Jonathan Winder sat against a brown brick wall with his wife, mother-in-law, and two of his three children in the gymnasium of Clovis West High School. His 4-year-old son was starting a summer basketball camp and watching him run through drills on the hardwood was a brief respite from the tireless work that goes into turning around an NCAA volleyball program. The 22 wins in Winder’s first season at the helm of the Fresno State Bulldogs was the most wins the program had earned since the team finished with 23 wins in 2003.
The season was a rare bright spot for a program that had been embroiled in legal problems following the university’s release of Lindy Vivas as the head coach in 2004 following a 15-13 season. Her termination resulted in a sexual discrimination lawsuit against Fresno State, which Vivas won. It was one of three such lawsuits against the university to be settled in 2007. The volleyball program had only finished above .500 twice since her departure (2012 and 2013) and never reached 20 wins.
Winder was hired by Fresno State in January of 2018, and made an instant impact on a program that had been mired in controversy and mediocrity. The announcement of his hiring excited the volleyball community in the San Joaquin Valley, and as fans learned more about his background, the buzz around the program grew amongst Bulldog fans who were not necessarily in touch with the volleyball team.
Winder burst onto the college volleyball scene as a player in 2005 and set Pepperdine to an NCAA title as a freshman. He left Malibu a four-time All-American, having made it to the national semifinals three times and reaching the final twice. Winder then played professionally for five years in France, Germany, Greece, and Romania before beginning his coaching career. He started on the bench at Pepperdine, working as an assistant for Marv Dunphy, winner of five NCAA championships and an Olympic gold medal in 1984. From there Winder transitioned to the women’s game, coaching at the University of Washington from 2015 to 2017. He helped Washington earn Pac-12 championships in 2015 and 2016, while also making consecutive NCAA quarterfinal appearances.
Making the move to head coach is quite a jump, and Winder was met with a number of challenges. “Coming from Washington, there were already established systems and routines, “ he said. “Taking over at Fresno State, I found I had to address everything technically, tactically, on the court, off the court, in the weight room, and with academics. Restructuring everything was a constant task.”
The Fresno State players felt the difference almost immediately. Madelyn Halteman—a senior setter from Turlock, California, and an All-Mountain West selection last season—noticed the program moving in the right direction. “The change was night and day,” she said. “(Winder) came in and showed a lot of patience. He believed in us right away and created an environment where we could dream, innovate, and explore.”
In Winder’s first season the Bulldogs finished second in the Mountain West Conference after being ranked eighth in the preseason poll. Their 4-0 start to the conference season was the best ever for a Fresno State team, and the second-place finish their highest since joining the Mountain West in 2012. The team also reached the second round of the National Invitational Volleyball Championship. Its five-set win over UC Santa Barbara was the first postseason victory for Fresno State since 1995.
“Fresno State’s athletic department has pockets of great success,” Winder said. “This is shown in the baseball and softball national championships, a top-20 ranked football team, Paul George in the NBA, and Aaron Judge with the Yankees. My goal is to get volleyball into that discussion when you talk about great programs at Fresno State.”
It would be easy to think that Winder has put Fresno State on the right track and the Bulldogs will be contending for the conference championship yet again. But the 2019 season will provide a series of challenges, notably the replacement of nine players from last year’s team. The Bulldogs lost seven seniors, including Taylor Slover, an all-conference opposite who signed a professional contract with WoVo Rovaniemi in Finland. In addition to the graduating seniors, two players left the program at the end of the season. One of the players leaving is would-be sophomore Kava Durr, an Under Armor All-American out of high school. Every attacking starter from last season has left the program.
Those departures meant there were only six players around for spring workouts. Halteman said the small numbers led to a very unique dynamic. “It was a chance for the coaches to work with us individually, create strong relationships, and nail down specific fundamentals.”
While most of the experience in attack has left Fresno State, Winder points out that the personnel responsible for the ball control will be back on the floor. “Last year our team was about serving, spiking, and blocking,” he said. “This year our strength will be in our ball control.”
Reagan Leonard will be back on the court at libero. She was a All-Mountain West Honorable Mention last season as a junior. Another player trying to break into the libero role will be Jocelyn Rodriguez, who transferred from San Francisco State prior to the 2018 season. Rodriguez was utilized as a defensive specialist last year, playing primarily for Durr in the back row. Even with Durr’s departure, Rodriguez is a player Winder says he will find a way to use regularly on the court. Molly Eppright, an incoming freshman from San Luis Obispo, will also be vying for time in the back row.
Montez Uigaese is the only returning player to score more than 100 points last season. The senior from Long Beach, California, will be looking to make her mark in the lineup among nine new additions.
Desire Sukhov comes in as a transfer from Cal State Bakersfield where she started as an outside hitter in both her freshman and sophomore seasons. She has fit into the team quite well this summer and can be an explosive option from the left side. Savanah Smith is another junior transfer who comes from American River College in Sacramento. Before playing her sophomore year at a junior college, she played her freshman season at Washington State University, where she first caught Winder’s attention.
Amaria Kelley is a 6-foot-4 freshman pin hitter from Sacramento whose athleticism and high point of contact in attack will make her immediately valuable in the front row. Lauren Sabatini will also be available after redshirting last season.
The Bulldogs brought in a few middle blockers to fill the void left by graduation. McKenzie Kramer is a 6-foot-1 transfer from Montana. She comes to Fresno State as a graduate student after finishing her bachelor’s degree in three years. She led Montana in blocks per set in two of her three seasons with the team. Rebecca Rendahl is a redshirt freshman who spent her first year at the University of Minnesota where she trained under legendary NCAA and national team Hugh McCutcheon. Another new addition at middle blocker is Grace Doyle, a freshman from Perry High School in Chandler, Arizona, who comes to Fresno after reaching the state semifinals.
Halteman will have the reigns of the offense after spending time this summer in Croatia with the Mountain West All-Star team playing in the Bring It Promotions Global Volleyball Challenge. Winder signed freshman setter Mikayla Weiss to back her up. Weiss is a product of Buchanan High School in Clovis, California, where she won a CIF Central Section title and reached the CIF Southern Region championships (one match before the state title match).
The schedule put together by Winder for 2019 is a bit more challenging than last year. In his first season, he chose to schedule some teams he thought his squad should beat and a few teams that would provide close matches, but the schedule this season achieves a different goal.
“I wanted to schedule some teams that finished with a similar RPI to where we finished last season. Northern Arizona and Wisconsin-Green Bay both made the tournament last year. LSU is also a good team from the SEC with a strong RPI,” Winder explained. He went on to say they ultimately would like to win matches, build an RPI, and, if they don’t win the Mountain West, hopefully be considered when it comes time to dole out at-large bids.
The Bulldogs kick off their season against Ohio on Aug. 30 as a part of the Green Bay Invite with Indiana State and Wisconsin-Green Bay. Their home opener will be on Sept. 5 against Cal State Bakersfield in the Fresno State Invitational with Santa Clara University and Cal State Northridge.