TOM MENDOZA: HIGHLIGHTS ON HIS ROAD TO HIGH POINT
- 2007-2008: Volunteer assistant at Michigan State
- 2009: Assistant coach at Evansville
- 2010-2016: Assistant coach at Creighton, where the team made its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 2010
- 2016: Named 11th head coach at High Point University
- 2017: High Point receives the Big South’s first-ever at-large NCAA Tournament bid
Shortly after the 2017 NCAA Selection Show wrapped on Sunday, VolleyMob identified the five winners benefiting most from the committee’s deliberations. High Point University made that list. After running the table in the Big South during the regular season, the Panthers lost to Radford in the conference tournament final, placing them squarely on the at-large bubble. From the moment it didn’t burst, the team has been scrambling to prepare themselves for their Thursday match against Purdue in Salt Lake City, Utah. VolleyMob caught up with second-year head coach Tom Mendoza to get his take on High Point’s roller coaster ride of a season.
VM: What has the end of the season been like for you and the team?
TM: It has obviously been a big week of emotions, disappointing not to finish off the conference tournament the way we wanted to, then having that chance for an at-large bid come through. I’m just really excited. I felt for the seniors because of the way the conference tournament ended after how the team had performed all year. Then to get another opportunity to stay together as a group was obviously a huge swing of emotions.
VM: How have your first two seasons at High Point compared to each other, starting with last year?
TM: They have been two very different seasons. Last year, I didn’t get to work with them at all in the spring, so our first practice was in the fall preseason. We tried to keep our concept simple, talk about why teams win and lose matches and try to change some tendencies. But overall, we didn’t try to change their world too much and that worked for us, but it also made us a little volatile. We weren’t as consistent last year. If you look at our conference record, I think we were 13-5 and that was about what we deserved—two good matches for every one bad match. But then we were able to put together a really good run and play some good volleyball through conference tournament and finish on a high note. So, obviously that was a big step for our program.
VM: How about this year?
TM: This year, we’ve been able to add more into our schemes, which has made us a lot more consistent. That allowed us to go 16-0 in the regular season and gave us a chance in the conference tournament, where we didn’t think we played two very good matches. This year we’ve been trying to get the program to understand what it takes to compete on this stage and that they’re capable of doing that. We tried to schedule very aggressive with big schools for our area—a lot of ACC and SEC teams. We had success against some of them and I think it has given our players perspective that we can compete and succeed at this level.
VM: How did everyone feel after the tournament loss? How low was the low?
TM: It was pretty tough. Obviously, we felt really bad, but as the week went on and our RPI continued to climb, it looked like we had more and more of a shot. A year ago when we went to North Carolina in the tournament, our goal was to schedule this year in a way that would make us comfortable playing that level of competition. So when we set our schedule, that was our goal. Some things obviously went our way and we were in that RPI range.
VM: Did you have a watch party?
TM: We didn’t. That was a question we went back-and-forth on. We talked about how hard it had been not to finish off the conference season when we were considering whether to get the group back together. Would it be better for everyone just to watch it where they want to watch it? How would they handle two weeks of disappointment in a row? We weren’t sure if we should protect them from that, but obviously the flip side is how exciting it would be if our name does pop up. Most of the group got together in the same place we watched it last year. The staff wasn’t there, but we were in communication the whole time.
VM: What was it like to be a bubble team?
TM: Honestly, it’s a situation I haven’t been in much as a coach. In the past, even if we were an at-large team, we kind of knew one way or the other. I know there are a lot of good teams out there. We feel like we have a group that’s deserving of this chance and I think if anyone out there is looking for a team to root for, I don’t know if they can find a better group than the one we have. They’re just such a selfless group that always puts the team first and enjoys their experience. This is a group that should be celebrated, especially competing on a stage with programs with more resources. Hopefully, we’re earning High Point fans out there.
VM: How crazy has life been since you found out?
TM: Very, especially since we play on Thursday because it bumps everything up. We found out late Sunday and now we’re hopping on a flight across the country at noon on Tuesday. We’ve had a lot of help from our athletic department—and the NCAA and Utah have helped a lot as well. We’re a small program. There are a lot of resources other programs have that we try to counterbalance, getting flights and hotels arranged at the same time we’re trying to prepare for a really good Purdue team and hopefully another match after that. That’s kind of been our last 48 hours.
