By JJ Duke
Inheriting a program that won only 19 matches in the previous four years was definitely a challenge, but it was a challenge that was ripe for the taking for Head Volleyball Coach Chris Feliciano, who was appointed in 2011.
Two short years later, Feliciano has turned the Broncs into competitors on the court and a team that is hungry for future success.
“When I first took over the program, my very first thoughts were to change the culture by creating a competitive atmosphere in the gym,” Feliciano said. “We put a plan in place that combined good recruiting and rigorous training to reach this goal.”
In the 2012 season, Rider finished with a record of 11-17 -— the most wins for the program since 2004.
“The players felt proud to have done something that has not been done since 2004,” Feliciano said. “But they felt that they could have done more, and that is what’s exciting about this group — they’re never satisfied.”
Feliciano came to the program with a strong coaching background. A graduate of New Jersey City University, he served as the university’s head coach for both the men’s and women’s programs from 2005-07. He was the New Jersey Athletic Conference Coach of the Year in 2007 and took the women’s program to an NCAA Division III Tournament and multiple conference and ECAC tournament berths. In 2010, as an assistant coach at Fordham, he helped lead the Rams to an Atlantic-10 Championship Tournament.
When Feliciano took over Rider’s program, he wanted to make some adjustments, and like most programs that undergo a rebuilding process, on-and-off court attitudes needed to change. The first thing that needed to go was the losing mindset the team was stuck in, according to senior libero Brittany Gajewski.
“Unfortunately, the players who played under [former Rider Head Coach] Emily Alquist were used to a losing program and everything was a lot more laid back and less structured,” Gajewski said. “But when Feliciano came in, he wanted us to represent a Division I team in every aspect.”
Changes introduced by Feliciano included a heavy recruiting schedule and better training. Although in the first year of his tenure the Broncs were not as successful in the record column as they would have liked, there were battles being won off the court.
“Our biggest challenge was getting the players to mesh,” Feliciano said. “We struggled a little as a team, and the freshman players struggled at first with the pace of the game, but it got much better as we went on with the season. And while the record didn’t show it, we felt that our first season was a step in the right direction.”
Another one of these challenges was bringing together the gap of experience on the court. For the majority of Feliciano’s first season, underclassman players dominated the lineup sheet. But for the veteran players, acting as team leaders under Feliciano were valued roles.
“As a captain, even when I was a sophomore I was the upperclassman and was expected to host every recruit,” Gajewski said. “Even with the new players, I was expected to be the big sister, but I love it.”
Now, looking back on a season that gave the Broncs their most wins on the court in nearly a decade, the first step toward rebuilding the volleyball program is complete. Feliciano has his eyes set on making strides up the MAAC hierarchy as his next goal for the 2013 season.
“As we continue this process, I want to obviously win more matches and better our standing in the MAAC,” he said. “But more importantly, I want to develop a winning tradition.”
For the 2013 season, volleyball will return 12 letter-winners. The majority of those returning players saw significant playing time during the 2012 season. They include 2012 MAAC All-Rookie Team freshman middle hitter Nicole Moorman, as well as top hitters sophomore Jaclyn Webber and junior Bridget Sheerin, and sophomore setter Ashlee Amatulli. With all of the veteran experience on the team, volleyball is set for unparalleled success for the next few years to come.
“There’s no ‘quit’ in my program,” Feliciano said. “My players get what we’re trying to do here. They have bought into a hard work ethic and dedication. Hopefully we can continue this process.”
The graduating seniors who are leaving the program believe that there is more to come for the Broncs in the next few years.
“At the end of the day, I can leave knowing my class paved the way to change at Rider,” Gajewski said. “That is a legacy that myself and my three classmates [seniors Megan Cook, Stephanie Nagy and Haley Wilson] will cherish forever. While we are upset we won’t directly see the day that Rider volleyball wins a championship, we can walk away knowing that we helped set the tone for the future.”