As the first week of August approached, members of the Fairleigh Dickinson women’s volleyball team were preparing for business as usual. Move-in was set for August 5, and the first practice for the next day.
But “business” suddenly took an unexpected turn.
Two days before move-in, Coach Kevin Rodgers announced that he was leaving the program. (He was introduced as the coach of the Division III William Patterson women’s team two weeks later.) Knights players were left high and dry.
“It was unexpected to say the least,” said Sophia Spiridonakos, a senior outside hitter from Sewickley, Pennsylvania. “It was a big shock and wasn’t anything anyone ever saw coming, I don’t think. But I think it was really important to just kind of keep everyone level-headed, like everything was going to be OK.
“With or without him, we really needed to rely on each other to make it through.”
But the Knights quickly found a knight in shining armor. Enter Karl France, a coach with two decades of experience and numerous accolades from stints at Mount St. Vincent, Rutgers-Newark and NYU. France was willing to step in and shepherd the program through the 2021 season until a permanent replacement could be found.
Just one catch: France was busy building the first FDU men’s volleyball team.
Hired in February to start the men’s program, France saw no other alternative but to take the interim role for the women’s team.
It was quite the multi-task, but France said he thought that he had a good enough jump on getting the men’s team together.
Now he’s leading practices for the men and preparing the women to play host to Bryant in a Northeast Conference match. FDU is 6-16 overall, 1-7 in the NEC, after breaking through with a win last week over Merrimack. The men will open their season January 21 at home against Queens.
“At the time of the appointment — or battlefield promotion, or however you want to put it — I was at the point where I had a good group of young men I felt I could go to battle with,” France said. “I had one or two more positions to fill on (the) roster, so that was challenging going through the last couple of weeks before school started.”
France had been on FDU’s main campus for months, so he knew at least a little about the women’s team and vice versa. But to effectively coach the women, he said, he needed to get to know them as people.
He had to be a quick study. He was introduced as the interim coach August 4, two days before the first practice.
The change was abrupt, but senior Brooke Stevens said France made the players feel at ease right away.
“He basically went over his style of coaching and his philosophy and what it’s going to be like for this season,” said Stevens, a middle blocker from Mississauga, Ontario. “And everybody was on the same page with him, kind of understanding how he was going to coach us.
“And something he talked about was mind, body and soul. That’s what he cares about for athletes. He cares about his athletes, their well-being, not just what we do on the court. We’re more than just that.”
France said he is pleased with the way the women have received him and what he is trying to do for them.
“Some of them had been through this,” he said. “The older ladies that had been on this team for a while had been recruited by one coach and then coached by another. But I think they were just enthusiastic with the ideas I was trying to present to them, and they wanted to work as hard as they could to implement our new objectives.”
Spiridonakos said the players have appreciated France’s approach of not trying to reinvent the wheel. Although he has installed some new strategies and tweaked some players’ skills, he mostly adapted to his players’ strengths, Spiridonakos said.
And although success has been fleeting, there have been high points, namely 3-2 wins over Georgetown and NJIT.
There have been close calls, too, such as 3-2 losses to NEC foes LIU and St. Francis Brooklyn. In both cases, FDU dropped a set in “overtime” — against LIU it was the fifth set — so the Knights are that close to having two more conference wins.
“I’ve enjoyed playing this season, and we’ve done some things we didn’t think we could do,” said Stevens, who had a match-high four blocks in Saturday’s 3-1 win against Merrimack.
Now, about that men’s team …
As the women got into the heart of their conference schedule, the men began practicing, ramping up for their first matches. Often, the men’s and women’s teams will practice back-to-back, so France jumps from one right to the other.
Twelve players — 10 freshmen — are preparing to set the foundation for the future of the men’s program. None expected to be sharing a coach with the women’s team, but, said freshman libero Diego Diaz, France has handled the situation with aplomb.
“With Karl doing both duties, it’s been kind of an adjustment,” said Diaz, of Plano, Texas. “But at the same time, he has been doing a really good job putting the focus on both teams, making sure both of us are hitting the ground running.
“As a coach who can handle both of those, I give props all to Karl. It’s really hard to handle the women who are in season and the men (he) has to prepare, especially with a new program.”
Spiridonakos said: “He’s definitely a busy man with a lot going on, but I think he’s able to compartmentalize the teams. He has showed us he has a book for each team, and he writes in it every day after every practice: what he sees and what we need to work on and things like that. He keeps it very organized between the teams.”
