Dec. 15, 2011
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- If the 2008 season laid the foundation and the '09 run to the Elite Eight provided the bricks and mortar, Chris Poole's building project in Tallahassee just got itself a roof.
As the head coach, architect and general contractor in charge of building the Florida State volleyball program, Poole has seen his blueprint transform from concept to reality in the short amount of time since he left his native Arkansas.
If the Seminoles were an average program before he and his staff arrived in Tallahassee and a hope-to-be title contender the last few seasons, tonight's Final Four match against UCLA on ESPN2 thrusts FSU into a national spotlight that has never shown on the 'Noles before.
"We came here in 2008 to try to build a program at a national level," Poole said. "I have to give a hand to our staff. Holly [Watts] and Gokhan [Yilmaz] have been great [and] the commitment we've had from the administration has been great. And it's allowed us to really accelerate and build the kind of program we want to build. The girls worked as hard as you could work and played their hearts out."
This isn't Poole's first project on a construction site. He first got into coaching volleyball at Arkansas State where he accumulated a 205-30 record in four seasons and parlayed that success into the same gig at the University of Arkansas.
The move to the Southeastern Conference was quite the opportunity but it came with a catch. In 1993 -- Poole's first year in Fayetteville -- there was no volleyball program at Arkansas; he was charged not just with building the Razorbacks' program but with starting it completely from scratch.
Well, a 316-161 record, nine NCAA Tournament trips, and one Sweet 16 berth later, Poole could hang his hat on the fact that he successfully orchestrated the creation and sustainability of volleyball at Arkansas.
But he wanted more.
And Florida State needed more.
Before Poole's arrival, the 'Noles hadn't won 20 matches in a season since 2002 (a feat Poole would quickly mark off his to-do list in his first season) and hadn't won an Atlantic Coast Conference championship since 1998. The Seminoles hadn't been very competitive overall since the program's all-time winningest coach, Dr. Cecile Reynaud, retired after the 2001 season but Poole saw a world of possibilities in Florida's capitol city.
"I wouldn't have left Arkansas that we had built into … really 10 of the 14 seasons there we were in the top two [in the SEC] with Florida so we already had built a nationally competitive program," Poole said. "I came here because I believed we could go even further. I believed that our opportunity to build a true national-championship level team we could do that at Florida State and that's to the credit of the university, the city of Tallahassee [and] all the things that drive students to want to go to school here."
As the first ACC volleyball team to ever reach the Final Four, Poole's decision to leave the program he created proved to be a wise one.
With the coaching help and recruiting prowess of Watts and Yilmaz, Poole transformed the Seminoles into a team built on strong blocking, a never-quit attitude and a sense of pride in what it means to be a part of the building process.
"'CP' is one of those coaches that is always going to believe in you," said Rachael Morgan, who is the lone player that has been with the coaching staff all four seasons. "When we get down to those last few points, he's not too excited and doesn't want to celebrate yet. But you can see it in his eyes that he's so proud of all of us for putting in as much work as we have.
"Gokhan and Holly are the same way. We all want to win for them and we are happy that we have made it this far. This program has done a complete 180 since they got here."
Two years later, Morgan was at the heart of the return trip to Minneapolis as a senior herself but this time she was aided in large part by the efforts of final-year transfer players Jekaterina Stepanova and Visnja Djurdevic as well as several other hand-picked and developed recruits by Poole and his staff.
Ashley Neff, Duygu Duzceler, Sareea Freeman, Katie Mosher, Elise Walch and Sarah Wickstrom will all be next year for another dash towards the NCAA Tournament and they will be aided by one of the nation's premier recruiting classes -- a class featuring four of the country's top volleyball players and one that pre-Poole FSU would probably have never signed.
"We wanted to be a national caliber [team], we wanted to be competitive with the Florida Gators, we wanted to to try to provide another opportunity for the Florida kids and we feel like we've been able to do all those things" Poole said. This is just kind of the mark that says, 'we're headed in the right direction.' It's not there yet because you need that consistency with your program and things like that but I think to be able to go to the Elite Eight two years ago and then follow it up this year with the Final Four certainly gives us encouragement that the kids we are recruiting, the scheduling we are doing [and] the things we are trying to put in place is all working."
No matter what happens tonight -- wether the Seminoles' incredible postseason run comes to an end or the team pushes even further into a new territory with a brand new set of accomplishments -- one thing is clear: the roof may be on but the sky is still the limit.