Leading up to the NCAA Tournament matches, VolleyMob is sitting down for a brief conversation with the head coach of each of the seven remaining teams for a quick update on their season, their personnel and their outlook heading into the final matches of 2018.
First up, we chatted with Ryan Booher, eighth year head coach of the King Tornado. King went 23-5 in the regular season and will be making its NCAA Championships debut after winning the Conference Carolinas Tournament title and the league’s automatic berth.
Coming into Thursday’s play-in match with Ohio State, the Tornado have won 12 straight matches, including a 3-0 sweep of Barton in the Conference Carolinas title match. During the season, King faced off with then-No. 4 UCLA, No. 6 Loyola and No. 7 Lewis, all on the road, in addition to its league slate.
The Tornado, which went 28-4 and tied for the league’s regular season title in 2017, are led by senior outside hitter Jeff Sprayberry and senior right side Kiel Bell, and are just two years removed from an 8-24 season and eighth-place Conference Carolinas placing.
King leads the nation in opponent hitting percentage, holding foes to a .146 clip. The team also ranks ninth in digs per set (9.91), 11th in aces (1.57 per set), 13th in hitting percentage (.286) and 14th in blocks (2.35 per set).
To get the lay of the land on all things King volleyball, we bring you our conversation with Coach Booher.
Nine years ago, you were named the interim head coach and now here you are taking the program to its first ever NCAA Tournament. Talk about that journey and the ups and downs it took to get here.
It has been a journey. I took over a team that was very talented and my second year, well really my first full year, we made it to the conference championship and just fell short. Then, it seemed like we just had everything – injuries and just no good luck for a while, until the past few years. And then, just a change in the philosophies of how we did things and the mentality of the guys over the last four years and we got lucky with some great recruits and it has been a whirlwind turnaround. From two years ago going 8-24 in an injury-riddled season to now winning a conference championship, it has been one of those great journeys.
Being so close last year, tying for the regular season title and just missing that first NCAA Tournament berth, did that set a fire under the team or was this season just a natural progression for your program?
We really felt like we left unfinished business last year and we needed to finish what we started. Last year, we really felt like we were good enough to compete and win the title and then we fell short and it just sort of lit a fire under my seniors and the fact that they didn’t want that to happen again. The mentality all year has been we are not done. We still have more to do this week, but it was a relief after Saturday to say that we accomplished what we set out to.
When you look at your season thus far, you had a few learning experiences along the way against some top-tier teams. Do you think those matches have prepared you for what you are going to face in the NCAA Tournament?
I really hope so. We went out and played some top-notch teams, UCLA, Loyola and Lewis away and we lost, but we gained a lot of experience. In a couple we competed really well and hung around, so I thought that was a confidence boost for us. I think going into playing Ohio State, a top-tier team, hopefully it will prepare us not to be shocked against that kind of competition.
And you had to play in front of some pretty hostile road environments, so the crowds should be a factor for you…
Exactly, but actually I think we play a little better when there is a big crowd against us.
When you look at the last month, you have won 12 straight matches, you knocked off Barton, who was probably your biggest rival in the conference tournament. What has been different the last 12 matches? Do you feel like your team has finally hit its stride or that the season has been building to this?
I think we made a couple of small lineup changes – not like the other guys were playing badly – and it seems like things have just gelled really well adding Sean Luhmann into the outside position and little bit of a mixture of Leo DeQuadros and Ryan DeLong at libero. It just gelled and sort of fit. I felt like it just really clicked and we haven’t looked back since. It is one of those coaches things where it is like, this is working so we are going to stick with it.
When you look at the Conference Carolinas title match, you didn’t just win, you won 3-0. Was that kind of redemption for your team and does it give you a bit of gravitas heading into the NCAAs?
We were expecting to have a big battle and we just came out so focused and I think it caught Barton by surprise a little bit. It was very gratifying to win and almost get that monkey off our back a little bit, as they say.
