By Carlos Toro
In the 2000s, Rider volleyball was not viewed as a viable contender in the MAAC conference. Under Head Coach Christopher Feliciano, the program has seen a resurgence that has turned the team into a legitimate threat.
On Sept. 10, the Broncs defeated Fairleigh Dickinson in the third game of the Boston College Tournament. While this non-conference win was not important on paper, it did set an important milestone — Feliciano’s 200th win as a collegiate head coach.
It was the culmination of his six years in the program, bringing the volleyball team from the bottom of the MAAC to making the conference tournament.
“The thing about that win is that it was years of hard work from the players,” Feliciano said. “We’ve had a lot of great people compete for us and it says just as much about them as it is about me. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Before Feliciano took over, the program was wrapping up a 3-25 regular season in 2010. Feliciano said that he applied all that he learned in his other head coaching stop at his alma mater, New Jersey City University (NJCU), where he won 131 games as the head coach of both the men and women’s volleyball program.
There, he learned all the tools of the coaching trade and learned how to best utilize his players.
“NJCU is a good place,” Feliciano said. “Being in an urban city such as Jersey City, you have some trouble recruiting, especially for a first-time coach. I also learned how to use my players to their strengths and being able to find the best game plan for an opponent.”
After spending time as an assistant in Fordham’s coaching staff, Feliciano landed a phone interview with Rider’s Associate Athletic Director Karin Torchia and got the job.
When he was named the Broncs’ head coach for the 2011 season, the Broncs only improved a slight bit in the wins column, only winning five games that season.
But the program has continued to rise. The team more than doubled its win total in Feliciano’s second season and finished the 2013 season with a winning record, representing a 12-win improvement from 2010. This past season, the Broncs started with a 7-0 MAAC record and finished with 11 MAAC wins, the highest total in the five years that Feliciano had been at the helm as head coach.
Feliciano’s first year, though, was not a pleasant one. The team only won five games in 2011, with only three of those wins coming from conference play.
“Rebuilding was tough,” Feliciano said. “I had to get these players to buy in and, credit to them, they have, and that’s why we have been having success now.”
As one of the upperclassmen on this year’s team, junior libero Emma Aldaya witnessed first-hand how much the team had improved in the last few years.
“This program has grown a lot during my time at Rider,” Aldaya said. “We were rebuilding a team that was once 5-25, and now our team is easily one of the top competitors in the MAAC. Every player who has committed and contributed to our team since has done so much, from not only winning conference matches, but to greatly improving the team atmosphere on and off the court.”
Aldaya said that Feliciano has made a drastic improvement in the program and turned it into an environment where players work hard every day in practice and in games.
“Coach Feliciano has improved our program a lot over the past few years, really creating a strong and competitive learning environment within the team on and off the court,” Aldaya said. “He is invested in not only our success as student athletes, but also as young women in the classroom and workplace. I enjoy coming to practice each day and learning from coach to become a better player and teammate.”
Progress in the program has been visible for a while. Rider defeated Siena, the 2014 MAAC Champions, last season en route to the best conference season in Feliciano’s tenure as head coach. After the win, Feliciano stormed the court and lifted an assistant coach in pure jubilation. That season saw the Broncs qualify to the MAAC Championship tournament for the first time since the 2004 season.
That season was not the end. It was simply the next step into making the Broncs a successful volleyball program.
One thing that Feliciano has his team do is bring one item to road trips that would make them feel comfortable. He said that it is a way for the players to have a little piece of home with them and keeps them at peace. Feliciano keeps photos of his mom and his girlfriend in his coaching portfolio at all times.
“One of the things that I want the players to feel is at home, whether we’re at home or taking a road trip through Buffalo,” Feliciano said. “These players have bought into the program and it’s really created a family type of environment here and I can’t give enough credit to our seniors and upperclassmen for helping achieve that goal.”
Under Feliciano’s tutelage, several Broncs achieved personal career milestones. The 2015 season was a big example as Aldaya recorded her 1,000th career assist, senior Kaitlyn Griffin recorded career point 1,000 and junior Veronica Koval recorded career assist 1,000.
Feliciano said that he is grateful to have worked with so many people and taught him so many things about coaching and the sport of volleyball.
“Going from a player to being a coach, I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside so many people and had great mentors to help me become the kind of coach and person that I am today,” Feliciano said.
The 200th win for Feliciano was not the end goal for the program, nor has the team hit its plateau, he believes. This season, the team is 0-2 in conference play, but he said that he expects his team to be back in the postseason this year.
“We want to finish at least fourth [in the regular season] this year,” Feliciano said. “I think we’re good enough to make it. Our objective is to improve our standing.”