CHRIS POOLE‘S TALLAHASSEE TIMELINE
- 2008: Prior to his arrival, Florida State fails to reach 20 wins in the previous five consecutive seasons and hadn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 2002.
- 2009: The Seminoles begin a streak of nine straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
- 2011: Florida State defeats Iowa State in a five-set thriller to reach the Final Four for the first time in program history.
- 2017: The Seminoles go 18-11 overall (12-8 ACC), finishing tied for 5th in conference and losing to Washington State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Since leaving the Arkansas head coaching position in 2008 to assume the same position at Florida State, Chris Poole has built the Seminoles into a perennial contender in the NCAA Tournament and one of the top teams in the nation. VolleyMob caught up with the coach to discuss his decade with the Seminoles and hear some candid, wide-ranging observations about what happened in 2017. He also previewed what everyone can expect out of the 2018 Seminoles and its two high-profile transfers, Payton Caffrey from West Virginia, and Kelsey Wicinski from Maryland.
VM: Let’s start at the beginning of your time at Florida State. What was the program like when you came here a decade ago?
CP: We had a group of players who had never been to the NCAA Tournament. They didn’t know what it was like, so they were looking for hope. They were looking for someone to help turn them around and it was really amazing how much they listened and bought into the things I said. I felt we became more competitive as 2008 went on even though we didn’t get into the NCAA Tournament. That was a goal of ours that year, but we didn’t get in. I think our RPI was around 52 or 53 and it was just a couple of spots below where we needed to be.
VM: But you did make it to the NCAA Tournament the following season and every season after that.
CP: That spring was amazing, just to see the commitment those players made to work hard. And so that will always be a very special group for this program because of how intent and excited they were about working hard. And, of course, we went 19-1 in the ACC, won it and went all the way to the Elite Eight, losing to Minnesota at Minnesota. Now, we would have had the opportunity to host. The transformation in that 12-month time period was enormous.
VM: What was the impact of that first Elite Eight team?
CP: It allowed players around the country to say, “Hey, I’m going to at least take a look at Florida State.” We hadn’t even been on the map before. It gave us a chance to attract better players and, I think, each of the last nine years we’ve had a successful program. Ironically, this past year was a dip for us, a perfect storm.
VM: What made this last season a perfect storm?
CP: For starters, we had lost three seniors who made some type of All-American team and were instrumental in our success over the previous three or four years. We also brought in five true freshmen, which is unusual for us. Usually, we’ll have a combination of transfers and freshmen and maybe even some international players. We knew that was going to happen and we anticipated it, but what threw us off was one of those players—a setter—blew out her ACL in the spring coming in so we actually entered August with two setters on the roster who weren’t cleared to practice during the summer for medical reasons. So we went into August with just one setter.
VM: Anything else?
CP: Our two left sides—a fourth-year junior, Christina Ambrose, and a fourth-year senior, Natasha Calkins, were also out. One of them [Ambrose] was out completely during the spring because of back surgery, so she didn’t practice from November 2016 until August 2017. And the other [Calkins] had torn a ligament in her hitting arm, in her elbow. The decision was whether to have surgery, which would mean she’d be done with volleyball because it’s about a nine-month recovery and she wouldn’t have played her senior year, or go ahead and try to tough it out. Well, she literally didn’t do anything all summer, trying to rest that elbow, before coming back in and she did OK, but certainly we were expecting those two left sides to carry a heavy, heavy load because of the youth we were going to have on our team. They did as well as they could, but they were obviously not at 100 percent, spending that much time away from being able to train. There’s nothing you can do about timing like that.
VM: How about the true freshmen?
CP: All three of our middles [Taryn Knuth, Tiana Jackson and Deja Williams] were true freshmen so, obviously, that meant two true freshmen were going to have to start in the middle because that’s all we had. Very talented, but it’s just a different speed. It takes a little time to catch up. And I think they have a great, great future, but the combination of those things meant we did not have the kind of year people were used to seeing from Florida State. We know that. I think we still would have been fine if we weren’t so young in the middle. We couldn’t always depend on the middle like we have in the past. That’s the first time I’ve had to start two freshmen in the middle since 1995. And it’s the first time I’ve had to start a freshman middle at all since coming to Florida State and we had to do it with two.
