An All-MIVA second team middle blocker in his own right and part of a MIVA champion and Final Four squad, Ryan “Rock” Perrotte spent 13 years as an assistant coach at his alma mater Fort Wayne, then IPFW, under legendary coach Arnie Ball.
In 2016, Rock was handed the keys to the kingdom. It hasn’t been the first two years he had originally mapped out, as injury plagued rosters have combined for a 15-34 mark, including 5-23 in 2017. But, the third year coach has stayed the course and is seeing the fruits of that as his team has charged out to a 7-0 mark and No. 15 national ranking.
It seems the trend mimics that of his own Mastodon career and that is paying big dividends for Perrotte and his squad.
To find out the secret to its turnaround and early success, VolleyMob sat down with Rock to discuss his career, his team, the MIVA and future hopes.
Where does the nickname Rock come from?
That is a nickname I got when I played here at IPFW back in the late ’90s. We did some water training when I was a freshman and had to do a lot of swimming. Needless to say, I was 6-5 or 6-6 and barely 180 pounds and I had no buoyancy whatsoever and I would sink to the bottom of the pool when we were doing all this fluttering and stuff. One of my teammates started calling me Rock and I actually hated it for the longest time. And then it stuck so much that I was like you know what, it is kind of cool, it is good conversation opener. I got it because I am not a very good swimmer, actually I can’t swim at all. That is why I am Rock.
Talk about your career as a middle blocker here at Fort Wayne (then IPFW) playing for and then later coaching with Arnie Ball and how that has made you the coach you are today.
I got lucky to come here. I received a scholarship to come here and I got lucky because of it. I was actually encouraged by my mother to come here. I played my first two years and we were competitive, but we didn’t get the results. Then my junior and senior years, we were really good. We only lost a total of seven matches in two years and my senior year we ended up going to the Final Four and were really, really good. We were a talented group of people.
It is interesting because I think it relates to the group I have now. What coach instilled in us was the hard work part with the talent. There is a quote I have seen a couple times that said something like talent without the work ethic or hard work is wasted talent. I have learned since the day I got here, but specifically my second, third and fourth years here. That with all of the talent, we needed to put in the hard work because if you put those two things together that is a very dangerous combination and it ended up proving its worth for us when I played here. That along with patience is necessary I think to be successful at an athletic endeavor. That is what I learned back then.
Then I got to be an assistant coach for 13 years under Coach Ball and what I learned was just invaluable. I learned not just management of players, which was really important, and practice and different things behind the scenes. But something I learned that I think has really paid off dividends this year, was the bigger picture about planning, about players, about management, about how to deal with relationships, and those things are just so invaluable. It is interesting as I look back at it now, at my junior and senior years and how much success we had, it was all of the hard work that led up to it my first and second years that is kind of mirroring the same thing we are doing this year after two brutal years my first two years as a head coach. It seems to be paying off at least.
Was it hard for you as a coach taking over as head coach and having a couple of as you said “brutal years” not too far removed from some 20-win seasons as an assistant?
People will tell you that it is hard to follow a legend, and it is. Jay Leno had to follow Johnny Carson, Colbert has to follow Letterman, I have to follow Coach Ball. When you follow a legend is hard, but I never think about it. I have never thought about it actually, I really haven’t and I think that helps. And No. 2 is that he continues to mentor me because he still comes to the gym once in a while, we still stay in a close relationship with one another, we speak on a regular basis, so I am always getting his input. He is always in my ear. I ask him questions when need be.
I think the other part to it is that the plan that I had was very simple. I thought my first year as a coach I would implement the system that I wanted to have, that I thought was needed here, which was a little bit of a course correction. But I wanted to move in a different direction philosophically in terms of some of the things we were doing. I did not think injuries were going to be a part of it, and injuries really hurt us the first year. The second year I knew we were going to be competitive, but I didn’t think we were going to get the results, because there were a lot of very good teams in our conference. And again injuries played a massive role in the outcomes of our matches, but we were competitive. I think we had eight five-set matches my second year. Then, year three I said we were going to be good and we were finally going to end up getting those results, those five set matches would eventually come our way. And year four, I thought the same thing, that we would be really good again.
It is turning into that aspect as least non-conference wise, the first month in, being 7-0, which is good. We have our last non-conference weekend in a while before we begin conference play next week. It is helping I think having a big picture and being worried about the process as opposed to the results that has led us to this point. It is really paying dividends for us and the guys have the confidence because of all the hard work they have had to put in the first two years and to overcome the obstacles in terms of injuries and players leaving our program to get to where they are currently.
Your team moved into the AVCA Poll at No. 15 this week, getting you some respect nationally. Do you have to speak to your team that your record to this point means nothing if you don’t do well in these matches?
I am a huge Nick Saban fan and I read his book while I was away on holiday in December. It is his autobiography and he talks about the strive for perfection a lot. I am a huge fan of his.