Meanwhile, the teams have done a few things to help themselves. An organic bond has formed between the sides, and players from both teams have been able to lean on each other.
Early in the women’s season, there was a power outage in the gymnasium, so practice for the day was called off. But when it was discovered one of the other recreational areas still had power, players from the two teams put up a net and played a friendly co-ed match.
There’s more. The women’s players sometimes ask the men to help them take extra reps outside of practice. The men, meanwhile, are regular spectators at women’s home games. Not only do they offer encouragement and support, but the also sometimes pick up little details that they then can present to the women to help them improve.
Likewise, Diaz said, the men can get a better understanding of some of France’s strategies by watching the women play.
“The men’s and women’s games are a lot different, but, at the end of the day, it’s still volleyball,” Diaz said. “There’s still serve-receive. You still have to put up a set. You have to set up a block. So a lot of that stuff (I) watch, I’m seeing similarities, like: here’s the setting up position on defense, here’s where the libero should be.
“Women’s defense is a lot stronger than men’s, and that’s what I think (France) is trying to implement (with us) is having a stronger back row. And with the women, I think he is trying to implement having a stronger block. So you can tell there’s overlap and comparison and parallels to it all.”
More than being able to share tips and ideas, France said, it’s simply nice for the women to have others at the school with whom to talk volleyball.
Diaz said the men’s and women’s players have become fast friends and often get together on weekends or take part in activities together. Whatever they do, they have the common ground of their game.
“I think it’s good for both programs,” France said. “The schools that have (men’s and women’s volleyball) programs, those women don’t feel like they’re on an island and nobody understands them. In women’s volleyball there’s, what, 300-and-some-odd Division I programs, and there’s only 26 men’s Division I programs.
“Like, men’s soccer and women’s soccer, they can talk to each other about everything. But women’s volleyball is always the one, it seems, that they don’t have that counterpart. So that’s one of the things that’s really helpful for the programs.”
And the men’s team most likely will need all the help it can get in its first season. The men’s team will play an independent’s schedule before becoming a full-fledged member of the Northeast Conference, which will sponsor men’s volleyball for the 2023 season.
The NEC will comprise FDU, Merrimack, St. Francis Brooklyn, St. Francis (PA), Sacred Heart and LIU.
France has a clear plan for how he wants to prepare his team for 2023. The coming season mostly will be about giving the men a taste of Division I and II volleyball. If all 10 freshmen return, they will be ready to face the likes of conference foes such as St. Francis (PA), which has been highly competitive in the EIVA for years.
“So that means everybody has to play a little bit so I know what you can do when the lights are on,” France said. “That’s one thing I promised these young men, is, hey, you’re going to play 30 percent of the sets.
“I have to know what (they) can do and what (they) can’t do and then put it on film and sit down and discuss and dissect what you can and cannot do and what you can improve on. In practice, it’s one thing. But when the bullets are flying, so to speak, we have to see what they can do.”
Diaz said: “The goal for this team is just to be the one to set the foundation and the bar for the future. This has all been a dream, and it’s now finally becoming a reality. After four years when we graduate, we can say, ‘We started that. We built that.’ “
As for the women, they’re trying to compete harder as the conference season hits the second half. Seven matches remain, and the Knights have to make up a lot of ground to sneak into the top four in the conference and qualify for the NEC Tournament.
The Knights certainly would like to have more wins, but given the circumstances of the season, even little strides could be considered wins.
France said he has found no fault with the women’s effort or attitude. As long as he knows the players are trying their hardest, he said, a loss isn’t something to be upset about.
The past two-and-a-half months have not been ideal, but France said he believes he and the players have made the best of it.
“I think it has been positive for the most part,” he said. “I think there are some things I might have tried to do that were maybe above or might be different than what they were used to. That’s something I have to come back and say, maybe this is something just a little bit too far or ambitious.
“But either way, I think it’s been positive for the most part.”
Spiridonakos said she is likely to come back next season. She is enrolled in a five-year program to expedite getting her master’s degree in marketing, and, for now, she is planning to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility the NCAA granted athletes because of COVID-19.
If she does return, it’s a good bet she will have yet another new coach. But she looks at it simply as preparation for what awaits once she hangs up her sneakers and knee pads.
“This isn’t unusual for me. In high school, I even had three different coaches,” she said. “If there’s a new coach when I come back next year, that will be my fourth college coach. It’s helpful in terms of adapting. It develops more outside volleyball, like real-world skills of being able to adapt and remaining me no matter who is here.”