By Joe Scalzo
When Mark Hardaway was hired as Youngstown State’s volleyball coach in the offseason, he figured he was going to have to rebuild the program, well, the hard way.
He was the program’s third coach in four years — fourth if you count Chad Esposito, who was here for about two weeks before deciding he’d rather go back home to Charlotte, N.C. — and he was leading a team that had won three conference games in the previous two years.
“When you look at the team on paper, they only had five wins coming in, not a very good power ranking [and] we were expecting a really bad gym culture that we would have to turn around [and] not a very athletic team,” said Hardaway. “We were pleasantly surprised to find an athletic team that had a good gym culture. They were willing to work hard.
“Basically, for us it was just trying to say, ‘OK what came before us doesn’t matter. It’s all about this team and what we’re trying to do.’ And they bought in right away.”
After two losses to start the season, the Penguins (14-11, 4-7 Horizon) reeled off eight straight wins to put together their best season in more than a decade. With three regular season games left, they already have their most wins since 2000, the year before they joined the Horizon League.
Their nine-win jump is the third-best improvement in the country.
“We’ve accomplished most of our goals for the season,” said Hardaway, “but we have some we’d still like to finish.”
Junior Missy Hundelt, a 6-foot-1 outside hitter, is having an all-conference caliber season, averaging 3.33 kills and 2.79 digs per set with a .245 attack percentage. She’s one of five junior starters — the Penguins have one senior, Kelsey Wagy, who has just one start this season — so Hardaway has the pieces in place for an even better 2013.
Consequently, 2014 and 2015 aren’t looking too bad either as Hardaway’s program has a chance to gain some momentum, especially when it comes to recruiting.
“We get a little better reception from club coaches and high coaches from when I took the job,” said Hardaway. “That’s one of the big things because they have such a big impact on their players.
“When I first got here, I’d go out and they’d say, ‘Hey, I’ll talk to the kids and see if they’re interested.’ Now it’s easier where they’re calling us about some players. No one wants to come play for a team that’s not winning. It’s just a really hard sell.”