VOLLEYBALL: Holding down the court

Head coach Kevin Kramer gathers his team during a match last season.

The Gavilan College women’s volleyball program reappeared in 2005 after an 11-year hiatus. Two years later, Kevin Kramer took over as head coach, quickly, and quietly, turning a team that totaled a combined eight victories in 2005-06 to a conference contender.

The turnaround has long since been disproved as a fluke. And in his first five seasons, Kramer has led the Rams to a 77-46 overall record – success he immediately credits to the players that have come through Bud Ottmar Memorial Gymnasium.

In those five seasons under Kramer and assistant coach Chris Spence – a duo that has worked together from the moment Kramer stepped foot on campus – Gavilan has finished in third place or better in Coast Conference South play, twice coming in second and winning a share of the conference title in 2009. Gavilan has also appeared in the Northern California Regional playoffs three years running.

Collectively, the volleyball program has clearly established itself as the winningest at Gavilan in the five-year span, despite the constant player turnover common at the two-year level. Year in and year out fresh faces, upwards of eight or nine, enter the gym, yet the Rams have continued a steady growth, earning a reputation of an opportunity-laden destination.

Dispatch sports editor Josh Weaver caught up with Kramer for a one-on-one interview earlier this week and ran the gamut of topics – including a retrospective look at the last five years, what he is excited for entering year six and what being a Rams volleyball player is all about.

Josh Weaver: Did you have a five-year plan when you first arrived?

Kevin Kramer: Thinking backwards, of course you say, ‘OK, within the first couple of years you’d like to get to the playoffs, you’d like to get past the second round within five years.’ We have fallen a little bit short of that, but at the same time what we’ve done is kind of about where we thought we would be. An injury last year, I think, held us back a little bit. But we are right where we need to be.

JW: What were some of the challenges you saw in front of you when you took over as head coach and how have you addressed those?

KK: The biggest thing was the recruiting area. When I was at Chabot, the number of (high) schools within a half-hour was endless. When I went to Canada, the same thing. You come down here and there are five, six schools within 30 minutes. You get kids from Salinas, Santa Cruz, San Jose saying, ‘Gavilan is just too far.’ So, in those first couple of years that was the hurdle to get over. The idea was if we can win, if we can compete, if we can send kids (to four-year colleges), that half-an-hour distance is going to seem a lot less. And that’s what we have really been working on these past five years.

JW: And when did you kind of notice that change in your favor?

KK: This year, honestly. If you just look at our roster last year, a majority of the kids were from Gilroy, Morgan Hill and Hollister. Which, actually, is another big difference because we got those local kids to stay. This year, local numbers are down a bit, and we now have some kids from outside the area who are willing to make that drive. It’s not such a negative thing anymore. Kids want to be here.

JW: Aside from the winning, why do you think that is?

KK: In five years, we have had nine players sign scholarships with four-year schools. And it could have been more than that. A couple turned down some offers. Luckily, we have had some great kids. Academically; they work hard and do everything that they are supposed to do. When we recruit somebody, we tell them, ‘we want you, at the end of your first year, to start having options. If you don’t want to play when you’re done here, we want you to tell those schools no thank you.’ We want to put the kids in a position to have as many options as possible so that the power is in their hands. We have had players move on and the kids that are coming in expect to move on, which we hope changes the culture of the program a little bit. It’s not just ‘Hey, I’m going to Gav, play and see what happens.’ It’s ‘Hey, I’m going to go to Gav and move on.’

JW: Does that change a players’ mindset right away?

KK: Come practice time they are working for a purpose. It’s not just wins and loses anymore, because that gets kind of mundane midseason, but it’s about working hard now because a four-year coach can walk in when a game is on the line. They are going to be seen all the time and they know that.

JW: How have you been able to dig your volleyball roots into the community and keep this a staple and viable option?

KK: The Adrenaline Volleyball Club is a huge thing. They aren’t playing for me, but they are playing for coaches in our club who are running a system where the terminology is similar. A lot of our coaches, Chris Spence, Laura Coleman, JJ Ochoa, are club coaches, and not only that, some of our players are assistant coaches for some of the younger teams. It’s not that it’s tied together, but they are hearing the Gavilan name, they are seeing our girls, they come to our camp, and it’s the whole thing where we’ve always wanted to let the community and the local kids know that this is a huge option for them. Hopefully, if they don’t get the bite they wanted out of high school, that they know there is another chance for them here.

JW: It seems like you have worked hard to form a volleyball culture here – you stream your matches online and so forth. How important is it to establish this as an entity of sorts – a desirable location?

KK: We want (our matches) to be an event. Maybe sometimes we take it too far, but we want our players, when they walk into the gym, to feel like this is more than their high school experience. You go to any type of an athletic event at a four-year, there are banners, there’s music – it’s more than just a game. So we want our players to be excited about playing here, and I think, in a lot of ways, the video we show pregame and the music, and the banners we hang, helps kids say, ‘this is a place I want to be.’

JW: Are you feeling more of a buzz from non-volleyball players, in terms of attendance and that sort of thing?

KK: Our reach is definitely out there. The staff and administration have been super supportive. We have been lucky enough to be successful and everybody likes to hang their hat on something that is successful.

JW: That has to feel pretty good.

KK: For us, as coaches, we like to hang our hat on the fact that we have the highest team grade point average on campus. We have had that, except for one semester, I think baseball got us, for the last three or four years. We have passed more units as a team than any other team on campus. And that goes to show how good our girls are. It’s not just the volleyball wins and losses and scholarships, it’s the whole package that doesn’t get seen – Dean’s List, President’s Scholars. Those are the things that we hang our hat on.

JW: How do you get each of the players focused and pointed in the right direction in the classroom and on the court?

KK: We have a great academic advisor. She knows what needs to be done and she sets that academic standard. Obviously, we back all that up. We let kids know that, “Hey, there isn’t a lot of athletic money out there.’ You might be a great volleyball player but if you’re a bad student, you still might not be able to afford to go. So we make sure that that’s out there.

JW: It seems like players respond well to your coaching style.

KK: Our philosophy, and take it our leave it, is, we don’t want you to do things because we are going to make you do it, because you’re scared of getting in trouble, because you think that’s what we expect. We have to get them to the point when they want to do it for themselves because they want to be successful. So it’s not me screaming. If I scream at you, you’re going to do it so I don’t scream at you. If I can get you to do it because you want to get good grades, because you want to move on, that’s the important thing. We want these girls to be self-driven and self motivated. We are building the person, not just trying to win.

JW: When you look at 2012 and the season coming up, what excites you the most?

KK: The exciting thing is that we are going to have a fresh group of girls this year who are starting to figure it out, they are just starting to learn our ways, we are trying to figure them out, so it’s a challenge again. We are re-inventing the wheel again. It’s inspiring and it’s motivating as a coach.

NOTE: Gavilan will play at one preseason scrimmage tournament at Cuesta College before kicking off the 2012 season at home as hosts of the first of two Gavilan College Classics at 11 a.m. on Aug. 31.