Cailtin Schweihofer has her master’s degree from Lehigh, where she was an assistant coach, in higher-ed administration focusing on change management.
Now, the 34-year-old Schweifhofer is the first-year head coach at Rutgers.
She has a plan.
But first something about Rutgers, which left the Big East for the American Athletic Conference in 2013 and after one season entered the Big Ten.
It was a move that was met with great skepticism in college athletics. Particularly in volleyball, where it simply hasn’t gone well.
In those six seasons, all under CJ Werneke, Rutgers has a combined Big Ten record of 3-117, and that includes going 0-20 four times. Rutgers won a B1G match in 2015 and in 2019 the Scarlet Knights beat Northwestern in five and then swept at Iowa.
Werneke, who was the head coach at Rutgers for 12 years, tried everything, ultimately deciding that recruiting foreign players was the way to go. We documented it this feature on him two years ago.
Werneke was let go after last season, one in which the Scarlet Knights finished 8-23, actually the most number of victories for the program since 2012. But only one of those non-conference wins came against a Power 5 team.
Enter Schweihofer, who was hired last January after five successful seasons at La Salle, where she was the 2018 Atlantic 10 coach of the year, and one at Northeastern, where the Huskies finished 15-14 in 2019, 9-7 in the Colonial Athletic Association.
“We all know what the challenges are in taking over this program,” Schweihofer said. “It’s definitely a leap. The reason I wanted to take over the program was there’s been a major financial investment from the institution to bettering the volleyball team and I’m really excited about that.
“Obviously you can see the success the other programs in the Rutgers family have had.”
For example, Rutgers has long been a national power in women’s basketball, the men’s basketball team has had big years at times and is currently off to a 4-0 start, and the football team has had great seasons in the past.
“I saw the potential,” Schweihofer said.
When Schweifhofer, who was Caitin Rimgaila when she was a middle blocker at St. John’s, took over at La Salle, she inherited a program that finished 1-31 the year before. In her first season, 2014, the Explorers went 10-21. Records of 6-25, 10-20, 14-16, and 18-12 followed.
The Northeastern gig was a good one, but when you have a chance to coach in the Big Ten, you take it, no matter how tough the task.
Obviously Schweihofer wants to win more — and is thoroughly confident she eventually can — and understands the international nature of the Rutgers roster. It’s a group of 12 players, three from Russia, two from Serbia, a Greek, a Turk, and five Americans, although one them has Polish parents. And that doesn’t include an Israeli who transferred.
“I haven’t been around this many international players since I was a player at St. John’s,” Schweihofer said.
St. John’s is right in New York City, located in Queens. Rutgers, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, is just 40 miles from Manhattan.
“A big goal of mine is to definitely not move away from international recruiting, because this area of the country, and the quality of academics at Rutgers, and Big Ten volleyball are all a big draw for international students,” Schweihofer said.
“But we want to balance out the roster and rebuild the brand within the United States.”
That will take some time, of course.
The current list of Scarlet Knights includes five seniors, Serbian right side Beka Kojadinovic; Kamila Cieslik from Knoxville, Tennessee, and who is moving to the outside; Russian outside Yana Kamshilina; middle Shealyn McNamara, who is from Georgia, the one in the U.S., not the country near Russia, and is a transfer from Auburn; and Mary Kate Painter, a libero from Philadelphia, who transferred from UCF and had played for Scott Schweihofer’s club team.
He, by the way, is Rutgers volunteer coach Scott Schweihofer, Caitlin’s husband who played at Limestone. And the aforementioned Israeli who transferred was Tali Marmen, who led Rutgers in kills in 2019, was already in the portal, and left for UCF, but hers and Painter’s moves were coincidental.
The two juniors are Russian setter Inna Balyko, who has run a 5-1 the past two years, and Russian outside Anastasiia Maskimova.
There is one redshirt freshman in Lauren DeLo, a setter from South Carolina who transferred from Ole Miss after sitting out last season.
“She committed sight unseen after a Zoom tour,” Schweihofer noted.
There are no sophomores, but the freshman class includes Madyson Chitty, a libero from Lewis Center, Ohio, and Tina Grkovic, a middle from Serbia, both of whom had committed before Schweihofer took over. Grkovic lives in Italy, where her father is a diplomat.
Then after Schweihofer was hired she brought in Stella Antypa, an outside from Greece, and Turkish outside Cansu Günaydin.
“We went into the fall with 12 student-athletes, so we were small but mighty,” Schweihofer joked.
“But when we weren’t going to be playing this fall, it was a great opportunity for me to set the expectations and set the tone of what I want Rutgers volleyball to look like and feel like. We were able to iron out a lot of issues from a technical standpoint. We spent a lot of time this fall on that side of things.”
There was plenty of time to coach, since the Big Ten didn’t play in the fall.
Schweihofer gave herself and her assistants credit for being good teachers of the game.
“I think the players that we’ve gained and added are going to surprise you,” she said.
“I’m a young head coach. I totally understand that. Was I the first choice in everyone’s mind for this position? Probably not. But I’m a very good technical trainer and my staff, that’s been evident in the roles they’ve had previously.”
And in the Scarlet Knights, “I think you’re going to see a lot of of improvement. I’m excited to see what they can do.
“Do I think we’re gonna win a ton of games?”
Schweihofer paused and laughed.
She does, however, know what it takes to rebuild a program.
Remember what she did at La Salle.
“I think there are two ways to coach a team. There are coaches who like to move in their career by jumping from successful team to successful team, which is great. That is definitely one way. I just didn’t start my career that way. And I was very interested in the change process from an educational standpoint when I was at Lehigh.”
That’s where she got that master’s focusing on change management.
“When the La Salle position was presented to me, I was basically able to take it as a case study with all of the curriculum that I was just finished studying at Lehigh.”
Remember that she took over a La Salle team that went 1-31 in 2013, a team that won its opener and never even extended one of the next 31 defeats to five sets.
Talk about rebuilding.
“There was not a lot of attention on that program, not like there is here, and nobody thought that could be successful at all,” Schweifhofer said. “But I looked at it as a five-year process. And that’s what change takes.
“Obviously there are wins along the way, but a five-year process is most likely the reality for significant and sustainable change.”
Schweihofer is convinced the university is stepping up, something that truly has to be part of the equation to compete in the Big Ten.
“You have to have your administration backing you and there have been things done that show that a lot more interest in the volleyball team being successful. Just since I’ve been here our budget is in line with half of the Big Ten, which is fantastic … you need buy-in from your administration and your team.”
There are now four women head coaches in the Big Ten, Schweihofer, veteran Cathy George at Michigan State (Scott Schweihofer once served as her student manager), Vicki Brown at Iowa, and another new hire, Jen Flynn Oldenburg at Ohio State.
It is fundamentally wrong for an America university to scour the world for volleyball players. If you can’t do it with American players than disband the program.
I find this coach’s approach to recruiting to be morally bankrupt. What about all the minority USA citizens who are being deprived of a Rutgers education so some international can spend four years banging a volleyball. Is volleyball more important than educating African Americans?