Coach Quinn Lukens’ first few months instructing the women’s volleyball team wasn’t teaching passing or setting drills in the gym.
It wasn’t in the gym at all.
His coaching came mainly through his computer monitor, as the COVID-19 shutdown blocked any of his traditional coaching plans three days into the job.
Eventually, the pandemic canceled the 2020 volleyball season, but Lukens and the team carried on with practices, weight training and scrimmage games.
From Club to College
As a 6-foot, 7-inch middle blocker, Lukens is familiar with the junior college athletics landscape, spending two years at Santa Monica College playing volleyball, leading the Corsairs to consecutive Western State Conference titles.
Coming into the job, Lukens could rely on his 12 years of coaching club, mainly at the Capital Volleyball Academy, paving the way for the WolfPack.
While Lukens admits there are different ways to train a 12-year-old versus teaching a 19- or 20-year-old college student-athlete, he believes much of volleyball coaching, whether at the club or college level, is translatable.
“You’re trying to teach the game of volleyball. It’s all chances to learn how to coach the game better and manage and connect with people. It’s all one of the same with college,” Lukens said.
Last fall, the WolfPack finally got a chance to play in tournaments and regular conference games.
In addition to working through his first competitive season, Lukens gained an understanding of the work-life balance of his team. Once the competition starts, the team has a goal of competing in 30-34 matches per season, averaging about 10 games per month or more.
“I learned what the demands are, both the student-athletes and myself during the season,” he said. “There’s a lot of volleyball played in a short amount of time.”
Over the season, Lukens became acutely aware of his player’s academic course load.
“The academic demands for the student-athletes was a steep learning curve for me, trying to make sure that we give the student-athletes enough time and energy to focus on school, as well as spending time in the gym, traveling and playing matches,” Lukens said.
Badger Student Manager
Lukens’s formative years were spent as a student manager for the Wisconsin Badgers women’s volleyball team from 2012 to 2015. He credits Head Coach Kelly Sheffield and his staff, where he observed how to communicate player expectations and hold the players accountable.
“I learned how important culture and establishing expectations are,” Lukens said.
His players can back it up.
“[Coach Lukens’s] main thing is that we always had to be loud, or he would say, ‘Bring your voice,’” said setter Kaleia Lawrence. “We always had to bring our voice and pursue every ball, so that meant if there’s a ball on the floor, there had to be a body on the floor. Those expectations were set really clear.”
As a student manager, Lukens also noticed that no detail was too small.
Lukens remembers the Badger staff being meticulous with their details, including pairing players for warm-ups, ensuring their personality dynamics would not interfere with the drills.
“The idea that no detail is too small was another lesson. It’s part of my learning and growing as a coach— it wasn’t in a coaching capacity, but being around that program consistently was a huge learning experience for me,” Lukens said.
The Right Fit
Lukens takes a year-round approach to recruit players, believing there’s more to a player than a high vertical leap and excellent hitting skills.
An essential element in vetting a player is whether Madison College is the right fit academically. Because Madison College doesn’t offer scholarships, it has to be the right fit for various reasons—location, academics, athletics and costs.
Lukens says every coach wants to see players capable of encouraging and supporting their teammates and being resilient during adversity. “When you see players who can experience failure but continue to have the same level of energy, effort and connection with their teammates — that’s important,” he said.
He believes volleyball is the ultimate team sport.
“No one player can take you anywhere in volleyball,” Lukens said. With a game requiring at least one other player to set the ball, one to pass, and one player to swing, he believes outstanding playing stems from how his team connects and communicates.
Off the court, behavior is critical as well.
“What type of environment does a player help create as a teammate on the bus, the hotel or in the hallway between classes?” Lukens said.
Lawrence appreciates her coach’s holistic approach.
“Quinn has strong values, and he adheres to those values. He’s strict in saying exactly what he believes, and he makes it clear throughout the season and follows through,” Lawrence said. “There were moments where there was a miscommunication or something wasn’t being held up to standard. We would always have conversations, whether it was an apology from him or an apology from us.”
The WolfPack ended the 2021 season with a respectable 15-13, becoming more competitive towards the end of the schedule. The team’s last regular game finished positively, defeating the Joliet Wolves in four sets.
Heading into 2022, Lukens has big goals to reach Nationals and win a national championship ultimately. He admits he’s aiming high, and in the months leading up to August 1st, it’s a matter of faith in the players who can help the team.
“It’s a matter of establishing the culture that will allow us to do that,” Lukens said. “Then it’s getting the work done to be a win away from a conference title, from a national and from winning a national championship. The goal is always there.”