a player and as people, and by the time you’re done here, you’ll compete for championships.”
This selling point has proved to be true because the Wildcats have now lost in the conference title game and then won that same game in two years, showing that the program is improving year over year.
Larsen continued, “To see them not just compete but to get a championship was kind of a fulfillment of all their hard work. So I couldn’t be happier for them because they believed in me when probably a lot of people shouldn’t have.”
When attempting to turn a program into a winner, the early years can be, well, terrible.
In 2015, Larsen’s first year with the program, WSU finished with a record of 6–22 and only won two conference games.
In 2016, the team won 8 more games than the year before, going 14–13.
In 2017, The Wildcats regressed and went 9–20.
In his first three seasons as head coach, his overall record at WSU was 29–55. The next three years of his coaching career would go on to look a whole lot different.
In 2018, WSU went 18–10 and lost their opening game in the Big Sky conference tournament.
In 2019, Weber State continued to improve and had their best season in school history, posting a record of 26–9.
This season, the Wildcats have been one of the best teams in the country with that 18–1 record that was noted earlier.
Not only is this an example of why programs should not give up on coaches early, but it’s also a reflection of how far belief can carry a program. With both the athletic program and the players believing in Larsen and his system, they’ve been able to take Weber State volleyball to new heights.
Often, when turning a program into a winner, a new coach must first look to change the culture. Larsen was able to do this through recruiting and targeting kids that fit the program on and off the court.
“We went out and recruited character kids,” Larsen said. “There were a lot of players that were interested in us, and we really just honed in on some character traits like competitiveness, selflessness, and we just preached the culture accountability, pride and respect for one another.”
Back in 2019, the Wildcats only had to watch five seniors leave the team after their season came to an end in Oklahoma against the Tulsa Golden Hurricanes in the NIVC tournament.
One of the toughest parts about sustaining success in college athletics is that they eventually graduate, and those graduating classes can sometimes be hefty; however, this off-season, WSU won’t have to worry about that.
Senior setter Ashlyn Power typically would be using her last year of eligibility, but COVID-19 has gifted athletes with a free year of eligibility, and they could either use it or let this be their final year. Power and the rest of her teammates decided that they’d all come back and play next season.
“Jeremiah had kind of planned for it, and he brought it up to us last summer in July,” Power said. “He called me and asked ‘if we don’t have a season, what do you think about redshirting?’ and I was super caught off guard … as far as academically, that meant shifting some things around, but we all decided together that we either would do it or won’t … it didn’t take much convincing, and I’m super grateful that Sam and Ry wanted to stay because it’s a privilege to play with both of them and to be able to be seniors with them.”
Saying that Larsen will just be keeping seniors around isn’t giving their talent enough credit: Larsen is keeping a few of his stars. Power, Sam Schiess and Rylin Adams were each named to the Big Sky’s all-conference first team. Adams was also named the regular season’s most valuable player and the MVP for the conference tournament as well.
After winning the conference, keeping their seasons, and having the most dominant season in school history, the Wildcats are now turning their attention to the Bowling Green State Falcons for their opening round date in the NCAA tournament.
BGSU, like Weber, has been dominant and only has suffered one defeat. They currently are 22–1 and walked through the MAC conference with ease.
Weber State has entered the portion of the season where every team is just as good as them, if not better, which means they cannot afford to have any off-nights if they want to make a run in the tournament, but with Larsen’s teachings and a star-studded trio of seniors, a couple of upset wins is certainly a possibility for the Wildcats.
WSU will battle BGSU in Omaha, Nebraska on April 14 at 5 p.m. MT and the game will be broadcasted on ESPN3.