Tom Hogan was 17 years old when he got his first volleyball head-coaching job, overseeing the freshman team at Mount Notre Dame, an all-girls school in Cincinnati.
Matches at MND followed the typical format: The freshman team played first, followed by the junior varsity and then the varsity. During one particular match, just as the varsity was about to take the floor, in walked Jim Stone, by then well on his way to being a coaching legend at Ohio State.
Hogan reacted like a giddy teenager — mostly because he was.
“The entire crowd turned their attention to Jim Stone,” said Hogan, who is heading into his eighth season as Denver’s coach. “And me being a young, eager coach, I went up and introduced myself.”
That encounter sparked a relationship that endures to this day, and the two men ended up with much common ground in their careers: coaches at the collegiate and international levels and working with USA Volleyball.
Their friendship grew closer when Stone, after his retirement from Ohio State in 2007, moved to Colorado to coach on the club circuit. While at Denver, Hogan has recruited a number of players who benefitted from Stone’s tutelage at the club level.
And when longtime Pioneers assistant Katelin Opitz resigned in the spring, Hogan’s connection with Stone paid a big dividend.
Opitz, who has two young children, decided she wanted to devote more time to being a mom. The time and travel required of her as an assistant coach were too much.
Hogan had little time to fill the void.
Enter Jim Stone.
Hogan invited Stone to lunch and asked him if he might be willing to dust off his clipboard to help out the Pioneers.
“If I can help out, I’m glad to do it,” said Stone, who won more than 500 career matches and produced two national players of the year at Ohio State.
Said Hogan: “He just thinks the game in a different way than a lot of people do, and I think a lot of that is because of his experience at every level.… I felt like since we kind of lost that piece of experience with Katelin that I wanted to replace that with someone that did have a lot of experience.
“I kind of told him I don’t need you recruiting on the road for X number of days. I just need someone with a great volleyball mind that’s willing to talk X’s and O’s, that’s willing to discuss training in the gym, that’s willing to share his knowledge and experience to make us a better program.”
Lorrin Poulter: “I was speechless”
Lorrin Poulter, a rising senior setter for the Pioneers, remembers the day the coaching staff revealed that Stone was coming aboard. Players had just finished lifting when the coaches pulled them into the locker room.
“My mind went a million different directions,” Poulter said.
The coaches looked right at Poulter when Optiz’s replacement was revealed.
“I was speechless,” she said. “I never thought I would have Jim as a coach again. I never thought he would come back to college coaching. I was speechless, but I was immediately so excited to have him back.”
Poulter already knew Stone’s M.O. because she had played for his club team in Colorado. And, like Hogan, she has her own story of a memorable first encounter with the venerable coach.
Poulter said she knew Stone by reputation. She had heard he was a “tough” coach and admitted she was “nervous” and “scared” heading into her first practice.
Turns out she had reason to be.
“So the first practice comes around, and, within the first hour, he kicked me out of a drill for not calling a ball or something like that,” said Poulter, able to laugh about the incident now. “That kind of set the tone, and I was like, ‘This guy doesn’t fool around. He takes advantage of every rep.’ So I gained a lot of respect for him.”
Stone calls himself a “substitute teacher” and views his latest gig as a temporary stop — “I certainly have a timetable. I’m retired,” he said with a laugh — but he is looking forward to the challenge of helping the Pioneers through the 2022 season.
Hogan said his roster contains nine new players — either freshmen or transfers, including former Stanford middle Mackenzie Fidelak, who also played club volleyball for Stone. That’s a far cry from a lineup that had remained fairly stable the past four seasons. Blending together all the new pieces, Hogan said, was part of what intrigued Stone.
“I don’t think either Tom or I know very much about the roster right now,” Stone said. “I think the challenge is going to be incorporating a significant number of transfers with freshmen and the people that were already there. That’s a lot of getting adjusted to in just a few weeks.”
During his tenure as a head coach, Hogan generally has divided his coaches’ responsibilities much like a football coach would. To wit: He has an offensive coordinator and a defensive coordinator.
Hogan oversees the offense. He said it will be Stone’s job to shore up the defense, overseeing blocking and serving.
“Blocking is probably the last thing players learn how to do well,” Stone said. “So if I can help people get a little better at that particular skill, then it’s all good.”
Poulter and Fidelak have briefed their teammates on what to expect from Stone. Poulter said he is a coach who can find the right balance between being tough and being supportive.
He also will be a straight-shooting, no-nonsense presence.
“Stone will definitely tell you how it is, and he doesn’t sugar-coat things,” said Poulter, the younger sister of Olympic gold-medalist setter Jordyn Poulter. “He doesn’t play around when it comes to practice.… He will throw you out of a practice if you’re not doing your job. If you’re not doing your job, he’ll call you out in front of everybody.
“Depending on how much power Tom gives Jim, he will take full advantage of it in practice.… We run a good practice already, and I think with (Hogan) and Stone running a practice, we’re going to get a lot of (stuff) done that we need to be doing. I really do think we are going to have a great season with him and Tom.”
15 years since coaching in college
Of course, it has been 15 years since Stone paced a college sideline. So it might seem daunting to return to a sport that has had a decade-and-a-half to evolve.
Stone, however, doesn’t believe the women’s game has changed all that much, save for the depth of talent.
“I think there are more better players (in the women’s game),” he said. “I think when I left Ohio State, there were certainly good players, but now, at times, depending on the team … you’re going to have an entire team of good players instead of just one or two on a team. That aspect has changed significantly.
“There’s more good players out there, and they are kind of gravitating toward the usual suspects in terms of schools.… But then going with that, the second layer of kids are also a lot more talented. In general, the level of play is a step or two higher than when I left Ohio State.”
Hogan and Stone have begun putting together the pieces for the coming season. And though there are many unknowns with so many new players — “It’s going to be more of a marathon rather than a sprint this year,” Hogan said — Hogan has built a successful program.
During his tenure — except for the Covid-shortened 2020 season — the Pioneers never have won fewer than 23 matches in a season and haven’t lost more than four matches in the Summit League. That includes a 15-0 mark in 2018, when Denver went 27-3 and Hogan was named the conference coach of the year.
But the Pioneers are looking at a two-year drought since their last NCAA Tournament appearance, Poulter’s freshman year. And they still are seeking their first NCAA win under Hogan.
There is plenty of work to do to achieve those goals, but with Stone on board, perhaps they are a little more attainable.
For his part, Stone has the utmost confidence in Hogan’s ability. That giddy 17-year-old has become a coach even someone with Stone’s resume can admire.
“Tom has had an amazing career,” Stone said. “To go from a ninth-grade team in Cincinnati to being Lang Ping’s assistant at the Olympics (in 2008), that’s quite a leap there. He’s done a wonderful job with his career, and he certainly has done a great job at Denver.”