E.A. Sports Today

On-the-job trained

Rookie White Plains coach Carroll comes in with no experience in volleyball, guides Lady Wildcats into today’s regionals

White Plains volleyball coach Ben Carroll (L) goes over some practice details with seniors (from left) Jocelyn Harris, Ary Rosario and Katelyn Barnett.

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

HUNTSVILLE – Ben Carroll has always been a coach. This year, he learned to be a volleyball coach.

When Carroll was hired at White Plains this summer he’ll admit he knew next to nothing about volleyball. He had some nieces who played so he knew the basics, but the intricacies of the game were foreign to him so coaching this sport was going to be a learn-on-the-fly proposition.

For everyone involved.

The players taught the coach about the game and the coach taught the players about the things it took to win.

Without a background in the sport Carroll fell back on the basic principals of coaching. Listening to him talk, he sounded a lot of times like a football coach trying to inspire his charges.

But it’s worked. The Lady Wildcats contended for an area championship and landed a spot in the Class 4A North Regionals, where they’ll open against Haleyville Friday in the VonBraun Center.

“It’s been an awesome journey, it really has,” Carroll said. “When I accepted the head volleyball job I was talking to (White Plains principal) Mr. (Andy) Ward about it and he asked what coaching experience I had; is there anything off the table? I said no and he said I need a volleyball coach.

“I told him I love to coach. It’s not something I said in a job interview, I really do. I love to learn new things, so just getting in there and going through this journey with the girls has been an awesome experience.”

In a lot of ways, his story is similar to that of another area coach in the North regionals. Glencoe’s Jamie Barkley had no volleyball background when she took the Westbrook Christian job six years ago, but guided the Lady Warriors to the regionals each of her first three years. She has the Lady Yellow Jackets in the Elite Eight next week.

Carroll’s coaching experience is in youth football and 18U travel baseball and softball and he was transparent with the players from the start he was stepping into the unknown.

The players didn’t know what they were getting either. Candi Cronin stepped aside after a year because she knew she couldn’t be all-in with the team after committing to a new career path.

In the interim, Ward and assistant principal Rush Rutledge oversaw the off-season workouts, but the team didn’t play and everything the players were hearing about the search was “some football coach” was going to be taking over. Carroll would watch the workouts during the confirmation process, but the players didn’t know him and thought he was just some interested parent.

“We were nervous (about the season) at first,” senior Ary Rosario said. “It’s our last year, we’re getting a brand new coach, we don’t know who he is, it’s the middle of July, almost the season and we didn’t play a single game over the summer … It was a hot mess this summer.

“But we had faith in our team and we knew what we were capable of, so we were positive and were expecting the best, but we were also preparing for the worst. We had to prepare for everything that was to come, but we were expecting ourselves to play our best.”

Of course there were some growing pains, but the players were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because, as senior Katelyn Barnett said, “I saw somebody who cared about the program who wanted to make a difference in the program from the past.”

The first couple practices Carroll would simply observe – while he was getting up to speed watching various YouTube videos; if he was going to be in, it was going to be all-in. During the first timeout of the first game of their season opener when you might expect a coach to make some technical adjustment, Carroll simply brought them over for some words of encouragement. They came back and won the match.

Later in the season, after the Lady Wildcats lost an important area match to Jacksonville, he gave them another message meant to motivate.

“It’s kind of funny,” Carroll said. “My wife and son watched one of our matches and when we got home my son commented I love that you coach every sport the same, because I’d be on the court being loud and intense. I coach it with the same mentality. My philosophy is still the same no matter what I coach.

“What I believe is how players should compete, just getting the girls to understand even though we play volleyball you’ve still got to have mental toughness and drive.”

Sounds like something a football coach might say, but the players have learned to translate.

“When he says something in football terms, we know what it means in volleyball terms,” Rosario said. “We had to look at it from other people’s perspective.”

What has made it work is the players believe Carroll has the team’s best interest at heart. He scored big points when he guided the Lady Wildcats through a stretch where they had to overcome adjusting to three different setters, a circumstance that would challenge even the most veteran of coaches.

And now they’re into the postseason, which, all things considered, Rosario said, “means the world to us.”

The Lady Wildcats (21-23) punched their ticket to Huntsville with a five-set win over Hokes Bluff in the area tournament. They lost to Jacksonville in the area finals.

Carroll gives all the credit to the players for getting there because “if they hadn’t bought into it we wouldn’t be where we are now.”

So is it safe to say he’s volleyball coach now?

“Definitely,” senior Jocelyn Harris said.

“I absolutely think he’s a volleyball coach now,” added Rosario.

And it looks to stay that way.

“I told the girls I really enjoyed the year; they really made me develop a love for the game,” Carroll said. “I told them a couple weeks ago I’m in with you, are you in with me? I told them unless somebody calls me at the end of the school year and says we want you to take this football head coaching job I’m staying right where I’m at. I doubt that phone call’s gonna come because I have no high school football coaching experience.”

Cover photo by B.J. Franklin

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