VM: What improvements did you see during the season?
CP: All three made great improvement as the semester went along as far as their reads from the middle position. We were having a lot of problem early in understanding what the offenses were trying to do against them, being able to make that read, and understanding their responsibilities, but all three made improvements as the season progressed, and Taryn began to really progress offensively and with the block, too. I think that showed in conference and the NCAA Tournament. She was playing well, so it’s not like that was her only good match of the year, but I think it represents the type of improvement she made over the fall. And it really spoke volumes to her future and what we believe she’s going to be able to do for us. And that’s why we’re so excited about all our freshman because we saw how much they improved, and everyone knows the greatest improvement a player makes is during her first 12 months in college because it’s such an eye-opener for them. That doesn’t mean they don’t continue to improve. But percentage-wise, it’s usually those first 12 months.
VM: In spite of the adversity, you still made it to the NCAA Tournament.
CP: The girls played with a lot of guts. It was a group where the expectations stayed very, very high in the gym and they continued to work hard every single day and that’s why we were still good enough to get to the NCAA Tournament, but we were not a normal Florida State team. I think that’s one reason I was so happy with this team. People are going to look at it and say, “it’s the weakest team you had in years,” but to see the adversity they overcame and yet they still were driven to play at a level and win the matches they had to win. I mean, we had no bad losses. We just struggled against the better teams because we could not always match up. At the same time, we didn’t lose any of the matches we were supposed to win, basically everyone outside the top 50. We found a way to win and had players really gut through that. So, that’s always a minimum for us. Getting to the Sweet 16 is the next big goal. That’s what we want to be thought of as a program and the standard we want to build.
VM: Did it surprise you to get sent to Nebraska for that first-round match?
CP: We know sometimes you’ve got to be lucky about where you’re going. If we don’t host, we typically go to Florida. This is the first year we didn’t go to Florida. Part of that, honestly, is that we dropped a bit in the RPI and weren’t as strong this year, so it allowed them to send us somewhere else. And you can’t really argue if they do send us to Florida, but it’s a tough go every time. Saying that, we were also able to win at Florida in 2013 and 2016 in reach the Sweet 16. So, we’ve had success even when we’ve been sent there.
VM: What were your thoughts about that first-round match against Washington State?
CP: We played a great, great first set that went to 34-32. It was a long set. I talked to Milica Kubura after the match and she said, “It was like getting hit in the gut. It took everything I had and I was devastated that we didn’t pull it out.” And sometimes that can make a difference. It looked like we dropped to a different level after that. It was like, “Gosh, we gave everything and still dropped that first set.” So, it was unfortunate but there were some individuals who stood out. Taryn was one of them. She had a great match, and there were others who were gutsy during it. But we didn’t always play smart. Sometimes, you can play hard, but not necessarily smart. I thought Washington State did a nice job of taking advantage of some of the things we struggled with this year. And it’s not like I could make that change. I had no way to make that change. We just had to line up this and do everything we could to beat you.
VM: Let’s turn to the future. What can everyone expect in the spring and next season?
CP: We believe we’ve got things in place. All the freshmen are coming back this spring. The setters who were hurt are all healthy. We also brought in two 2018 freshmen in January. So, we’ve got seven first-year players here. Having those seven means we have a lot of opportunity to get better. Spring of 2011 was the last time I had this many players on campus for spring training, so I’m really excited to do that again. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m predicting we’re headed to the Final Four like we did in 2011, but it’s such a big difference to have kids like that in your spring practices.
VM: Who are the 2018 freshmen who arrived early?
CP: We have Taylor Roberts, a libero, who spent some time with USA Volleyball and is from Florida. There’s also Morgan Chacon, who’s from Indiana and led her team to the state finals. She broke her leg in the first set of that match in November, so we’re glad we’re taking over recovery and we do expect her to recover fully. Her leg looks good. It’s just going to take time to make sure that bone is completely healed before she starts doing anything, but she looks good.
