What a first season coach Paco Labrador had at Navy.
He got the job after Larry Bock retired. And it wasn’t like Bock left the cupboard bare.
“Absolutely,” Labrador said. “He left me two conference players of the year, the setter of the year — that team was loaded last year.
“I didn’t have to do much, just not screw up what Larry did before me.”
The result was a team that went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Navy joined Division I in 1991.
Navy only went 23-9 overall, but 13-3 to tie for the Patriot League regular-season title. Then the Mids won the conference tournament and the automatic NCAA bid that came with it. The result was a three-set loss to Michigan, but all that did was make you think Navy can continue its upward trend.
After all, five years ago, when last year’s seniors were freshmen, they were 2-17 into their first season en route to a 9-20 finish.
In 2016, Navy went 20-9 and got into the conference-tournament semifinals, losing to American. And in 2017, the Mids went 23-8 and then lost in the conference final, again to American.
Finally last year, Navy beat American in the Patriot championship match, a 25-22, 19-25, 25-21, 25-27, 15-9 victory capped by a kill from Maddi Sgattoni.
“It has been an amazing four years,” said the senior setter of that team, Patricia Mattingly.
While she’s gone, Sgattoni returns as one the best players you’ve probably never heard of.
“It was one of the best moments I have ever had,” Sgattoni said last November after Navy won.
“It was so surreal. We just went crazy. It was exactly how I pictured it and more.”
Sgattoni is a 5-foot-10 junior outside hitter from Pittsburgh, which just happens to be where Navy lost that first-round NCAA match. She finished 2018 with 393 kills (3.33/set), 122 more kills than her closest teammate. Sgattoni led Navy with 41 aces, was third in digs with 285, and had 40 blocks, three solo.
Not surprisingly, she’s the Patriot League preseason player of the year. Navy was picked by the coaches and sports information directors to finish second behind American.
“On paper we lost a ton of talent,” Labrador said.
Indeed, that included three starters and six players overall. But Sgattoni won’t be going it alone. Senior middle Sarena Seelbach (211 kills and a team-best 106 blocks, 17 solo), DS Emily Solis and senior setter Paige Miles, who has been waiting her turn, form the nucleus.
“I think we’ll be better than we look on paper,” Labrador said. “The freshman class, it’s very hard to tell where they’ll fit in, but I know they’re all very gifted athletes.”
Labrador came to Navy after 15 years at Division III Wittenberg in Ohio. During his time there, Wittenberg won the 2011 NCAA title and went to the title match in 2015 and ’17.
Labrador does not come from a military background. But when Bock retired after seven years — and 41 overall, including a long career at Division III Juniata — he called Labrador.
It made an impact.
“He said, ‘I know you really well, you know me really well, and I know the Naval Academy really well. I think this is the place for you.’ And you just don’t get that very often, where you get the transparency from the previous coach to lay it all out for you and tell you what it’s like to coach here.
“I felt really good about it. I came on a couple of visits and even without the military background you could see that you can make a difference in the world and you can see that you can make difference in peoples’ lives by mentoring and coaching these young athletes. And that’s all we really want as coaches, right?”
Getting players to Navy brings up things most coaches don’t have to consider. But new recruiting rules where high school players can wait long to make decisions might help Navy and the other military academies, like Army West Point and Air Force.
“I think there’s a degree of maturity that comes from being 15-, 16-, 17-years-old and having a bit more of an idea for all of the options that are out there and what might fit you best,” Labrador said.
“So being able to delay that a little bit longer, I think more kids might be open to at least exploring the idea of playing for an academy. and what that means and what some of the options are.”
You have to recruit a really special person to play at a place like Navy. Obviously they need to be good volleyball players, but there’s so much more to it.
“The volleyball’s a big one,” Labrador said with a smile, “and academically it’s a super-competitive school to get into. SAT scores and grades are a big factor plus it’s math and science. We’re a big engineering school. So if someone wants to do interior design, sorry about that. Not gonna be here.”
And there’s more, of course.
“There’s the leadership part. They definitely have to have a degree of self confidence and want to have an experience that is probably atypical of college life. It’s going to be different and unique, but it should be really rewarding.”
With a head coach, assistants (Maddie Fisher and Kristina Fultz, both of whom played for Labrador at Wittenberg) and a team full of leaders, can that be problematic?
“I thought about that when I first took the job,” Labrador said. “If you’re recruiting everybody as a leader, how does that work when you get onto the floor? The good news is the Naval Academy itself has a pretty hierarchal system. When they’re off the volleyball court, there are plebes, third class, second class, and first class. So I think there’s a way to understand to do your role for what you’re supposed to be doing right now and let the people who are doing other things do their roles, too. So I haven’t had to worry about too many roosters in the henhouse, so to speak.”
What’s more, when you graduate from Navy, you are obligated to five years of service. In today’s volatile world, that’s also something to consider.
“That’s part of the education. We’ve got majors in naval architecture or nuclear engineering, or cyber security. So there are a lot of majors they’re studying for and the roles that they’re going to be taking. They’ll be officers in the fleets.
“If you want to select Marines and you want to be on the front line pretty quick, you can do that. On the other side of it, there are a lot things you can do after the Naval Academy that don’t involve getting shot at. You get to choose, it’s a good salary, and a key component for me, which many people don’t know, you’re guaranteed a full-time job doing something that you studied for five years right after college. A lot of parents when they’re looking at colleges say, ‘Hey, can you guarantee my kid a job after they graduate?’ It’s hard at a civilian school to say 100-percent for sure. Whereas I can say you absolutely will for five years.
“And then after that, you can take that resume with a Naval Academy degree and five years work experience, where do you want to go from here.”