Forester volleyball coach hoping lessons he’s learned from family can turn around HU program

Kyle Shondell is in his first season as the head coach of the Huntington University volleyball team. Coming from a family with a long history of volleyball coaching success, Shondell hopes to turn the Foresters’ program around.
Kyle Shondell is in his first season as the head coach of the Huntington University volleyball team. Coming from a family with a long history of volleyball coaching success, Shondell hopes to turn the Foresters’ program around. Photo by Steve Clark.

Originally published Oct. 26, 2015.

Kyle Shondell’s office in Huntington University’s Merillat Complex overlooks Platt Arena.

From there, Shondell, the school’s first-year head volleyball coach, has a front-row seat to the campus tours that regularly pass through the gym.

It’s a place he hears tour guides refer to as the home of Forester basketball.

Platt Arena, however, houses Shondell’s squad, too. He noticed early on that guides forgot to make mention of the arena’s dual occupancy. That spoke to the anonymity of the Huntington volleyball program, which hasn’t posted a winning season since 2007, on its own campus, observes Shondell.

Shondell’s last name is anything but anonymous when it comes to Indiana volleyball. His grandfather, Don, started the men’s and women’s volleyball teams at Ball State University, coaching the former squad to 734 wins over 33 seasons.

Dave, his father, is the head coach of Purdue University’s women’s volleyball team, calling the shots alongside his brother, John, who is the associate head coach.

Shondell’s other uncle, Steve, head coaches the women’s volleyball team at Ball State, following a successful career in the high school ranks at Burris Laboratory School, in Muncie, where he compiled a 1,183-95 record over 34 years with 21 state titles.

Around the sport since he was a child, Shondell says he always knew that volleyball would play a role in his life. In college, the nature of that role came into focus.

“I think at some point in time when I was in college at Purdue, helping out with my father’s program, that I realized that, ‘This is something that he can pour his heart into.  This is something that he can show up to work every day and not feel like he’s going to work,’” Shondell says.

“I could see him and I could see my uncle. I got to see my grandfather do the same thing. Everybody do it. And they can work extremely hard at it, but be a great reward. And I’m like, ‘That’s something I could probably do.’”

So, upon graduating from Purdue in 2012, Shondell set out to become a volleyball coach, just like the other men in his family. After his first stop, at Western Illinois University, where he served as the team’s first assistant, he became the head coach at Rock Valley College, in Illinois.

“Took over a program there that had actually won the national title the year prior – no pressure,” jokes Shondell. “It was kind of a fun experience because I got there in, I think, March or April and I had two returners on the team, so I had to go out and recruit 12 kids and I think we still finished in the top five, six, seven in the country, which was cool.”

Shondell says he briefly considered attending seminary to go into ministry, which prompted him to leave Rock Valley, but he realized, ultimately, that his mission in ministry was through coaching.

Last season, Shondell took a first assistant’s job at Chicago State University. When the head coaching job at Huntington opened up, Shondell applied and was hired in February.

In addition to not sporting a winning record in eight years, the Forester volleyball team has lost more than 20 games in each of the last five seasons. Accordingly, Shondell made sure to manage his expectations heading into his first year.

“Wanted to get better,” he says of his primary objective. “Wanted to be a team that was highly competitive. Didn’t need to be highly successful. That’s nice. But just needed to be a team that started doing things the right way.”

Shondell’s years of observing his family members coaching volleyball have been invaluable to him as he learns what it takes to be a head coach himself.

“I’d say there’s probably pieces of them in everything I do … if you’re a coach, you try to go out and get as many different perspectives as you can from as good of people as you can,” he says.

“I never really did that, because I felt good to go about the opportunities I had where I could learn from my father, my uncles and grandfather. So, most of what I have from a knowledge base and from an experience set is from those guys.

“I’ve done some independent thinking in the last three, four, five or six years. I’m sure at some point in time it’s all similar independent thinking that they did anyway, because that’s how it’s engrained in my mind.”

One of the most notable ways Shondell has emulated his family members is by adopting their approach to practices.

“From a training standpoint, there’s probably not much separating how our practices are ran and how Purdue practices ran or Ball State practices ran,” he explains. “The athletes might be slightly different, but the practices themselves are pretty similar. Traditionally, a very high-intensity, high-energy mindset across the board in the family. That’s pretty congruent here.”

Before the season started, rather than specify a win total they wanted to achieve, Shondell says he and his players made qualifying for the end-of-season Crossroads League tournament their goal.

“In the last decade, they’ve only made it two or three times,” he says of the team. “Top eight schools in the 10-team conference make it, so that was kind of the bare minimum goal for us. Realistically, we looked at the kind of team we had and tried to realize, ‘What can we do?’

“We wanted to be able to, we still do, be able to host the first round of the conference tournament. That means you’re a one, two, three or four seed.”

As of Thursday, Oct. 22, Huntington occupied sixth place in the Crossroads League with a 6-9 conference record. Though not quite good enough to secure the Foresters a home match in the tourney, it is good enough to grant them entrance to it.

With seven matches left in the regular season as of Thursday, Oct. 22, Shondell’s squad sported a 6-13 overall record. When looking for an example of how the team has grown over the course of the year, Shondell points to how it performed in its first meeting of the season with conference foe Taylor University compared to its second.

In the initial match, which opened Huntington’s season, the Foresters lost 17-25, 16-25, 22-25 – and did not look good doing so, says Shondell. The subsequent meeting, coming a month-and-a-half later, saw Huntington get edged in the opening set, 24-26, before rebounding for a 25-23 win in the second. Though the Foresters went on to lose the third set, 12-25, and get outlasted in the fourth, 28-30, Shondell says his team showed him something.

“I think that we’ve lost the intimidation factor of them,” he says of Taylor. “We no longer think that people in our league aren’t beatable.”

That mindset was also evident earlier in the season, when Huntington reeled off three straight conference wins – versus Marian, Saint Francis and Spring Arbor – to even its league record at 4-4. The Foresters’ win over Saint Francis was a sweep – their first over any opponent in four years.

“I just think that the number one thing that we’ve tried to bring to the program is just kind of the intensity, the energy and the kinds of things that make us compete are also the same kind of things that make us a lot of fun to watch,” says Shondell. “I think it’s impossible for somebody to show up to our match and not want to at least come back. So, we’ve had a big spike in student attendance.”

Students aren’t the only ones taking note of the team. It appears campus tour guides are, too.

Walking into Platt Arena recently, Shondell weaved his way through a small tour group and emerged with a grin on his face.

“That’s the first time I’ve heard a tour guide say, ‘This is where our basketball and volleyball teams play,’” he explained, delighted. “Must be doing something right.”