by Duane Cochran for FightingFalcons.com
Fairmont State standout junior outside hitter Bri Swann admits she and the majority of her Falcon teammates were caught a bit off guard by the seemingly overzealous celebration Friday evening at the Joe Retton Arena following their thrilling 3-2 victory over visiting West Virginia State.
That's because Swann and most of her teammates were unaware that veteran FSU head volleyball coach Larry Hill had just reached another milestone in his storied 29-year career of guiding the Falcons. The win was No. 600 for Hill, who became only the 14th coach in NCAA Division II history to reach the 600-win mark. He currently ranks eighth in victories among active coaches.
“We honestly had no idea coach got his 600th win,” said Swann. “No one said anything before the match. When it was over everyone was celebrating a lot and we were like, 'What's going on?' But then they announced it and we were like, 'Okay, now we get it.'
“I think we're all kind of glad we didn't know. The match was stressful enough. The funny thing is coach told us later that his 400th win came in a five-set match and his 500th win came in a five-set match. We didn't want that one to go five sets but it did. We're very happy for him, though, that he got it.”
Hill has been coaching at Fairmont State in some capacity for 43 years, but after inexplicably being passed over twice in the early 1980s for the Falcons' head football coaching job, then-Fairmont State athletic director Colin Cameron asked him to coach the school's newly-formed volleyball team in the fall of 1984.
Ironically, Hill had never even seen a college volleyball match before coaching in his first one against defending conference champion Concord that fall. But the former assistant in both football and track and field and former head coach in baseball and men's golf had an impeccable record of success and quickly parlayed that to his volleyball team. In 28 years the Falcons have had 19 winning seasons, 17 seasons of 20 or more victories and claimed four West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships. Hill has also garnered Coach of the Year honors in the league four times.
“I've had a great and very enjoyable run here,” said Hill with a smile following his team's practice session Monday. “The 600 wins is just a testament to the kids I've had in the program over the years and their hard work, hard play and determination to win.
“Our philosophy over the years has been to try to recruit good kids who are good players and then to work hard with them. It's no big secret. On the court I've been blessed with teams who, for the most part, find ways to win.”
During his career Hill's teams have produced three WVIAC Players of the Year including Jackie Burks (1988), Tracey Rowe (1989) and Courtney Fochtman (1994). Fochtman is the Falcons' only four-time, first-team All-WVIAC selection. She is a member of the FSU Athletic Association's Hall of Fame. She credits Hill for her development into a top-level player in college.
“I'm so happy to see coach Hill achieve this milestone victory,” she said. “He recruited me out of a small town in Pennsylvania, took me under his wing and showed me everything I needed to know to succeed in volleyball at the college level.
“He's a great role model and coach and an even better person. Coach is very driven. He always pushed us to be our best not only on the court, but in the classroom. He's a person who practices what he preaches. He's got a great work ethic and it obviously shows with the success he's had here at Fairmont State.”
Martha Ganoe, a two-time first-team All-WVIAC pick and the program's most recent inductee into the FSU Athletic Association's Hall of Fame, was a member of Hill's most successful team in 1990 which finished 42-13 overall and a perfect 18-0 in conference play. She also coached with Hill as an assistant for four seasons.
“Coach has not only succeeded in volleyball, but he's been a success coaching in every sport he's coached,” said Ganoe. “He took the baseball team here to a league championship, his golf team won a title and he was an assistant on some very good football teams here. I not only had the chance to play for him, but I got to coach four seasons with him and I learned so much from him during my time here. He's a winner plain and simple. He's very driven and doesn't accept anything less.”
In 29 seasons Hill has obviously seen a lot of changes in the sport of volleyball and the athletes who participate in it.
“The sport in general has evolved so much since I've been here,” said Hill. “There was a time when people would say female athletes weren't comparable to male athletes and in some ways that probably was a true statement, but not now. The girls I work with now and have worked with for the last several years are phenomenal athletes. The time and effort they put into this sport and what they do out there on the court is amazing. They're really fun and exciting to watch. Anyone who hasn't seen a college volleyball match lately is missing a treat.”
In addition to recruiting solid players, Hill has been crafty enough to surround himself with some top-quality assistant coaches in recent years including Courtney Materazzi and graduate assistant Camilo Guerci.
“Both Courtney and Camilo are going to be great head coaches some day,” said Hill. “I really enjoy working with them. The three of us have a great working relationship. We're all on the same page. No one is wanting credit for this or that and usually we're all thinking the same thing at the same time. It's really been a wonderful experience for me having them on the staff.”
Hill's 2012 team has won 12 of its last 13 matches and will take an 18-6 overall record and 6-1 league mark into its next contest Friday evening on the road in Philippi against Alderson-Broaddus.
For now he has no plans to slow down.
“Absolutely not,” he said with a laugh. “I'm having too much fun. My wife Joyce from time to time will ask me 'When are you going to give this thing up?' I'm not ready to. I love it. I have assistants now that sit in my office and talk volleyball with me all of the time. It's our love and passion. I really enjoy that. You know I sat alone in that office for years and years and years and had no one to talk to about volleyball.
“Seriously, I really have no plans to slow down. As long as I have my health I'd like to continue coaching. I honestly have a wonderful wife who for many years has supported me unconditionally and has allowed me to do something I love to do. It's been a very fun ride for me and I'm nowhere near ready for it to end.”
Win 605, which is certainly attainable for Hill and the Falcons this season, would allow him to move into 13th place all-time in terms of victories in NCAA Division II history.