We are 7-0 and I am happy that we are 7-0, but I am not satisfied and that is what I am trying to get our players to understand is that you can’t be satisfied. It is easier to hunt than be hunted. We have put it all of this hard work to get to the 15th ranking in the country, which is an honor. This #NoRespect thing comes from the preseason polls, which I am not a fan of anyway because nobody knows you, nobody sees you.
But some of our players felt, wait a minute, what about us? We are going to be good. Well, a lot of that is based on the year previous and we only won five matches a year ago. Why would anybody have respect for us? So we wanted to go out and earn people’s respect. That has kind of been our motto and our mantra this year. We won a couple of good matches on the road against Princeton and NJIT and beat Harvard and Sacred Heart at home and we are slowly getting some respect. The problem with that is now the target gets bigger and bigger.
What challenges do Saint Francis and Penn State bring this final non-conference weekend?
Saint Francis has a fast offense. They play excellent defense. We know that we have to go in with the mindset that this is the only match that matters, the match on Friday until we get to Saturday. Saint Francis has beaten us the last two years in a row, injury or not injury, they have beaten us and we understand the type of game that they can bring and they can really cause fits. They have already proven this season that they can beat some really good teams. They beat Stanford early. We are not overlooking them because we know what they can bring. The problem is that they run a really fast tempo offense and they play really good defense to elongate the rallies, so we must not be complacent once we spike the ball.
Penn State is just big, and they are good. We played them in an exhibition this fall and lost in four sets. Two out of the four sets were 32-30 them and 33-31 them. They serve the ball very tough and our serve receive game has got to get a lot better if we want to compete with Penn State. Our offense has to sizzle and we have got to make sure we are playing defense, at the net in particular with our block. But Penn State is really, really good and they are big. We are undersized and that is going to pose a big problem for us at the net.
There is a theory that you learn more from your losses than wins. Obviously you don’t want to lose, but is there something to be said for getting that monkey off your back of being undefeated and figuring out the things you need to improve on if you do take a loss?
If you lose one or lose them both, obviously there is a lot to look at. But I also think that you can also learn from winning. Winning cloaks a lot of things, but to the coach with a keen eye or who is never satisfied, you can always find something that needs to get better. I know that we have won seven matches, but a few of those matches we weren’t very good. I didn’t think that we were crisp when we played a couple of those matches, so there are lot of areas we need to get better at: blocking being one and passing being another. Our middle production has got to get higher. So, there are a lot of things I can nitpick at that we need to get better. I like this weekend to finish off our non-conference season because it is going to mimic kind of what we are going to get into with our conference – bigger teams, quicker teams, athletic teams that we are going to have to contend with beginning with McKendree next Wednesday and Ohio State, one of the top teams in the nation, defending two-time national champion next Saturday, both on the road. It is a nice little precursor to our conference facing Saint Francis and Penn State.
Let’s talk about the MIVA. Ohio State is obviously the favorite, but what is your take on the league this year.
I know people can’t stand it when I say it, but it is the current conference of champions right now. It started with Loyola winning back to back and now Ohio State winning back to back, even though I know Ohio State won a title before that. Even though Ohio State is currently fourth in the nation, they have lost two five-set matches, one at home 16-14 to BYU and one at UCLA, 15-12 in the fifth. I think they are the best team in our conference currently. They have the best player in the country as far as I am concerned in Nicolas Szerszen. That team is very well coached and is very very good.
Lewis and Loyola follow suit. Loyola has the best middle blocker in the country in Jeff Jendryk. You will see him in 2020 on the national team in Tokyo playing for Team USA. They have gotten a lot better in terms of their offense with a big opposite who has helped them tremendously. Lewis has a really good setter (Matt Yoshimoto). Their offense is just superb. I really love the efficiency with which they run their offense and they are so well disciplined with their block. Their coach and their staff do a great job.
Those three teams are going to battle at the top and then I think you have to throw in Ball State, because they are a very big volleyball team. They can do some really damage. I think (Matt) Walsh, their middle, is the next best middle in the conference and they have a great opposite with Matt Szews. Their ball control will always cause people fits.
And then after that I think it is a really good tossup. I think McKendree, you have seen what they can do in years past – great athletes on that team, another well coached, disciplined and defensive minded team. Lindenwood is getting better. Quincy is getting better and then you throw in ourselves, which I think with a healthy team we can compete with those other teams as well. Our conference from top to bottom is legit. I don’t think there are any gimmes anymore even though the gap between Ohio State and ourselves might be a little bit big. I think we can compete with almost team in our conference and they are proving it right now with our non-conference schedule with teams going out and beating teams. Loyola going out and beating BYU. And Lewis and Loyola beating Santa Barbara and Northridge last weekend. Our conference is as good as any in the country and I still believe that you can’t take a night off because anybody can beat anybody on a given night.
Let’s talk about your team. Tony Price and Pelegrin Vargas are both back from injury and seemingly doing what they should be doing this season. How big is their return for your team?
