Legacy: The Sugar Bear family

by Levi Gilbert

David McFatrich still can’t quite put it into words.

A 30-win season, a Southland Conference regular season title, a SLC Tournament championship and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament — all Division I firsts for the University of Central Arkansas volleyball program — can have that kind of effect on a person.

“It’s unbelievable,” said McFatrich, Sugar Bear head coach. “Even now, I can’t get over it. As far as we know, no other university in the state of Arkansas has ever won 30 matches ever in a volleyball season. The idea that only seven D1 teams [in the country] achieved 30 victories this year — I can’t get my head around it.

“Winning the Southland title, the conference tournament and going to the NCAA tournament, I’m so happy for UCA. I really am. It’s so gratifying for that to happen for UCA. I’m still having trouble grasping it. It’s rare. So rare.”

The Sugar Bears have had a stellar run the past six years, but 2012 was an unparalleled season that brought with it more individual awards for the program and national recognition. Along with the NCAA Tournament appearance, the Sugar Bears reached their highest ever RPI — 49th in the country.

With all the success the program has achieved the past six years, it’s hard to believe that McFatrich almost wasn’t a part of any of it.

“I just didn’t want to do it. I never wanted to coach college volleyball,” McFatrich said. “Now I don’t want to do anything else.”

Former UCA coach Steven McRoberts had been tugging on McFatrich’s ear for two years before he finally accepted an assistant coaching position on McRoberts’ staff in 2007.

“McRoberts has always been a good friend of mine — like a brother to me really,” McFatrich said. “We had this agreement. I told him no for two years. One day he asked me if I would come look at his team. I did. He asked, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘You guys are pretty good, but if you keep doing what everyone else does, you’re going to lose. You need to consider changing your systems of play.’ He said if I joined him, he would use my systems.

“McRoberts was kind enough to let me bring my systems of play. He let me coach. I had a great four years with him. I think he saw my philosophies and cut me loose. We were successful, and I will always be grateful to him.”

After compiling a 146-58 record, three consecutive SLC Coach of the Year awards and back-to-back SLC regular season titles, McRoberts left UCA in 2011 to become the head coach at Tulsa. Before he left, he put an offer on the table for McFatrich.

“He and his wife asked us to come with him,” McFatrich said. “I said, ‘Thank you, man, that’s a fantastic offer.’ But we didn’t want to make that move, and I didn’t want to be an assistant coach anymore. I told UCA I wasn’t coming back.”

But his UCA story wasn’t over yet.

“After a couple weeks of prayer and concentration, I told Dr. Teague, ‘Here’s my resume, please consider me for head coach,’” McFatrich said. “I was lucky to get it. I’m very thankful.

“Nothing really changed on the court when I got the head coaching job. I had to learn my way around the office and the management of the program. I learned from McRoberts that the idea of the little things is invaluable. Facility upgrades, making little steps to improve the Prince, fundraising, scheduling and RPI — these things are all important. He also taught me a lot about compliance; he knows those rules really well. I still call him about those things to this day.”

Just like McRoberts had a great staff around him during his time at UCA, so, too, has McFatrich — and he’s quick to recognize the importance of his staff in the program’s success the past two years.

“For me to be successful, I have to have people around me I can trust,” McFatrich said. “I’ve had a sidekick for six years in Robyn Smith, first as a player and then as an assistant coach this past year. Having Robyn with all of her talent has been incredibly comforting to me. Steve Horner, our athletic trainer, is much more than a trainer. The guy is also like family. Cory Cangelosi has been a part of this volleyball family. He never let us slack off in our strength and conditioning. He’s moving to Hot Springs. We’re really going to miss that dude.

“One of the best moves I’ve made was hiring the Newberrys — John and Brittany. We had already hired Brittany and were looking for another assistant after Todd Hay left to go to South Carolina. I got resumes from Canada, Europe and from coast to coast here in the U.S. These were very qualified people. John and I had become close friends, and I wanted to pull the trigger to hire him, but the truth of the matter was that he had very little experience as a coach and none recruiting. It was one of those decisions that was going to be a yellow flag to some people. At the 11th hour, my wife said, ‘Dave, you need someone you can trust.’ I offered it to him the next day because I trust him implicitly; he is going to be a great coach.

“I get to go to work with all of these people that are Godly and very dear to me. That’s made an impact on the team. They see how much we care and respect each other. It’s more than just volleyball to us. It’s about family and Christ. We build into our players’ lives, and because of that, they work hard. They know we care for them. Those factors have contributed to the little success we’ve had.”