Let’s talk about your personnel a little bit. Probably the most known player is senior outside hitter Jeff Sprayberry, who does a little bit of everything for you (3.70 kills, 1.43 digs, 33 aces, while hitting .294). Then you have another senior Kiel Bell on the right side (3.07 kills, 2.53 digs, 24 aces, while hitting .291). What do those guys bring to the table in terms of leadership and what they are doing on the court?
I have to brag a little bit on all of them. They all have different things that they bring. Jeff is very confident, but he is that guy who will pick the team up and take them if they need it. He is a great teammate about communication and keeping everybody’s mind right and doing the little things. He is just that guy that when we set him the ball, we know he is going to put it away. He exudes confidence, but not arrogance.
Kiel is just a constant leader, always talking, always helping the young guys. He probably has one of the greatest volleyball IQs of any guy I have ever coached, just as far as knowing the game. He just loves to play.
Then you have Nick Drooker (Sr., S) and he is just the leader, the driver of the group. He makes sure everybody is focused and knows what their job is and that he is just going to take them and build around them.
Then you have people like Adrian Besson (Sr., MB), who are just the energy. He is all energy and brings that to the group.
It is a great mixture to have. They all work really well together, but in different ways.
I am sure it helps to have Jeff opposite Kiel and have two strong hitters on opposite pins, especially against a team like Ohio State.
I feel like we are fairly balanced in our offense. We can go to both sides, to Jeff or to Kiel, and then if they cheat to them, we can run our middles. One of the things I have always wanted in a team is a good balanced offense and not to just depend on one player.
Blocking is going to be key against a team like Ohio State with a balanced offense like yours. What do you see in Jon Wheaton (1.13 blocks per set) and Dalton Johnson (1.19), that can maybe contend with those types of players that are seasoned veterans?
It is going to be tough for us, but Jon and Dalton are really tall and athletic and they read really well. And if they don’t read the set well, then they use their athleticism to cover. And they both press really well and take away space, which is what we really need to do especially Thursday.
Let’s talk a little about Thursday. I am sure you are familiar with the program and Coach Hanson as it seems like they are perennial national power. Do you have to have a different mindset going up against the two-time defending national champion or do you just try to look at it as another match and another opportunity?
I would love to say it is just another team and another opportunity, but they are the two-time defending champion. We have much respect for their program and what they do and they have some phenomenal volleyball players. Of course we are going to go in and treat it like another game, but we know that we are going to have to play at our top level to compete. Not to put any pressure, but if we do, that will be great and I think it will be a fun match.
What do you see in Ohio State and how can you contend with them? Give me a mini-scouting report.
They serve very aggressive and very well, so we have to serve receive well. They have one of the best outsides in the country as well as some other great pieces as well, so we have to frustrate them – get touches, be scrappy defensively and then we have to attack on our serve as well and try to get them out of system as much as possible.
When you get to this stage of the season, everybody is good. How do you prepare your team for that? How do you take the intimidation factor out of it, if it exists?
We just have to go into it and say ‘hey, we are supposed to be here. We are one of the seven left, so you should have confidence in that.’ And then just go out and play our game and don’t let any outside factors affect us. Let’s play King volleyball. Have fun, enjoy the moment and go out and prove yourselves.
It may be a little early to ask this question, but if Thursday doesn’t work out the way you hope, has it been a great season for King volleyball? Are you satisfied with how it has turned out so far?
Win or lose, it has been a great season, but as I told the guys in practice yesterday, we are not done yet. We are not going to treat this like – oh this could be our last. We are going to go into this match and give it everything we have got and then afterwards, we will deal with the results. I have much respect for Ohio State, but we want to go win and we want to get to UCLA.
Is there anything else you want to share about your team that people who haven’t followed your team this year should know?
We are one big volleyball family. We had our alumni come back for the championship game and they were just so enthusiastic and loud in the crowd. We are one big family and we love volleyball. I hope that is one thing people notice about our team: we play together, we play as a team.