Building the program
Oct. 10, 2002
By Brian Betz
The Santa Clara
Women's volleyball coach Jon Wallace is more than the driving force behind one of the best volleyball teams in the nation. He is, simply put, one of the best in his trade.
In his fourth year as head coach here at Santa Clara, Wallace has taken a previously unsuccessful program and turned it into a legitimate contender. In 2000, Wallace led the Broncos to their first West Coast Conference title since 1993, while mowing over various team records and receiving Coach of the Year honors along the way.
"Before Jon's arrival we were a team that struggled to finish higher than third in our conference," said senior libero Chrissy Hirsch. "But I really believe that a big reason for the turnaround is that he doesn't view volleyball as a task. Although very tough and demanding in the gym, Jon is a coach that makes playing enjoyable."
Wallace believes his volleyball career affects his coaching. "I view myself as a player's coach," said Wallace. "I believe that my players will feel more comfortable and perform at a higher level if they know I can relate to them."
His ability to understand the wear and tear associated with a long season comes from his playing days at UC-Santa Barbara, where he captained the Gauchos to the NCAA title game in 1988 before earning second-team All-American honors his senior season.
"The fact that Jon has already been through the battles that we go through from his experience at the collegiate level makes him more knowledgeable than anyone," said junior setter Kelli Sousa. "Every day in the gym, whether it is practice or a match, he comes with the attitude that we need to improve."
Added Wallace, "Having been a player myself, I feel more in tune with the game. I understand that the X's and O' s have changed significantly over the years."
Wallace has an open-door policy that allows players to come and meet with him for any reason. The time and commitment he shows to his players adds to the admiration and respect that he already receives for being an outstanding teacher on the court.
"Jon has been a mentor for many of us over the years," said senior defensive specialist Cindy Hirsch. "He has taught us what is truly important in life, by not making volleyball the number one priority. He puts a huge emphasis on our schoolwork and on our families."
Added Chrissy Hirsch, "One of the big jokes on our team is that we call him Papa Jon. He is concerned with his players both on and off the court. He is always there if we need someone to talk to."
The concern "Papa Jon" shows his players has had nothing but positive effects. This season, the Broncos stand at 15-2, poised to crack the top 10 and surpass rival perennial powerhouse Pepperdine for WCC supremacy.
"I am a realist and pragmatist," said Wallace. "All of our girls are winners who have the ability to win the conference. We are mentally as strong as any team in the country, but it will undoubtedly take some luck here and there to beat a team like Pepperdine."
This season, Wallace realistically hopes the team can make it to the round of 16. In terms of the future, there is no question that he has one of the best freshmen classes in the nation. Much of this promise can be attributed to Wallace's ability to recruit.
"Coach finds girls who are not only great players but that have great personalities as well," said junior middle blocker Becky Biniek. "Having such great team chemistry makes the experience that much better."
Take a few nights this fall season to attend some matches at Leavey, and you'll see a tightly knit team that plays the game at the highest level and has the smiles to match. The level of camaraderie and enthusiasm throughout every position is a result of Wallace's success at maintaining the notion that volleyball isn't life.
However, every day Wallace brings an intensity and focus to the court that has helped place him in the upper echelon of Division I coaches.
"Whether we're playing Stanford or Southeast Missouri, every game is equally important in his eyes," said Cindy Hirsch.
This kind of professionalism is likely what will one day catapult Santa Clara women's volleyball deep into the NCAA tourney. Despite losing two exceptional players in the Hirsch twins next year, Wallace will bring back a core of young talent that should, under his guidance, be able to compete with anyone. The challenge lies in not only getting to the top, but staying there as well.
"Our goal is to develop a program that can spike up every few years and make the Final Four," said Wallace. "It will be a big accomplishment to break the top ten, but we know that the ultimate test of greatness is maintaining over time."
Who knows, maybe one day "Papa Jon" will deliver this school a national title.