When Matt Botsford took over as head of Florida Gulf Coast University’s volleyball program in 2014, he brought along impressive assistant-coaching experience working on the staffs of some of the nation’s top collegiate programs.
What he couldn’t bring with him was the talent needed to compete not only in the ASUN Conference, but as a national NCAA Division I mid-major force. He had to recruit that himself.
“Coaches are 100-percent reliant on their personnel, and you need to attract the appropriate talent to go after the goals you have set. That takes time,” said Botsford, a former collegiate player himself at the former Tri-State (now Trine) University who was an assistant coach with five programs before coming to FGCU, most recently at Colorado State. “Each year we got a little closer, and we finally got the talent where we needed it.”
Five seasons, 116 wins, and the program’s first ASUN championship and NCAA regional victory later, it indeed appears Botsford’s ability to recruit top talent to FGCU matches his ability to coach it. This past season signaled the program’s true arrival — a 27-7 record and ASUN title that included the Eagles avenging their only conference loss in 16 games by beating Kennesaw State in the championship match, then following with an upset over Central Florida in a first-round NCAA pairing on the Knights’ home court that erased two losses to UCF in the regular season.
“We’ve been able to attract some high-level student-athletes here, and it has put us in a good position,” said Botsford, who not surprisingly was named ASUN Coach of the Year.
The “high-level” roster starts with the two most recent ASUN Players of the Year: Cortney VanLiew, a sophomore outside hitter who in 2018 became FGCU’s first American Volleyball Coaches Association Division I All-American; and outside hitter Amanda Carroll, the 2017 conference MVP whose senior season in 2018 was cut short by a knee injury the second week of play, but who has been granted a medical redshirt for 2019 as a graduate student.
“It’s pretty nice when you have two players of the year on the floor,” Botsford said.
Although the Eagles lose graduating right-side hitter Sharonda Pickering, who joined VanLiew on the AVCA All-Region First Team; and setter Maggie Rick, the ASUN Scholar Athlete of the Year and its 2018 Winner for Life, they will return the last two ASUN Freshmen of the Year in 2018 winner Dana Axner (also first-team ASUN) and 2017 winner Snowy Burnam. Other key returners will be second-team ASUN selection Daniele Serrano, a senior, and conference All Freshman Team members Chelsey Lockey and Tori Morris, coming back as sophomores.
“Amanda coming back is huge,” Botsford said. “We’ve got a ton of talent in the gym, and we’ll be adding five new players. The true test of a program’s strength is to do things long-term, and we wanted to build something sustainable. I think we’ve done that.”
VanLiew, a native of Seymour, Indiana, said she’s “really looking forward to the coming season. We have good players returning, and more coming in. I’m excited to see how we mesh and how far we can take it.”
VanLiew was first attracted to FGCU because of Botsford’s great reputation and popularity among coaches in the Hoosier state. “It’s an amazing opportunity to play for him,” she said. “He understands the game and thinks about it in ways that are different than other coaches. He puts emphasis on statistics and percentages, which gives us immediate goals to work toward. He’s also big on the mental aspect of the game, which I really appreciate.”
While Botsford’s record doesn’t yet quite match that of FGCU women’s basketball coach Karl Smesko, give the new guy some time. Considering he has followed a 19-win season his first year with four seasons of 20-plus wins and a superb 57-15 ASUN record — with two second-place finishes in the conference to go with the 2018 title — Botsford is well on his way to establishing a mid-major volleyball dynasty at FGCU, much as Smesko has done on the basketball court.
The comparison with Smesko’s program is an ideal with which Botsford can identify. “That’s what really stood out to me when I came here to visit,” he said. “I was at Colorado State, which has amazing support for women’s sports, and women’s volleyball is huge — we played before 5,000 fans a night. I wondered how it was here for the female athlete, and I saw how the community rallied around Karl and his girls. I said to myself that if we build the program the right way, we can tap into that enthusiasm, too.”
Of course, the university itself was a lure for Botsford as well. “To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect when I came to interview, so for me it was more exploratory,” he recalled. “Within a few minutes of stepping on campus, it became, ‘How do I get this job?” I looked at things through the lens of a 16- or 17-year-old recruit, and the first thing that struck me is that the aesthetics at this place are amazing. It has a real intimate setting that a lot of places I’ve been to doesn’t have. Then I met the people who work here, and they are incredible. This place is unique, and we can build something special here.”
VanLiew, a straight-A accounting major who’s also on the CoSIDA Academic All-District First Team and ASUN All-Academic Team, is also motivated by the successful educational forest she sees through FGCU’s numerous trees on campus. “I haven’t had a bad experience here yet,” she said. “I love my professors in business and accounting in particular, and it’s been great getting to know all the students I’ll be taking classes with the next two years. I’m so glad to have found a major I really like, and professors who truly care about your success after college.”