It is huge. The two biggest things that have gotten us over the hump from the first two years to this year are that we’re healthy and we’re more mature. The health part is huge because Tony (Price) and Pelegrin (Vargas)’s presence on the court has made a world of difference, not just from an offensive standpoint but also the intangibles, serving, passing, leadership, their on-court presence; it helps boost everyone else’s play in the gym. It is just night and day having healthy left side guys. If you take away the starting left side guys from probably most teams, they are not going to do very well and that was the case a year ago with Tony going down in the first match at Irvine and Pelegrin going down halfway through the season at Quincy. It is has been great having both of them on the floor healthy and that has elevated everyone else’s play.
It seems like you are running a pretty balanced and efficient offense this season hitting .350 as a team with four players adding nearly 2.00 kills per set. Is that a product of the system or is everyone stepping up?
I think it is a product of the system. Your offense keeps you from losing and we needed to sharpen up our offense, but when you have talented pin players, volleyball matches are pretty much won or lost on the pins, especially the left. You take a look at the last four national championship teams, Ohio State with Nicolas Szerszen and Loyola with Thomas Jaeschke, the two left sides to play volleyball the last four years, it has been amazing. So we need to get our offense to where we can be competitive against those top level teams. It starts on the left, so I am glad we are healthy. Our tempo is a quicker tempo than we have been running and that seems to be paying off. I also have to throw in Colton Stone on the right side. He has done a really good job for us and I think he is averaging about 3.50 kills per set. He has done his job so it is balanced. It is not just a one-man show where teams can key on Pelegrin or Tony and shut them down and make everyone else deliver. We are trying to keep teams off balance and keep them guessing with our balanced attack.
Talk about the progression of your setter, Michael Keegan, and his ability to run that efficient offense.
Progression is a great word. The two things for him are hard work and maturity. He has matured a lot this year and the confidence is coming because he has some athletes around him that can perform. He is a hard worker from San Diego. He has gone through some lumps the last two years being young and trying to learn a new system. And it is hard when you are losing because people want to point fingers at the setter, fair or unfair, that is what happens in this sport. He has been able to take it on the chin and come back and really dedicate himself in the weight room and to getting better on the volleyball court with his maturity and how he leads and conducts himself. That has paid off this year and it shows. The other reason why he has also elevated his play is because of our backup set, Fred Santos, from Portugal. Fred has come in and elevated our practices and really pushed Michael to be as good as he can be by breathing down his neck for an opportunity to play. I think that helped Michael really improve his volleyball this season.
Is there anyone else we aren’t seeing star on the stat sheet this season or that isn’t getting high praise this season that is contributing?
Kolbie Knorr is our libero. He is a transfer from Quincy University. He is the gel and the glue of our team. He has unbelievable personality. You would never know if we are winning or losing with his personality. He eases the guys tensions, which I love a lot, and he takes pressure off our pin attackers in particular. His game is solid. His defensive game is solid and he has been a great addition to our program.
And Richie Diedrich in the middle with Tomas Gago from Chile. Richie has also matured from a year ago. He has been thrust into a really important role being the starter and being the only returning starting middle that we have since another individual ended up leaving our program. So Richie has been out there working hard to take over the next middle spot and he has done an admirable job at that. I think his serving has improved considerably from a year ago and his offense has improved tremendously. I think he is hitting over .500 mark. He is another individual that has really made our team better.
You have been quoted about your team being hungry but humble. Can you share what that means?
The hunger part comes from the fact that we haven’t had success the last two years. And you have to be hungry to be the best. You look at all the superstars playing sports from LeBron (James) to (Steph) Curry to (Kevin) Durant to (Roger) Federer, all of the guys playing at the top of their game and they are all hungry to be winners. You have to be that way. It is competition.
The humble part comes from the fact that we have had two poor seasons. Winning just five matches last year, we have been rock bottom, so we have to remain humble because we are not the best volleyball team in the country, we are not the best team in our conference, but we have to get there. In order to get there, you have to take the basic route.
It is also important that you have a swagger. You have to believe in yourself and in your teammates and the coaching staff. I am a fortunate to have a great assistant coach in JW Kieckhefer and a tremendous graduate assistant in Lindsay Brown, who just joined us this past season. It has made a world of difference because the players are believing in what we are telling them, and in our system and the hard work and it is paying off on the court. So, that is where that swagger comes from, but you can’t be arrogant about. You just have to have the belief that when you walk into a gymnasium that you are going to give your very best effort and the other team has got to play A-level volleyball in order to beat you. If they do that, you can at least live with yourself because you gave your very best effort. But, if you don’t, then it is a different story. That is what we are trying to preach here on a daily basis. We are just trying to take it one match at a time, let the chips fall where they may and hopefully come out on top more times than not.
There are so many great volleyball teams. It is great to see where college men’s volleyball is right now across the board. East, Midwest, West and then the Carolina Conference.