Pitt's Recruiting Coordinator Downloads on What It Takes to Play Division 1 Volleyball

Tristan: Alright! Welcome in everyone. We have with us on the line, Coach Kellen Petrone. He is with us, joining us today from the Pitt Women's Volleyball team. Coach, how are we doing today?

Kellen: Great. Great. Thanks for having me on.

Tristan: Absolutely. Thank you for making the time here. Looking forward to our first foray on the podcast here into volleyball and know that you are a great teacher to take us there. So let me just ask you from the start, we always like to get a little backstory on our guests. Tell us how you really got to this spot in your life. Being the assistant coach for Pitt Women's Volleyball. Was being a coach always in the cards for you?

Kellen: I started coaching at a young age and, you know, obviously when I was younger, I was more into playing and pursuing that part of volleyball, but I was really lucky. My first ever volleyball coach, his name was Phil O'Keeffe and he played professionally in France for 10 years. And his absolute specialty is getting kids passionate about the game of volleyball.

And so right after high school, he was coaching at a different one. I was still in the area, Pittsburgh area, going to Duquesne University. And he asked me to come help out with this team. And, we were good right away. And in the second year we were in the state championship match. And so I got hooked onto coaching as well as playing right away. And so, you know, I still was coaching for fun and I was pursuing playing more. But as I kept coaching, the more I realized that when I was done playing, this is something I wanted to do full time. And at the time, there was such a few amount of men's coaching opportunities. I knew I had to switch to the women's side to make a living. And so I stopped coaching boys high school, switched to girls, did that for a year. We had a good season and then I stopped coaching high school and actually became an assistant at Duquesne University, which is where I was attending. And so I was able to coach and be in a college gym, full time, really early. So that was great. And I actually took a... I coached college for a couple years, actually took a small break and entered the startup world for a little bit. I was still coaching the junior level. But then when our head coach Dan Fisher got hired at Pitt, he invited me down for a practice.

He said, "Hey, I want you to come see what we're doing." And he said, "You know, I'd like you to be my volunteer." And I'd had a good job coaching at the club level. And I went to the practice and I was absolutely blown away. And I just felt, had this like overwhelming feeling that day, that there was something really special happening at Pitt. And I quit my job three months before my wedding, which my wife was supportive, but obviously a little concerned to be the volunteer coach. And actually the volunteer position only lasted for a short amount of time and I got hired full time. And it turns out I was right. You know, we're entering our seventh season. We've been to the NCAA tournament four years in a row. We've won the conference three years in a row. And the last two seasons we spent most of the season in the top 10. So, my feeling that day was definitely right.

Tristan: That's awesome. We know a little bit here about the startup life and, just the fact that you, you know, put all the chips on yourself there, dropped everything and went full time. Just that short before your wedding. That's an awesome story to get behind. Now, you said you started at high school, at the high school level, club level, and obviously transitioned your way into where you are now into college coaching. What was that transition for you? Like did you have to kick it up a notch when entering the NCAA ranks at all?

Kellen: For sure. And as I've been a part of each program, as the level of volleyball and the level of the program's gone higher, I've had to put more into it. You know, what people don't realize is that, you know, how much work, outside of just your practice hours, it takes to build a successful program. And I still get the question, you know, are you a full time coach? And I'm like, "Yeah, I'm a full time coach, you know, we're a top 10 team in the country." Like there's a lot. I can't just do it part time. And so that was a, it actually took me a while to get used to that, how much work is required outside of practice to build a program. Of course there's recruiting, but it's essentially like building a small business, which I had just been going through in the startup world. And, you know, you have to manage marketing and fans and you're working with other people on your staff and you're working with your administration at your school. You're developing relationships in your community. And so, transitioning from high school where you're just going to practice essentially every day and training your team for a couple hours and having some matches to literally being your life. Yeah. We have definitely had to kick it up a notch.

Tristan: That's great though, that you can sort of draw from your past life in order to have success in the next one in terms of being a coach, though. Now when you got hired at Pitt, did the coach bring you on for any particular reason? Do you think that you bring a specific specialty to the sport of volleyball?

Kellen: Yeah. So I actually went through a transition of roles at Pitt. I originally got hired and spent the first two seasons as the Director of Volleyball Operations. And then when our recruiting coordinator left, I got promoted into his position. And, our head coach promoted me because he knew I would work my tail off on the recruiting trail. I was already showing a lot of loyalty to him. And also he knew I had a good grasp on how he wanted to teach things from an offensive perspective. And so I'm the offensive coordinator on our staff. And so, I was a setter and I spend a lot of time training our setters every day.