The right coaching staff i
s just one piece of the puzzle. Another piece of UCA’s success over the years is players who excel on and off the court. Camila Scapini, Evaree Franklin, Chloe Smith, Robyn Smith, Cristin Curl, Jessica Hays, Marissa Collins — the list goes on and on and on, and the legacy of success continues.

“We’ve never had an All-American out of high school,” McFatrich said. “We have to find the kids that will work hard and buy into our systems and philosophy, which are different than most club and high school volleyball programs.

“We have a different practice philosophy. Offensively, we run plays that are not as common, and defensively we are positioned a little bit differently. We set the ball a little differently. It’s kind of a ‘Moneyball’ philosophy. We stat everything, and we put different emphasis on certain statistics than most volleyball programs typically do.”

The end of the Sugar Bears’ season in defeat in the NCAA Tournament at Washington also capped the remarkable career of Jessica Hays — the latest in a string of historically great UCA volleyball players.

“Jessie came from a really good club in Houston, AVA,” McFatrich said. “Marissa Collins, Shelbee Berringer, Alicia Dittrich — they’re all from that club. Jessie was the first player we found from there. She has a cannon for an arm. Her very first day of practice at UCA, I watched her hit a few times. I told her about some adjustments I wanted her to make. She’s such a good player that it only took two or three reps and she had it. I saw right then that we had something special. We changed her approach technique and combined that with what she brought to the table — an absolute bazooka for an arm — and it made her incredible. It’s been a special four years.”

Technically, it’s been five years, due to a knee injury and a medical redshirt.

“Jessie had ACL surgery in high school, and at the start of her senior year in 2011, she started suffering again from knee problems in our very first tournament,” McFatrich said. “Later at Texas Tech, she hurt it again. We were both crying. I was so upset for her. We went through the rules and decided not to waste her last year. We went with a medical redshirt. She came back in 2012. Her knee wasn’t as good as it used to be, but she still lit it up. As a freshman I told her I wanted to make her a jump server, had her develop a consistent toss and gave her the green light to just ‘rip it,’ and we would live with the errors that come with being aggressive. I told her the day would come when she would be jump serving with high stakes on the line and she would have the confidence to ‘rip it’ without consequences. Wouldn’t you know it, at match point in the tournament finals against Oral Roberts to advance to the NCAA tournament, Jesse goes back to serve and just bombs a jumper that ORU overpasses and Dittrich pounces on for the winning point — that was so fitting.

“She relied on a great setter in Marissa Collins and she had Beth Rogers and Shelbee Berringer back there controlling the ball. Her success is because of the team. All of our individual successes over the years have been because of the team.”

And as Hays’ chapter has closed, other Sugar Bears are ready to write the next chapter. Just like Hays stepped up after Chloe Smith graduated, the story will continue with the next batch of Sugar Bear leaders.

“Jessie has a legacy here for a long time,” McFatrich said. “We have players who can step in. It’s their turn. Thank you, Chloe. Thank you, Robyn. Thank you, Jesse and Taylor Hammonds and Cristin Curl. It’s time for the next batch now. I think we will have the best senior leadership this year of any year since I’ve been here. We want to go back to the NCAA Tournament. Everyone is focusing on it. That’s the goal now. We raised the bar. As long as I’m here, we will always work for that goal. It was exhilarating and great for this great university. We are driven to get back.

“We were walking off the court after we lost to No. 9 Washington and sophomore outside hitter Scout Brooks said to me ‘Fatch, I wish we could play them again right now.’ Even in defeat, we were undaunted. You’re fearless when you play for me. That’s just the way it is. We played fearless. Did we play a great match? No. That’s what we have to learn. We didn’t do our best, but we had to get there first. We want to go back because we know now what we have to do. We have to be a little smarter — keep the aggression, but be smarter. We had to go through that experience. If we’re fortunate enough to go back this year, we’ll do better.”

It’s been a remarkable six years for McFatrich at UCA, but the legacy runs much deeper than just his time at the university. And he recognizes that fact.

“One of the people I’m happiest for is Natalie Shock, our assistant AD for compliance and senior women’s administrator,” McFatrich said. “She’s been an athlete here, a coach here and now a part of the administration. For us to make the NCAA Tournament after her whole time here — for me, I’m happiest for the university and for people like Natalie to be a part of that.

“When we drop that banner down in the Prince that says NCAA Tournament on it, I want her to be that person that drops that banner down. She got to be a part of that. It’s unbelievable.”