Two-by-two, volleyball improves

In everyday life, the number two is rarely important. A pair of points on a test, in most cases, has little effect. Dropping two pounds goes largely unnoticed. If a professor assigns two pages of reading, most students consider it a night off.

Jojit Coronel, the eighth-year head coach of the volleyball team, made the small digit a focal point in an attempt to turn around his slumping program. In place of complex game plans, the coach relies on simplicity.

Coronel, whose physical stature forces him to look up to his players, scribbled the number on a white marker board at the beginning of the season. He told his squad they should aim to improve by two percent in some category each match. Random? Not to him.

“Two percent is something you can see, a statistic you can touch,” Coronel said, glancing at statistic sheets after beating Coppin State Sept. 2. “If you say that you want to get 100 percent better next time, you’re going to fail.”

Three years ago, it looked as though this team couldn’t fail. They reeled off 10 consecutive victories en route to an NCAA tournament berth. For the last two years – that pesky number again – the team hasn’t posted a winning record.

“Two” seems disturbingly intertwined with the volleyball team. In each game, a team must win each game by two points. So far this season, GW has swept two teams. The squad has two captains, seniors Kaimana Lee and Juliene McLaughlin. In the program’s all-time record book, only two active players, McLaughlin and Lee, appear.

All coincidences aside, Coronel said he sees the two-percent plan as a step-by-step program that forces his team to concentrate on an immediate tangible change in place of lofty, often unreachable goals athletes tend to set.

By looks, Coronel is the consummate professional. On game days, he dresses in a suit and tie, and his volleyball knowledge goes unmatched, colleagues say. He can riffle off different volleyball coaching techniques as fast as Simon Cowell can criticize, but he always returns to the pristine simplicity of the number two.

Simplicity, in volleyball, is most certainly not part of the game plan. The sport, at the highest levels, is full of trickery. Multiple players soar into the air, hoping to dupe the opponent as to which player will eventually slam the sphere onto the ground. The Atlantic 10, traditionally not the strongest conference in the country, is still impressive and engaging to watch.

This season, Coronel is sticking to simplicity in his advice. He moved away from telling his team to reach to qualify for the A-10 tournament, something they haven’t done since 2003, but to get two percent better with each appearance on the court-either a two percent increase in hitting percentage, two percent more digs or even two percent more heart.

“It’s worked so far,” Coronel said with a grin. “I haven’t looked at all the numbers but if you have something small to work toward, something realistic, it works better.”

In the first six games of the season Coronel looks like a sage-volleyball’s version of Phil Jackson. A prime example: the GW Invitational held Sept. 2-3. Against Coppin State, the Colonials’ hitting percentage was .240. In their next match against Fairleigh Dickinson, they improved to .286 and against Loyola they hit .256. By Coronel’s admission, the formula is not infallible, but GW never dipped below its initial percentage of .240 in subsequent matches.

Coronel, who was an assistant coach for men’s volleyball powerhouse University of the Pacific before coming to GW, puts a great deal of stock in numbers. After each match he pores through statistics to see if GW met its goal of a two-percent bump.

McLaughlin, an outside hitter and leader for GW, doesn’t break down the numbers like her coach, but said the theory seems to be working.

“I can’t tell you how much I’ve heard about two percent recently,” McLaughlin said with a laugh. “But it does gives us something to reach for each game.”

A new strategy seems like a necessity for a team that has gone from an NCAA tournament team in 2000 to relative obscurity. Director of Athletics Jack Kvancz said firing Coronel was never a thought.

“I sat down with him and asked him what he needs and if there’s anything I could do for him,” Kvancz said. “(Coronel) is a good guy and a good coach and his players work hard, so it never got to that level.”

The dynamics of national collegiate volleyball benefits a school like GW. Few schools have volleyball-specific facilities, so recruits tend to base decisions on the coach’s reputation and number of wins.

For this reason, the GW program has been able to compete and recruit because of the paltry condition of the A-10 competition. GW’s successful seasons from 2000 to 2003 helped recruit today’s players. It’s too early to tell if GW’s recent performance will adversely affect its ability to pull in strong players.

Historically, GW hasn’t had problems getting talented women. Svetlana Vtyurina, the team’s only All-American, was one of the nation’s top players during her time in Foggy Bottom. The Colonials won the league title each year from 1992 to 1995 and again under Coronel in 2000, but in recent years, the team has slipped, and teams like Dayton and Temple have stepped up.

Even Coronel, who seems to be a stickler for his two percent scheme, breaks the rules sometimes. He said he’s sick of the Flyers on top of the conference his program once owned.

“I want Dayton,” Coronel said. “I don’t want them to win it again.”

Most coaches in Coronel’s position would consider 2006 as a season on the brink. Two losing seasons during which losing streaks hit embarrassingly high numbers such as 10 put GW in the gutter of the A-10 and left Coronel frustrated.

With an undefeated 6-0 record at stake with two major Atlantic Coast Conference opponents in Wake Forest and Virginia Tech in the coming weeks, Coronel does not plan to change his game plan or make practice more intense.

“To me, it seems pretty easy,” Coronel said. “All we need to do is be two percent better than them.”

Simplicity; a beautiful thing.

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