And so, you know, the setter on volleyball is essentially like the quarterback in football or the point guard in basketball and all of the plays run through them. They're a really important part because we need to make sure our hitters get a good ball every single time. And so, of the bump, set, spike sequence in volleyball, the setter is involved in every play. Whereas other players might not be involved in that sequence. And so defense has spent a lot of time trying to stop our offense. And then we have to spend a lot of time figuring out how to attack that team. And that's something I have a good grasp on.

Tristan: It sounds that way. I love that you use the quarterback, point guard analogy for the setter there. Maybe for some of the folks out there that aren't as familiar with the sport of volleyball, but potentially could be getting into it or playing it as a fall or spring sport while they're playing another sport. Now you said that, you were brought in as Director of Volleyball Operations, eventually promoted to the Recruiting Coordinator position. For our listeners out there that may be on the recruiting trail, maybe you want to play at the next level, tell us what that recruiting trail is like. What does it involve? How does it impact your everyday life, especially in the offseason?

Kellen: Yeah. So in the offseason, it's my main responsibility. And we have... it's similar to AAUs in terms of, we have a club circuit. And so what we'll do on weekends is we'll go to these big tournaments and we'll have a hundred courts going at once and there'll be people like girls playing all at the same time.

So as you can imagine, you walk through these convention centers, there's whistles everywhere, there's girls celebrating and screaming. And so, it's similar to that. And so for girls to make an investment into the club volleyball circuit, it means they're pretty serious. And so that's a good starting point for us. And so we'll go to these tournaments and in general, the better teams will be playing against the same teams. And so we'll try to identify talent there. But, you know, literally you can, sometimes I'll be watching a court and I'll hear a girl hit the ball behind me really hard. And then that's how we've discovered a player. And so that's been like the fun part. It's like, Hey, I didn't even know about this player. Now I see you're crushing the ball. So that's really fun.

Now, recruiting a surrogate is a little bit different than basketball and football. We recruit a lot younger. Females develop physically earlier than males. And so we can identify a girl that's physically advanced from a young age. Now we can't contact them until after their sophomore year, on June 15th, which is right around the corner for us. So that's something that we've been prepping for, right away. And so what we look for is, you know, we want it all. We want a girl that can jump high and hit hard and, is a great competitor. but what we specifically look for at Pitt is girls that can crush the ball. They have a really great arm. And so, you know, it's just like looking for a pitcher that can throw a hundred miles an hour. And so, if you watch our team, you'll notice that everyone on our team can crush the ball.

Tristan: I'll bet. And especially if the level that you're coaching that no doubt. now you've mentioned them actually investing into a club team is a great starting point because it just shows that they are committed to playing this sport full time and potentially playing at the next level. Can you tell us a little bit more about what, how they can potentially get involved in those club circuits, and what that experience is like for you?

Kellen: Yeah. So, you know you get involved... there's club, essentially a club... The country's broken down in different regions. And so USA Volleyball has is the governing body for the different regions. And so, looking on USAvolleyball.org is a good way to start finding what clubs are in your area. As well as just asking local high school coaches. And I'm sure if you're on a decent team, there's someone that will know what clubs are in the area. This is the one thing I'll share is what we're finding, in terms of you talked about an investment, is that one of the things that we've been really spending a lot of time figuring out with our recruits is how much do they love volleyball and to play at a high level, you have to really love it.

And everyone says they love it, but the social capital of being good at sports so high, a lot of times people will just continue playing cause they get a lot of attention or they're trying to get a scholarship. And so, what we look for is like, can we dig deep by getting to know them and getting to know like all the people around them? See how much they actually love the sport. And so, you know, getting involved in club volleyball and traveling every weekend to a tournament is a good way to show that like, that's a good starting point. But we'll do anything to find players and we'll recruit, we recruit internationally. We'll spend time just at home looking up lists or looking up YouTube videos or calling people saying, "Hey, if you have any players that you think can play at our level..." And so first and foremost, we go to club tournaments. Second, we're doing literally everything we can to find, find the best players that we can.

Tristan: Got it. So now you're talking about what you're doing here in the offseason. What is your typical offseason schedule like from a recruiting basis? And let's just get into it here. How has it been affected by the pandemic and everyone really distancing and staying inside and maybe not hosting as many of these tournaments. How has that being affected?

Kellen: So, a lot. And so, we at this time of year are on the road every single weekend. And then we'll go to watch specific kids train during the week. And so when you go from being on the road, watching these players every week, weekend to not seeing them at all. It's really a big shift for us.

And, one of the things that we wanted to do is we wanted to come out of this time way better, and it's been challenging. We haven't been able to see the players develop. For instance, if we're trying to say, "Hey, is this... we want to see how this player develops in a certain area of their game." We haven't been able to do that because we're not watching them play and they're not training, so they're not getting better. So, we have really taken this time to. You know, get to know players a little bit better, but also develop how we want to approach players. And so we're way better positioned with recruiting then we would have been without this time at home. You know, we've really cleaned up our presentations and how we want to communicate with kids. We've figured out different ways to find players. We've developed relationships with scouts overseas. And so it's obviously been a big challenge, but I don't think it's really slowed us down a lot during this time.