VM: How about the transfers?
CP: We did bring in two transfers. Kelsey Wicinski spent the last three years at Maryland as their libero. The other, Payton Caffrey, is coming in from West Virginia and has been a good player for them the last two years. She’s from Florida and it’s a good opportunity for her to come back home.
VM: Did you recruit Payton Caffrey out of high school?
CP: I’ve had a lot of questions about why we didn’t recruit her the first time around and we did. It’s just the time we were recruiting back in eighth and ninth grade, she was playing in the middle. It’s the way early recruiting is. So, for a middle, she was pretty small and wasn’t playing any back row. For us, it was a question of whether she would make that transition to outside, and certainly by the time she got to her senior year, you could see that she was making that transition. She’s a very good player who had always done well at the club and high school level.
VM: Early recruiting does have its challenges.
CP: When you’re trying to project that next level as a college player and you’re looking at them in the middle and you’re not seeing them play back row, you ask if they’re going to be ready to move to outside. For us, we didn’t know, especially being in the top 15 in the country at the time, and that’s certainly one of my regrets. She has certainly proven she can make that transition and has done well over the last two years. We were in a situation where we needed another outside coming in so it was the perfect opportunity. We had a need for an outside and she was available and looking to transfer closer to home. So, it was a win-win for us to have her come in this spring.
VM: She did have some big matches last season for West Virginia.
CP: A lot of people are still saying, “Is she big enough to play outside?” But if you look back at Kansas, Texas and some of the other matches she played, I don’t think you can really say she can’t play at this level. We know she’s not 6-3 or 6-4, but there’s a lot to be said for a gritty player who just knows how to play the game and is used to winning. And she grew up winning. She grew up in a good program in Orlando. She’s been part of a lot of success and I think there are two kinds of people in the world: the ones who just accept what everyone thinks of them and the ones who are out to prove everyone else wrong. I think Payton’s the latter. She has certainly done that the last couple of years, and we’re glad to have her back in Florida and feel she’s definitely going to be able to fill an immediate need for us.
VM: Can you tell us more about Kelsey Wicinski?
CP: We graduated a senior libero who started for us the last few years and we’ve got a great freshman in Taylor Roberts coming in, but we also lost another libero so we really needed to fill two libero positions. We have very high expectations for Taylor, but this gave us the opportunity to get Kelsey, who already has Big Ten experience the past three years, which will be enormous for her being able to come in and know what it’s like to play at that level.
VM: Would you like to give a shout-out to any player who may not have led stat categories or receive individual accolades, but has been integral to your success?
CP: Brianne Burkert is a senior setter who hasn’t necessarily won the postseason awards, but we’ve asked a lot of her over the past couple years. Even though we recruited her as a setter, she was also a hitter in high school and club, so we’ve used her as a hitter because of injuries. With our left sides being hurt this year, she was the one who ended up playing all six rotations. We needed to get our left sides off the court to rest them. She’s done amazing. She isn’t the flashy one who everyone’s necessarily going to circle around, but she’s done so much. She was a team captain this year and did a great job of helping to lead the team. She does anything we ask. She played for TAV out of Dallas, so she is used to playing at a very high level. It’s just we didn’t recruit her to be a hitter. We recruited her to be a setter. With our young middles, we were getting stuck in some rotations where there was nothing we could do. By adding her as a hitter for part of the time, it allowed us to get a little more offense on the pins when we needed it.
VM: What are the next milestones for the program?
CP: I think the minimum for us is to make the NCAA Tournament and that’s a driving force for us. It’s also one of the reasons I was so happy for this team. It’s so important for a team to know how to overcome adversity and win. Things are going to happen. And if they’re all really out there for each other, with that name on the jersey to represent their school to the best of their abilities and not just represent themselves, I think it makes a huge difference on the outcomes of matches. Those are some of the things we talk most about to the players and they’ve bought into that.