VM: Have you been able to scout Purdue?
TM: A little. Obviously, we’ve looked at a lot of the numbers. We’ve also had a chance to watch some film. I’ve got the majority of their season on file and I’ve got a nice trip here today to do nothing but watch a lot of video. There’s not a whole lot else to do on a plane other than start scouting. We feel like we’ll be prepared but, like always, it’ll come down to who takes care of their side of the ball.
VM: Let’s talk about your three seniors, starting with Haley Barnes.
TM: Haley deservedly gets a lot of recognition. She does a little of everything for us as a left side. She can score a lot of points and is very high-level ball control. She has also added a jump-serve this year that has scored a lot of points. Before I got here, she was the only captain her sophomore year. So coming off her freshman year, the team elected her to be their only captain. That says everything you need to know about Haley’s leadership.
VM: How about setter Carly Jimenez?
TM: Carly is a player who has put in her time. She’s a taller setter who has continued to get better each year. She had the opportunity to set in a 6-2 system the last two years and, again, she’s one of the most selfless people you could ever ask to work with. She’s just constantly making sure our group is doing the right thing, but in a very supportive way. And that kind of leadership is tough to teach and she does it naturally.
VM: And Amy Pilat?
TM: Amy played libero for us for a majority of last season, but dislocated her shoulder right before the conference tournament, so she didn’t get to participate in the Big South Tournament or NCAA Tournament, so for her to get this opportunity again as a senior, you couldn’t ask for anything better. She’s a great teammate. Last year, when she got hurt, she didn’t feel sorry for herself. She was probably the best coach for the player who stepped in at her position. And this year, we’ve had a freshman come in [Abby Bottomley] who was named Big South Freshman of the Year. And again, Amy has been really supportive, hasn’t felt sorry for herself and has worked to compete as a defensive specialist.
VM: Would you like to give a shout-out to any other players who have been instrumental to the team’s success?
TM: There are many. Molly Livingston is a kid who has continued to get better. Some players peak in college and some peak earlier. Molly just keeps getting better and better. She hit close to .450 in the conference season and, most years, that would get you player of the year. She does everything for us from an attacking and blocking standpoint. She’s just one of those kids who works her butt off and when you’re talking about what it takes to compete on a higher national stage, I think Molly’s the type of kid you point to and say, “This is what it’s going to take as a group to get to where we want to go.”
VM: How have your past coaching experiences helped you get to this point?
TM: I think every experience is a little different. I broke into the college game up at Michigan State with Cathy George and she’s obviously a great mentor. At the time, Russ Carney was the associate head coach and I don’t know if there’s anyone who’s had more of an impact on what it means to be a professional and what it takes to coach at the college level. I also got to spend a year and a half down at Evansville, where Mike Swan ran a good program that was very much about the players’ experiences. Then I spent six years with Kirsten Bernthal Booth at Creighton. Just to watch what that program has been able to do and be a part of it has been great. People think about Creighton as this established program, but a lot of that happened in recent history. There were a lot of stages and players who came through to help build that program and it was good to see what it takes to make those incremental steps.
VM: How about your playing days?
TM: Going back to Dan Friend, who I was with at Lewis, he’s probably why I got into college coaching. I really enjoyed my experience and wanted other people to enjoy theirs. Hopefully, if you were to ask our players, they would say they’re enjoying the experience. We don’t feel like this should be some grind. We want this to be something they enjoy and look back on as four of the best years of their lives, enjoying that bond as a team and getting to compete. That was what I got from Dan Friend and why I got into college coaching.
VM: What attracted you to High Point?
TM: I saw a lot of the same things I saw at Creighton. At High Point, I saw a similar program—small athletic department that was very much about the student-athlete experience and trying to compete with programs that had more resources. I saw a lot of the positives I saw at Creighton as well as a good group that was returning a lot of starters. And, obviously, I saw a campus and school that you could recruit to. It has been a great fit.
OFF TO UTAH! We'll take on the Boilermakers on Thursday night! #GoHPU pic.twitter.com/pjA6Kk4jva
— HPUvolleyball (@HPUVB) November 27, 2017