Tristan: Well, that's good to hear. I'm glad that you folks are making the adjustments necessary. So let's, look toward more towards the season here a little bit when it all kicks off. How do your workouts really change from off season to in-season? Let's make it like you do have these contact with the kids and everything is up to speed. Does it kick up a notch? Does it kind of mellow out a little bit? Because you're trying to keep them in shape for the entire season and not really tire them out or make them hit a wall too early. And also, how do you incorporate weights? Does any weightlifting come into play offseason versus in season?

Kellen: Yeah. So to address the strength and conditioning... We did something new last season that we thought was really impactful for our athletes and we ended up having our best season yet. We won the conference, the ACC for the third year in a row, and we're actually ranked second in the country most of the year. And this obviously was a huge benefit. We did what's called micro-dosing. And so in the past we would do two longer lifts a week. Obviously in season isn't a big, you know, you're not making big gains in your strength and conditioning. You do if you're not, you know, we will push our players that aren't playing as much, a little harder in the weight room and they'll do actual workouts. But we were just trying to maintain. So this year, what we did was before every practice we did a 20 or 30 minute lift. And so that's called micro-dosing and our girls loved it. And so they felt stronger. They were coming down to practice warmed up already. There's some hormonal benefits. If you're producing testosterone every day, you're going to be more competitive. You're going to get stronger. And so that's something that we wanted our athletes to do. In the offseason, we're spending a lot more time in the weight room. So they'll lift three times a week and then spend time conditioning two days. And so we're really pushing them to get stronger and jump higher and hit harder. The only thing that's different on the court is depending on how much time we have. The NCAA allows eight hour blocks of training or 20 hours. And when we're in an eight hour block, we're only allowed to do four hours of skill instruction. In 20 hour blocks, feels more like a season, but in our program, we go hard every day. And so there's no like light days or hard days, it's just more of like long or short. And so during the eight hour block, we still go just as hard as we normally do. We just are limited on the amount of time we can. And then when we're in a 20 hour block, which is similar to season, we're going really hard and pushing the girls.

Craig: Got it. And the way you train in those blocks, would you say that there's some things that you do differently from other elite programs?

Kellen: I think it's what I spoke to earlier. I think we really put a premium on developing whole players. And so, here's an example. In college women's volleyball, you're allowed 15 substitutions in one set. And we play best of five. Internationally, you're allowed six. And so you can't have all these players in and out all the time. And so what you'll see in NCAA women's volleyball is you'll see like a really tall athletic girl go across the front row and be an attacker and then have more of a ball control player come in the back row for them. And so what you're finding is you're finding these front row players are never developing the back row skills. And in general, the back row players aren't physical enough to play in the front row at a high level. We have had developed what we call six rotation players in our gym, and that's something that just goes into our style of training and playing. And so the six rotation players contact the ball so much across a set, we want really skilled ones.

And, so that's something that we've noticed that we do a little bit differently. And we also feel like we're positioning our girls really well for a professional career in Europe, because in Europe, you have to play, you can't come out. And so if they're more trained and they're more used to never coming out, they're going to be a much better position to play professionally.

Craig: Okay. Got it. And so, another question related to recruiting. Is there anything that youth athletes can do, you know, to really get your attention or get the attention of other elite programs? You know, I think of some of the highlight tapes that we see in football or basketball as an example. Is there a similar process in women's volleyball?

Kellen: Yeah. So we get emails every day with highlight reels and, you know, some simple advice would be to, "Hey, put your best clips first." And in general, if you're an attacker, put your hitting first. That's what we want to see. It also allows us to evaluate pretty quickly if you're a fit for us or not.

And you know, but the number one thing that gets our attention is when we see these athletes who want to be recruited by us, take the time to get to know our program and actually write the emails themselves. And so there's so many services that will write stock emails for you. We see parents writing emails for these kids all the time, but when we have a big game, and I get an email that night or the next morning and says, "Hey, coach, just want to congratulate you and your big win last night." That's someone I'm going to remember. And so that's the main thing, I think, just to take the time to get to know the programs you're interested in, besides the, course, the highlight tapes as well.

Tristan: Sure, the little personal touch never hurts anything. That's for sure. Well, you touch on a little bit of tech there. We here at Hustle always love to use tech in our training specifically. I want to know how do you incorporate technology into your workouts with your team, with their training routines? And how do you see the future of it moving potentially?

