Fort Lewis College volleyball coach Tricia Melfy understands how demanding she is as a coach. Her players recognize it, too. For all the workouts, practices and exhibitions that have been put into the three-week preseason, the new coach and the Skyhawks are changing the outlook of the struggling program.
Melfy has brought wholesale changes since she arrived in spring. After three months of being on her own, Melfy added an assistant coach and seven new players to a program voted to finish 14th out of 16 teams in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference preseason poll. The preparations have put Fort Lewis in a good spot heading into the season opener this week.
“In my opinion, the buy-in is there, the enthusiasm is there,” Melfy said. “I think in the first 10 days, we might have gone into the trenches like, ‘Holy moly, this is a big change, this is a lot of work.’ Maybe even some doubt. But then we’ve climbed out of it in the last 10 days, and I feel like we’re back out of the trenches and ready to move forward as a group.”
The Skyhawks had two exhibition matches as tuneups to the regular season and split the results. They were swept by the University of New Mexico two weekends ago, but rebounded to sweep the alumnae team last Saturday.
Senior setter Kendra Swackenberg said the tuneups, along with coach Melfy pushing them in practice, has seen the program come together like never before. One change has been the sheer length of the preseason. It’s been three weeks instead of a week and a half worth of practices and workouts. The other change was playing Division I opponents. It’s the little things that are becoming cornerstones for the re-build of the program.
“It’s definitely a change, but a good one,” Swackenberg said. “We played UNM last weekend, and it was tough; they’re big girls, so it was a tough fight, but we played well and we kind of broke out some of the kinks.”
Fellow senior Jessie Roukema described her preseason as “amazing.”
“It was amazing in a good way,” Roukema said. “Most people would say differently. It was a lot more difficult than the ones in the past, but it was what we needed and, so with coach Melfy, we are looking a lot better.”
Since Melfy has arrived on campus, she was mostly a one-woman show, doing everything from recruiting and scheduling to doing travel budgets.
“It’s been a huge whirlwind... but there’s a lot to do that leads up to what we’re seeing today,” Melfy said. “To do that on my own was a little bit overwhelming, but also rewarding and exciting, so I embraced the challenge.
“Just trying to get them to understand my philosophy, my culture, my expectations, it just takes time. I think it’s easy on my end because I know where it will take them, but they’re kind of nervous. You kind of check yourself everyday and ask, ‘Is what I’m doing really going to help them be successful in the RMAC?’ And I know it will if they buy in.”
The team has set a goal of being in the top eight in the RMAC this season, good enough to make the conference tournament – something the program has done only twice since 2010. The seven new players are already playing key roles. Outside hitter Ohiyah Shirley, a transfer from Northern Arizona University, is one who is expected to start, as is outside right hitter Haley Christiansen.
Melfy said that, with all of the changes, the Skyhawks have handled the preseason and are ready for the season to begin.
“The way they look and talk to me now and respond to my coaching, at first, it scared them, when we were going in to the trench,” Melfy said. “You should see the look on their faces now, it’s very different. They’ve actually, in just three weeks, with all of this, I really do believe they’ve bought in. I think they’re adjusting well. I think they’re responding well, but it took us three weeks to get us there. So, I’m very grateful for the three weeks and think we’re there now.”
Fort Lewis will begin its season at noon Friday when they will take on Westminster College in Salt Lake City in the first round of the Westminster Griffins Classic.