Team Tampa Bay's Take with Joey Johnston: Tampa Bay College Volleyball Shines
USF's Jolene Shepardson and Tampa's Chris Catanach Continue to Push Their Teams to New Heights
By Joey Johnston
The University of South Florida Bulls are having their most successful season in two decades. The University of Tampa Spartans are contenders for the program’s fifth national championship.
So far, the volleyball teams at USF and UT have served as spectacular table-setters as the Tampa Bay area prepares for its main course, the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship on Dec. 14-17 at downtown Tampa’s Amalie Arena.
Appropriately, as the Tampa Bay Sports Commission and USF prepare to host college volleyball’s showcase event, the local schools have stepped up to help put their rapidly growing sport on the map in this special season.
Coach Jolene Shepardson’s Bulls (18-11, 12-6) won the American Athletic Conference’s East Division title, marking the program’s first conference or division championship since 2002.
Meanwhile, Coach Chris Catanach’s Spartans (28-1) are preparing for the NCAA South Regional as one of the favorites to reach the NCAA Division II Championships on Dec. 7-9 at Moon Township, Pa.
The lives and careers of Shepardson and Catanach have intersected.
Shepardson, the former Jolene Patton, was Florida’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 1997 at Tampa Prep. She signed with the Spartans, becoming Sunshine State Conference Freshman of the Year and an integral part of a national runner-up team. She played two seasons for Catanach before transferring to USF.
It was 1984 when the 22-year-old Catanach, after two seasons of being a volunteer student assistant, interviewed for the UT head-coaching position and improbably was selected. He replaced Sandi Patton, Shepardson’s mother, who had resigned.
Even then as a kid, Shepardson already was a gym rat, whether it was her mother’s matches or the basketball games of her father, Joe Patton, the coach at Hillsborough Community College.
Catanach could easily relate to that passion. He was working at the UT admissions office when he learned about the volleyball coaching opening. He knew that was his destiny.
“If you’re passionate about something, you’re going to be good at it,’’ Catanach said. “Beyond that, I didn’t have any big plan and I certainly had no clue about what was ahead. I was unaware of weaknesses. I just worked and worked and worked.
“Such a thing would never happen today. I didn’t know where it was going to lead, but I knew I loved it.’’
Hall of Fame Career
In the beginning at UT, in addition to his volleyball position, Catanach was also the school’s coach for men’s and women’s tennis. He had duties in the custodial department and organized cleanup for a campus carnival fundraiser. He also learned how to set up a wrestling ring from scratch when UT hosted professional wrestling events at the Martinez Center.
Along the way, he also became a championship volleyball coach, good enough to win more than 1,100 matches (and counting) over his 40 seasons while being selected for induction into the American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
“Chris is simply the best person I know,’’ said Brian Imperiale, UT’s volleyball assistant coach since 2014. “He has such patience and wisdom in working with the players. He’s so unbelievably prepared, almost maniacally so. If there’s a potential situation that could occur, he has thought of it. He studies situations. He knows people. And almost always, he makes the right decision.’’
“I wish I could say I saw all of this coming, that it was part of a master plan, but that would not be the case,’’ said the now-retired Bob Birrenkott, the UT athletic director who hired Catanach. “I did know Chris was a hard worker and cared about doing things the right way. We didn’t have a lot of money then. My thing was, ‘Give me a couple of years and if you want to move on, I’ll give you a good recommendation.’ What Chris has built is amazing, unprecedented. He is among the great coaches in any sport.’’
Catanach said he has grown tremendously as a coach — not so much in his technical knowledge, but with his big-picture perspective. Defeats used to tear him up. They still don’t go down easily, but he has learned emotional efficiency.
“It took a while to get past my own demons,’’ said Catanach, who was once offered the University of Virginia job but opted to stay at UT. “Some coaches speak of the fear of someone catching them or passing them. That has helped me stay focused and intense. But volleyball doesn’t define me like it used to. It used to consume me.
