Like any coach taking over a program, Dawn Sullivan had to believe in her abilities at improvisation.
And since her new gig was in Las Vegas, it made sense she needed to be comfortable on stage.
After a 13-year career as an assistant at Iowa State, Sullivan last January took the top job at UNLV, excited for the chance to run her own show but having to play catch-up in every respect, including talking to her new players on the phone before ever seeing them in uniform.
With everyone anxious to shed the baggage of an 8-23 record in 2017, the Rebels are pulling in the same direction. They’re now 19-8 overall, and at 10-6 are tied for third in the Mountain West.
The Rebels, who had won four in a row before losing to second-place Fresno State this past Saturday, have a tough task as they finish the regular season at league-leading Colorado State and then Wyoming.
But for a team that was picked to finish dead last — 11 out of 11 — in the Mountain West preseason poll, this has been quite a turnaround.
“We are in nice position, because we still have the ability to do something great … or we won’t. But the opportunity is in front of them, and that’s pretty unique, because not every program can say that,” Sullivan said.
“I’m a competitor, and I say what better time to play them here at the end with nothing to lose? At first, I was definitely swimming and sometimes even today, I feel like I’m swimming. But that’s the fun part, trying to figure those things out — this team has grabbed a hold of everything we’ve presented them, and that’s the No. 1 thing I’m most thankful for. They want to be successful and are willing to do what it takes.”
With just one senior, middle blocker and France native Elsa Decamps (202 kills), the turnaround by the Rebels just gets more interesting the more you dig.
After one setter left the program and another got hurt, Antonette Rolda has assumed the full-time gig in this, her third year at a different school. Sophomore Mariena Hayden has 456 kills (4.43/set); freshman Kate Brennan has 214 kills (2.02/set), and Sullivan has an array of outside hitters who seem to take turns having the hot hand.
Arguably, the most difficult stretch came with road losses to New Mexico and Air Force, but the roster featuring three freshman and eight sophomores has more resiliency than you’d predict.
“Every time we step on to the court with this group, we have to really refocus, no matter what, to make sure we are focused on the right things and the details. For some, maybe (Air Force) was a turning point, but I feel like every time on the court is a turning point,” Sullivan said.
“You have to remind them why they are playing, what they’re playing for and how they will get there. It’s very detailed, and that’s helped this group stay on task. We just talked about that, what we want to accomplish, and it wasn’t about what we want to win. It was about the little details we have to do every time.”
The 6-foot Hayden (a Minnesota native who played club for Northern Lights) has developed into a full-rotation force after a solid freshman year where she had to cope with very few wins and no way to run home for a restorative weekend.
“It was pretty hard, but once we got Dawn in, we felt pretty confident it would change the program around. We definitely had the mindset we didn’t want a year like last year, being last in the conference,” Hayden said. “(Transferring) crossed my mind a few times, but there’s no doubt when Dawn came here and things started changing that I would stay.
“We’ve talked about how these last four games (including Thursday’s home sweep of San Diego State) are some of the biggest of the season … We just have to keep our composure and take care of things on our side, and we should be OK.”
Being OK and feeling right about the plan was Sullivan’s primary concern when she decided to take a head coaching position. For a person with Midwest roots (she played at Kansas State) and four young children, the thought of Las Vegas was almost disqualifying by itself.
But she took great comfort in the pitch made by athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois, and then was moved by what she saw for herself.
“I felt ready for a head-coaching position and had looked at a couple situations, but nothing yet had clicked. When they called about UNLV, I thought ‘Vegas and my family, uh, don’t think so.’ ” Sullivan said. “Las Vegas is not what I expected. People say it’s the Strip and what people put on TV, but that Las Vegas is a little bubble in the middle of it all. It helps with relationships for the school, but the campus is totally different. It’s got grass, it’s pretty, it feels like a campus that feels enclosed.
“The volleyball, this was a hidden gem. It had the facilities and the support. Create the relationships and the fans will follow. With the right staff, I felt I could do something at this program.”