Coaching an NCAA women’s volleyball team is hard enough. Coaching the men, too?
Well, it’s been done. Nicki Sanlin coaches both teams at McKendree, which plays in the MIVA on the men’s side and in the Division II Great Lakes Valley Conference on the women’s. We profiled Sanlin last February early in the 2020 men’s season that got short by the pandemic.
And now you can add Caitlin Bullock to the list. She’ll be starting her third year as the head coach of the women’s team at Lees-McRae, a Division II program that competes in Conference Carolinas. Now she’s also taken over as the men’s coach.
Why would anyone want to do that?
“I don’t really know,” Bullock said with a laugh from her home in Banner Elk, North Carolina. “I ask myself that sometimes, too. I haven’t come up with a good enough answer yet.”
Bullock, 28, played at Erskine College, another member of the Conference Carolinas.
“During my time there, I was a student assistant for the men’s volleyball team during their inaugural year,” Bullock said.
She would also practice with the men’s team.
“It’s funny but I would never think about putting my girls in there to play against the guys, but we used to get in there all the time and I loved it,” she said, noting that the men didn’t hold back when Bullock was on the court. “We didn’t think twice and just did it.”
It didn’t hurt that she was friends with many of the men’s players and that she was a pretty good player herself. Bullock, an outside hittter, left the South Carolina school as its all-time kills leader.
“I wasn’t really planning on coaching,” she admitted. “I was planning on being an occupational therapist, but then I realized how much I missed volleyball.”
Yet another Conference Carolinas team, King, needed an assistant for both the men’s and women’s team. Hello coaching, goodbye occupational therapy.
She stayed three years before moving to Lees-McRae (a private school with undergraduate enrollment of less than 1,000) in 2018. That first year, the Bobcats went 7-23, 3-11 in the league. In 2019, the women finished 12-15, 10-6 in Conference Carolinas, with high hopes for 2020, which will now be the spring of 2021.
Meanwhile, the Lees-McRae men’s program was at best struggling, finishing 2-21 in 2019, 0-16 in the conference. Last year when the season got shut down, the Bobcats were 3-12, 1-7. They were 0-9 when Bullock was named interim head coach. She was named head coach this past April 30.
And, by the way, she’s not alone: Abigail King, who played at Columbus State in Georgia and then Mars Hill, and served as a graduate assistant last year at King, will be Bullock’s women’s and men’s assistant coach.
Start with the Lees-McRae women.
Taking over that program, “definitely presented some challenges for me,” said the 6-foot-1 Bullock, who grew up in Columbia, South Carolina.
“I’m super, super competitive, which translates to my coaching. I always tell my athletes and my recruits that I’m a tough coach to play for.
“So my first year, I joke with everyone, that I had to swallow a lot of pride because all of a sudden I wasn’t winning games. It wasn’t just happening and I wasn’t able to go and play and didn’t have a huge roster with a lot of depth.”
None were any of her recruits.
“I knew we had to redefine our culture and ask, how do we want Lees-McRae women’s volleyball to look? How do we change our perspective on what this program means to us? How do we want to bring back that history and that culture of being a top program?
“So there was a lot of culture defining, a lot of team bonding, a lot of pushing them in practice to a point where they didn’t necessarily think they could go, and pushing to be super competitive. I pushed them really hard.”
“I said to them when I got the job that ‘I’m going to push you every single day, I’m going to push you to your limits, and I promise you we’ll get the result from it.’ And I say that all the time.”
It might have shown in the form of being tough enough to win five-set matches. Last year, the Bobcats went the distance five times and won them all, including at Erskine last in the season.
“That was really cool,” Bullock said.
The Lees-McRae team that will hit the floor this spring includes two seniors (including last year’s leading attacker, Caitlyn Smirne), two juniors, three sophomores (including leading blocker Olivia Ney), and nine — yes, nine — freshmen.
The men’s team presents a different challenge. The 2021 squad includes one senior, middle Ethan Gardner, who was the leading blocker and third-leading attacker last season; one junior in outside Max Kuntz; seven sophomores; and three freshmen.
While she didn’t coach the men’s program, she was an interested observer who went to every home match and shared an office with former head coach Henry Chuang.
“We’re definitely not known for being a top men’s volleyball program,” Bullock admitted. “It’s another one of those where I have to swallow some pride and get my hands dirty and get some work done.”
It is, she said, “kind of like doing the women’s side all over again.”
Volleyball is really important to Bullock.
“It’s been in my life a long time and, honestly, I didn’t have the greatest childhood sometimes growing up and that was my outlet. That sport has always been here for me.
“Yeah, I do have a chip on my shoulder sometimes, but that’s just me being competitive. I’m just giving back to the sport that’s given everything to me.”
And she’s excited to have King at her side.
“We’re one of the few programs to have a full female staff, especially on the men’s side,” Bullock said. “It’s definitely different. The whole time I was going through the hiring process I thought I was going find a male, but I think she can do the job and she’s going to great at it.
“The guys respect her and she does well with balancing both programs and she’s been a huge addition to the team and for me. I’m really pumped and excited to see what we can do together.”
It might be an uphill climb on both sides, but Bullock is up for it despite some of the skepticism she said she’s encountered.
“You wouldn’t question two guys running a women’s program,” Bullock said. “I think we’re gonna be just fine and be pretty successful and prove some people who wrong who might doubt us.
“We’re both hard workers and really competitive, so I think it’s going to be great.”
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