“You’d think at this stage I’d just do what I do and trust that. But there’s always a better way or something new. You do have to enjoy success — some — but the drive and competition is what gets you going.’’
Along with the relationships.
“I’d go into Coach Catanach’s office to watch film and we’d end up talking about life,’’ former UT All-American Berkley Whaley said. “Where did I want to go? What did I want to achieve? Sometimes, you’d dread a practice, but he was always telling you the things you needed to hear. Nothing sugar-coated. And such wisdom. He always had the right words. I miss hearing that every day.’’
Catanach is often overwhelmed at the thought of his former players, the sheer magnitude of their success stories, which range far behind volleyball.
“How can you not love that?’’ Catanach said.
The Road Back Home
If you have the love, you don’t question the path.
That was the philosophy of Shepardson, whose non-linear volleyball path took her all over the world.
She played professionally in Indonesia before returning to America as an assistant coach at several colleges and club programs, most notably Virginia Tech in 2010, when the Hokies made their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
Her first head-coaching job was at Cal State Bakersfield, where she inherited an 0-31 program. Three seasons later, Bakersfield was 21-12, 12-4 in the Western Athletic Conference, and the Roadrunners reached the WAC Tournament championship match.
That led to another turnaround opportunity at San Jose State, where the Spartans went from four wins to 17 in three seasons.
Shepardson’s work was noticed by Michael Kelly, USF’s vice president of athletics when he needed a volleyball coach in 2020. Kelly was impressed by Shepardson’s rebuilding prowess, but also the connection to her hometown and alma mater.
Then came a series of challenges, some of them unprecedented.
About two months after Shepardson’s arrived, the COVID-19 pandemic halted the world of sports. As a result, Shepardson’s first USF volleyball competition occurred more than a year from her hiring. With 14 underclassmen, the Bulls finished 6-8 in the abbreviated spring season.
Due to player defections, injuries and staff instability, the Bulls had two seasons of struggles — a 17-44 combined record, 5-33 in the AAC and some doubts in the mind of Shepardson, who previously had never met a rebuilding situation she couldn’t tame.
“My confidence never wavered, but I was asking myself, ‘What are we doing wrong … why is this taking longer than I envisioned?’ ‘’ Shepardson said. “It was a humbling moment. I struggled with what was missing. Weird injuries and weird things were happening.
“Last year, we had a Thanksgiving get-together and I told the players that we were going to follow our instincts. I had to believe and represent that. I never do things easy. I mean, I have five young kids and I’m coaching college volleyball. It’s chaos. But if you believe in something, if you work to make it happen, things will go your way. It’s not about making things comfortable for the players. It’s about helping them to feel comfortable when those things are uncomfortable. And now we’ve gotten to that point.’’
USF has knocked down barriers — while having a blast in the process.
“We’ve had some tough losses, but we’ve been able to flip the switch and turn the next game into a win,’’ Bulls outside hitter Maria Clara Andrade said. “Instead of dwelling on losses, we have learned from them.’’
The Bulls haven’t done quite enough to qualify for the NCAA Tournament field, but being the host school has some benefits. Shepardson said she expects 90 percent of her team to attend the event, either with formal responsibilities or just to watch the matches. The USF presence already has made an impact.
“I think more people are aware of our program because we’ve had more winning success, so we’re bigger on the map in the volleyball community,’’ Shepardson said. “When you have the Final Four in your town — and your school is the host — there’s a lot of prestige associated with that. We’re going to enjoy it and our players will see the sport at its highest level. We’ll continue to strive for that.’’
Catanach’s program already is there at the NCAA Division II level. It’s disappointing for the Spartans to have anything less than national title contention. Together with USF’s turnaround season, the Spartans have shown that the biggest college volleyball goals can be achieved in Tampa.
We’ll see that first-hand when the nation’s final four teams hit Tampa in mid-December. Until then, the city’s opening act for college volleyball has been very effective.