Kellen: Yeah. There's two things that we do daily and we think really help the development of our athletes. One is, we have like a TiVo on each court, which has a video loop. And so for instance, the setters I'm working with can set three balls and immediately go watch those three while they're waiting for the other setter to get their reps. And so, you know, they're not just waiting, they're actually learning by watching themselves. And so we'll have these big screen TVs with video loops that we use all the time. And then the other thing that we use is a program called Volley Metrics and it's phenomenal. And so we tag every action that they do during a practice, mostly in six-on-six. And so by the time they take a shower and get back to their dorms or their apartments, they'll have the ability to pull up practice from that day, type in their name, and see only their actions. And so they will be able to see, in 10 minutes, you know, their actions over a two hour time period. Because let's be honest, they're not going to go home and watch a two hour practice. Right? And so, but if they can type in their name and they can just see what they're doing, that's really great. And they're going to do that. And even further, if they're working on a specific skill, they can pull up just that skill. So say I want to work on my attacking footwork. They can type in attacks and just watch their attacks from that day. And Volley Metrics also gives us a library to professional videos as well. And so they can watch people in their position at the highest level, on national teams during the Olympics doing that skill as well. And so that's something that's been super valuable to us and we take it a step further. We comment to them and they comment to us through the platform as well. And so they'll say, "Hey coach, I really liked this block move to my left. This is what I've been working on. What do you think?" And so it creates a dialogue outside of the gym, if they want to have it.

In terms of the future of volleyball, you know, I know people are working on this, I don't know how they're going to do it, but just automatic tracking of what's happening on the court would be phenomenal. And so the tagging, we have to type in every action that happens, but what if that was able to do it automatically? And so that would be something that I know people are working on. The implementation of it, obviously there's going to be some challenges, but that's something I can see happening in the future for sure.

Tristan: Sure. Yeah. It seems like we see that a lot on an NFL Sunday. We see that real time tracking, but to a different degree I'm sure, on the volleyball court. And Volley Metrics, that just sounds like, the Hudl equivalent, so to speak, for volleyball. So that's awesome to hear...

Kellen: They're actually owned by Hudl.

Tristan: There you go. Yeah. That's right in line there. Well, good. Well, coach, I'm glad that we were able to make this time here today. And before we let you go, we want to get into something we do with all of our coaches and players. It's a little rapid fire round. We're just going to shoot some questions at you. You're the setter. Just set it right back up to us and we'll get it going from there. Sound good?

Alright. I'll start where I always start. What is your favorite sports movie of all time?

Kellen: Oh boy. Miracle.

Craig: Any YouTube channels or coaches putting out content that you'd recommend people look at to see some interesting skills?

Kellen: Yeah, I think, for higher level coaches, a former tech coordinator for the women's national team, Joe Trinsey. He is putting out some phenomenal content right now. And I think his website ScoutVB.com. And then, you know, The Art of Coaching does a phenomenal job, really breaking down the skills and for all levels. So those are the two I'd recommend.

Tristan: Got it. Now let's say that you are warming up for a big game here. What's playing through your headphones? What's the best pregame music?

Kellen: Just because I got so fired up listening to my neighbor play the song, Sweet Child of Mine. That was like, that was yesterday. I was like so fired up. I was like, I would love to hear this before a game.

Craig: That's awesome. Any other volleyball coaches you want to give a shout out to?

Kellen: I want to give a shout out to two. I'm going to give a shout out to Anders Nelson from Kentucky. He just was Recruiting Coordinator for the number one class, recruiting class in 2020. And, I want to shout out to Casey Kreider from University of Miami who's doing some phenomenal stuff with motor learning right now.

Tristan: Fantastic. All right. We'll close it out here. let's say that you just finished up that game that we were just talking about there. What is the best post-game meal for you? How are we recharging?

Kellen: Post game meal for me as a coach, pizza. For athletes. Yeah, we want them eating a little healthier than that. So, we want them eating just the sandwich and some fruit and veggies for sure.

Tristan: Got it. Yeah, keep it simple. Don't do anything that's gonna cause anything to come back up the next day at practice. I'm sure. Well, coach I'm sure glad that you were able to join us here today as I said. Again, it is Coach Kellen Petrone of the Pitt Women's Volleyball team, Assistant Coach and Recruiting Coordinator over there at Pitt volleyball. Really appreciate your time here, coach. Real quick. Give us that social handle in case folks want to go out there and check you out and follow you real quick.

Kellen: I'm on Instagram and Twitter. Kellen. K-E-L-L-E-N. Pitt. P-I-T-T. VB. So @KellenPittVB on Twitter and Instagram.

Tristan: There you go, go ahead, give him a follow and make sure that you are keeping up with what Pitt Women's Volleyball is going to be doing this season. I'm sure it's big things, especially leading off of last season. Coach again, one more time. I appreciate it. I'm sure we'll check in with you down the line and hope that everything goes well and hope that we're able to get everything up and going relatively soon here.

Kellen: Same. Thanks guys. It was an honor to be on with you.