The best volleyball program in state history ushered in a new era Monday with three draining practices at the Munciana Facility.
First-year Burris coach John Rodriguez scheduled his team for three practices as teams in seven of the eight IHSAA sanctioned fall sports held their first official practices. Girls golf opened its season with practices this past Friday, and a few golf teams played their first matches Monday.
Rodriguez woke up Monday morning and he said the enormity of his new position sank in before he pulled off the covers. He took over a Burris program with a record 22 state championships, highlighted by 14 consecutive Class 2A titles from 1997-2010. But the Owls finished a mere 18-17 last season, the worst mark in program history.
“That’s why I want to practice three times a day,” Rodriguez said jokingly.
Rodriguez only coached the night session. He teaches Spanish at Union, where he previously coached, and that prevented him from attending the first two practices. Assistant coach Dave Harman took care of the morning practice and American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee Don Shonell ran the afternoon session.
Both Harman and Shondell put the players through intense practices, so Rodriguez eased up on the night session, but only a bit. Rodriguez blew his whistle roughly a dozen times to stop practice and instruct his players, but otherwise the Owls moved at a brisk pace.
“It’s more attention to detail, but when we do it, we want to do it in as fast a way as possible,” junior middle blocker Taylor Harman said. “In drills, everybody’s flying, everybody’s flocking, screaming and yelling. There’s never a dull moment. No one stops.”
Burris hired perhaps the ideal coach for this team from a personality standpoint. The energetic and somewhat quirky Rodriguez connects with his players, virtually all of whom have his same personality traits.
“We’re loud, crazy,” Harman said. “There’s no one quiet in our group. We’re always constantly with each other making each other laugh, and I think that carries on to the court. We have good chemistry with each other.”
Those players seldomly laughed, or even smiled for that matter, last year in what turned into a painfully long season. Rodriguez detected a dejected hangover effect in some of his players shortly after Burris hired him in December.
Rodriguez tackled that by putting new demands on his players in offseason conditioning and training sessions. He reinvigorated his players and changed the gym culture in the process.
“For this year, we’ve had to change to be dynamic and loud, and I think that’s the gym culture he’s talking about, especially being a good teammate,” junior setter Emily Brinkman said. “He’s big on that.”
Steve Shondell coached Burris to 21 state championships in 35 seasons by emphasizing basic fundamentals and connecting with his players through positive reinforcement. Rodriguez is following the same blueprint.
“No. 1 we have to establish good relationships with the kids, and No. 2 just make sure we focus on the teaching aspect and definitely paying attention to the details,” Rodriguez said.
“Our theme for the preseason is to be clean, to clean up the skills and really focus on doing the little things 10 out of 10 times.”