On July 4 – 51 days before the season opener – volleyball still had not officially named a head coach to lead the program.
The Colonials were coming off a 2016 season that featured a 10-game losing streak in the middle of the schedule, the lowest program record since 2012 and their worst Atlantic 10 showing in 12 years. The team saw several changes in the offseason, including the departure of their head coach and the graduation of its top offensive player from the past three years.
The following day, GW Athletics announced that Sarah Bernson would take over as head coach of the program, filling the spot left open by former head coach Amanda Ault when she resigned in May.
The Colonials are now one of two Atlantic 10 teams – along with George Mason – with a first-year coach at the helm.
Bernson came to Foggy Bottom after a five-year stint as an assistant coach at American. The short distance between the two universities allowed her to go straight to work, getting to know the players and hiring a staff, she said.
“I didn’t have to move, which – with being hired so close to the season – would have been more stressful,” Bernson said in an interview last week. “I could focus a bit more on getting to know the team. That was my first order of business – calling or FaceTiming the team.”
Less than a month into her job, Bernson announced the hiring of Nicki Holmes as associate head coach and Nicole Buchholz as an assistant. Together the staff has been working on making incremental changes to the team’s verbiage and techniques in an effort to reverse the Colonials’ direction from last year, Bernson said.
Players said that there have been some issues because of the steep learning curve for the new strategies and drills during the transition but that they’re eager to learn a new style.
“It is a bit of a challenge because you grow up knowing certain things as you go through volleyball and then for it to change in just a year is mind-blowing,” sophomore outside hitter Skylar Iott said.
During GW’s season-opening tournament this past weekend, Bernson said the team experienced growing pains that she expected. After the Colonials won their first contest Friday in a tight match, they lost both their Saturday games in seven combined sets and fell to 1-2 on the year.
“When you get challenged, it really challenges your comfortability in the new system,” Bernson said after the games Saturday. “We weren’t quite consistent enough today.”
The Colonials’ roster features four newcomers, including three freshmen and a graduate transfer from Dartmouth. They each saw action in at least five sets during GW’s opening weekend, with freshman libero Sydney Welch and graduate student setter Stacey Benton playing in all 12.
The rookies may benefit early in the season from the new coaching tactics because they are not the only ones on the roster getting used to the system, Bernson said.
“I think it is probably easiest for them as freshmen than in other years,” she said. “The whole team is having to learn what we are all about, versus when everyone knows what’s going on and there are four that don’t.”
Some returners have also voiced their appreciation for Bernson’s way of leading the program. Both Iott and junior outside hitter Kelsey Clark said they enjoyed the autonomy and flexibility in training this year.
“It is an environment that promotes freedom of expression,” Iott said. “Whatever makes us be our best selves and our best athletically. It is different because we didn’t get that in the past – it was very uniform.”
With 11 more games before the start of A-10 action, the team still has weeks to establish a rhythm and a better idea of how far they can go. Iott said that, for now, she wants the team to focus on short term improvements rather than only the final outcome.
“There is a long way to go from last year, so I think as we go through the season we should make small goals,” Iott said. “Everyone is going to say winning A-10s, but I think our first goal should be a winning record on the weekend and then throughout the season a winning record.”
The Colonials will host their first tournament of the year next weekend when they host Indiana Friday and both LIU Brooklyn and Hofstra Saturday. Last year, GW fell in all three games of its only home tournament.