Set with different attitude, Alabama volleyball to start new era

Courtesy Alabama Athletics
Christopher Walsh

The moment didn’t happen on the first day, or even during one of the initial practices.

It took a couple of weeks. Lindsey Devine had been observing and easing her way into the new job as Alabama’s head volleyball coach, but when the players showed up one day emotionally flat and were just going through the motions in drills she had seen enough.

She let them have it.

“It was something that we hadn’t experienced before. No one has made us uncomfortable like that,” junior libero and defensive specialist Kaylee Thomas said. “It really brought us out of our down zone and had us really pushing at practice.

“It was like, ‘Finally.’”

Welcome to a new era of Crimson Tide volleyball, which is set to get under way this weekend with Alabama playing three matches in Buffalo against Marist, Colgate and the host team beginning Friday. 

Although no one quite knows what to expect from the revamped team, one certainty is that things are being done a little differently. 

The offense is being played at a faster tempo and the defense is more disciplined.

But the real change has been in attitude — what’s commonly referred to as the culture of the program.

“They were thirsty to have a different mindset and that’s what we really came in and talked to them about, investing more into each other, investing more into being part of the university and having a great student-athlete experience,” Devine said, “They were all about that.”

For years Alabama has had a good volleyball program, but hasn’t been able to finish higher than fourth in the Southeastern Conference since 2006. Under Ed Allen, who was in Tuscaloosa for eight seasons and compiled a record of 152-101, the Crimson Tide made two appearances in the NCAA Tournament and notched its first-ever victory.

Alabama also set the program record for wins in a season with 26 in 2014.

But that was five years ago. The Crimson Tide finished seventh in the SEC in 2018, and 10th the year before. Something had to change.

That something ended up being Devine. Over her 16-year coaching career at East Tennessee State she notched the most wins in program history and led the Buccaneers to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, while landing the first at-large bid in Southern League history.

Also sticking out on her resume was a graduation rate of 100 percent, plus she was heavily involved in USA Volleyball.

“Lindsey’s always been someone who likes to absorb knowledge and gain knowledge about things, things that may not always relate to on-court performance but in a round-about way do,” said Devine’s mentor Merv Mosher, who coached her at York University in Toronto.

By the way, from 1979 to 1997, his teams went an astonishing 192-17.

“She was never the best athlete in the gym, but she was a competitive individual,” Mosher continued. “I think it’s true in almost every sport that the superstars are seldom the ones who make good coaches. It’s the people who really have to work at their craft. They study the game.”

Alabama volleyball coach Lindsey Devine
Alabama Athletics

However, even after Devine was named the new coach in mid-December, Crimson Tide players were understandably apprehensive because they didn’t know what to expect. Neither did the recruits, who had already signed to join the Crimson Tide.

“Worst break ever,” freshman libero and defensive specialist Taylor Drapp told about hearing the news about Devine’s departure from ETSU, where she had initially committed.

"As crazy as it was finding out she was leaving, it turned out to be the biggest blessing for me. I was scared at first, but I love it here. It's beautiful.”

Once the coach became familiar with the revamped roster, the tweaking began with the offense and adjustments were made to the defense. The goal became just to get one percent better each day.

Discipline and effort were to become the cornerstones of the Crimson Tide, and it wasn’t long before everyone started to see results.

“Everything is just really focused on technique and drive,” Thomas said. “We always work on that, no matter where the ball falls, we’re going to always try and go get it because each time we make an effort we’re closer and closer to getting a ball that we didn’t think we could get before.”

When Alabama wrapped up the spring with a four-set victory over Jacksonville State (the teams also played a fifth set to get in a little extra work), everyone on the Alabama roster played. Granted, it was an exhibition, but it was noticeable that there was no longer a clear separation between the starters and the rest of the team.

Devine had made it clear that she expected everyone to contribute and push her teammates, regardless of the depth chart. She also let it be known that whomever worked the hardest was going to get the most playing time.

“There’s no comfortableness with starters,” Thomas said. “Everyone’s just on-edge, like in the best way. They’re not getting comfortable in their position, they’re constantly being pushed by the person behind them or person in front of them so everyone is just getting better every day.”

Nevertheless, some of the players who will be relied on the most this season stood out in that match. Senior Hayley McSparin led the team with 15 kills and a .545 hitting percentage. Sophomore Erin Curl reached double-digit kills as well, with 10 and a .400 clip. Senior Ginger Perinar hit .500 with eight kills while Thomas finished with 23 digs.

“The team has really taken care of each other this spring,” Devine said at the time. “They recognize each other for great plays and lift each other up. There’s a sense of unity within the team. That’s the biggest thing I’ve seen grow from this group over the spring.”

Among the 11 returning players include some 2018 statistical leaders like junior Doris Carter and junior Meghan Neelon. The newcomers include six true freshmen and two intriguing graduate transfers. Outside hitter Eva Borrowdale arrived from Sheffield Hallam University in England, while Brook Kuhlman was an All-American beach volleyball player at Florida State, and twice finished runner-up for the national title.

Usually volleyball players go from the indoor game to the beach, not the other way around, making this an extremely unusual situation.

So yes, it’s a team with a beach volleyball star, a graduate transfer from England and a coach with dual citizenship between the United State and Canada.

“Pretty weird formula,” Thomas said. “It just works.”