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By Jocelyn VerVelde, TTU Sports Information Coordinator
Editor's Note: The following is the cover story on the September/October issue of unlimited magazine. Coach Dave Zelenock's Golden Eagle volleyball team plays its first home matches of the year this weekend, hosting Murray State Friday at 7 p.m. and Austin Peay Saturday at 2 p.m. Admission is free.
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- Whether diving into a pool or diving into a new opportunity, there are two options: sink or swim. Dave Zelenock, the new head volleyball coach at Tennessee Tech, would prefer to swim, and so far he has navigated his way as well as Michael Phelps swims the butterfly.
In January of 2013, Zelenock was hired as the newest head volleyball coach of the Golden Eagles, and he moved to Cookeville with his wife Jamie, their son, Jacoby, who was five months old at the time, and their two schnauzers, Lexi and Buddha.
“The first two months were a blur,” said Zelenock. “Between learning the ins and outs of Tennessee Tech and learning the team and finding out how to best train them for the 2013 season, I was also trying to recruit based on what I thought the team would need. During all of that I was trying to find a house for my family, while we stayed in a one bedroom apartment with two dogs and a then five-month-old.”
Personally, Zelenock’s family adjusted pretty well.
“My wife fell into a job pretty quickly, which was great. My son, Jacoby, attends a great daycare that we are so thankful to be able to take him to. The dogs are even enjoying the warmer weather. My wife and son are still getting used to how nice everyone is. Being from the north, it’s not normal for strangers to come up and talk to you or want to talk to the baby. Being a coach for so long, I’m very used to talking to anyone, so that hasn’t been too big of a culture shock for me.”
Zelenock’s recruiting started off swimmingly, as well, landing a recruit within the first week alone.
"The first major thing I did was recruit a setter for this upcoming season. I got to campus on a Monday and Sharon Anderson visited that Friday. I think she committed less than a week later, which was huge for us."
He was also able to bring in three more athletes to finalize the 2013 class.
“For 2013 we picked up Sharon within a week and Irem Sile within a month. Rachel Travis was already in contact with the previous staff and loved TTU so that was a no-brainer to bring her in. Kennedy Wade was our last commitment for 2013 and again was a kid who wanted to come to Tech and we found that our goals were the same.”
A few months later, he was able to put the finishing touches to the class of 2014.
“Luckily at my last school [Central Michigan University], I did a bulk of the recruiting, so even though I was already done with the 2014 class when I left there, I knew a lot of kids who were still available. Our 2014 class is very athletic and we are really excited about them. We can’t wait to get everyone signed so we can announce them to the world. Within three months we had eight kids committed to TTU, which is not easy by any means. It took hours on the phone and in the office but it’s going to be well worth it.”
Though the transition started off well, Zelenock, as expected, had “pre-game jitters”.
“I was equally excited and terrified [about taking the job] at the same time. I went from being an associate head coach at the school I graduated from, a school where I knew everyone and how to do everything, to becoming a head coach in a different part of the country where I didn’t know anyone, or how to do anything at that school.”
Changing schools, conferences, and states was expected to be a challenge but it was made much easier with a strong support within the Ohio Valley Conference community as well as within the Tennessee Tech community itself.
“Changing schools was pretty easy. The staff and administration at TTU has been great to work with. They have taken care of so many of the little things for me that it is probably what gave me the time and ability to bring in such great recruits. Everyone in the conference has been in touch with me to welcome me and offer help, which is amazing. It seems as though there is a real unity within the OVC coaches. Transitioning from an assistant coach to a head coach hasn’t been too difficult. I was doing a majority of the training and recruiting at my last school as well as some other tasks. The biggest thing I’ve had to adjust to was managing the budget. Luckily I’m a bit of an excel nerd so I have a good handle on that.”
Another experience that came with some adjustment was meeting the team. Having been given the green light to what was needed with the program, Zelenock understood the tension that was posed when meeting the team.
“When I first met the team, it was a lot different than what I was used to. Most of my former players have always been very comfortable around me, but the team here was very nervous and cautious early on. There was a lot of uncertainty about if any players would be leaving, what we were doing from a staff standpoint, and how things would work in the gym. So it’s understandable that they were a little nervous.”
Though in the end, several of the names on the backs of the jerseys will be familiar to Tech fans, the team had to endure a lot of changes. Jerseys changed. Practice gear changed. Practice mentality changed. Training changed. Zelenock also brought in two brand new assistant coaches. Almost everything within the program changed, the only thing that didn’t change was the name on the front of the jersey and the school the players represent, Tennessee Tech.
And how did the players respond?
“With almost everything, they were all in for changes,” Zelenock said of the team’s response to the changes. “This group is so hungry for success they were willing to try everything I threw at them. I’m very aggressive in a lot of the ways we operate so there were some growing pains trying to adapt to it and we are still going through some of that now.”
Senior outside hitter Natalie Penrod agreed with Zelenock’s view of the team’s response to the changes.
"Overall, I think the team has bought into the new coaching styles and changes,” said Penrod. “It was either continue with what we were doing and lose games or buy into Coach Dave's system, work our tails off, and see what happens. Some of our old habits are sticking more than others, but Coach Dave is going a great job of being patient and slowing things down so everyone is on the same page. As a group, we want to win. We are all very competitive and passionate about our love for the sport. We want to show the fans and supporters of TTU what we are capable of."
Throughout the transition, Zelenock couldn’t be more thankful for those who have helped him stay afloat so far.
“At TTU, the administration of [Director of Athletics] Mark [Wilson], [Assistant A.D.] Tammie [McMillan], and [Associate A.D.] Frank [Harrell] has been great. I am the type of person to ask 1,000 questions, and they are very patient and are always willing to help. As I mentioned, the staff here has been great too, Patrena, Kim Nash, Kim Meredith, Sandy, Mandy, Leveda, Tyler, Dexter, Rob, Kevin…I could go on all day and I’m sure I’d still miss someone who has helped me tremendously. If I missed you, please know how grateful I am. Aside from TTU, I have some coaching friends whom were great to bounce ideas off. Then, of course, my wife, she is the most supportive person I know. Going home to her and Jacoby even if it was for a short time, before I went right back in was a lifesaver. “
As the 2013 volleyball season gets underway, the Golden Eagles are excited to put their changes to the test.
“I’m looking forward to just getting out there and seeing what the team can do,” Zelenock said. “They have made huge strides and we feel like we can compete with everyone on our schedule. The staff is just itching to get to the first tournament and see how they react to live play.”
Penrod cannot wait, either.
“It's been a refreshing experience,” said Penrod. “The atmosphere, new coaching staff, and the team charisma have turned this page in such a positive direction. Every time we step on the court, we’re trying to get better. Every time we have a chance in practice or in a game, it’s to get better. We, as a team, want to prove to the OVC and Tennessee Tech University that we are better than what we have been in the past."
Every approach to the edge of the platform in a diving competition is an opportunity to impress the judges and earn a high score. Zelenock has taken off and executed a forward dive, entering this opportunity with confidence and focus, and will continue to dive right into each opportunity he’s presented.