For 12 years, Nancy and Ben Somera coached together at various stops along their career. However, Thursday night will be the first time the two have been on opposite sides of the net as No. 14 Johnson & Wales, coached by Nancy, visits Ben's Wesleyan team. JWU is first in the recently released NCAA New England Region rankings and Wesleyan is third.
The two first met while referring an adult recreational volleyball league in California. While they weren't on the same court, they talked in between matches and ended up seeing each other around town.
The Someras started coaching together as assistants at their alma mater, the University of Southern California. From there they went on to coach together at Oregon State and South Carolina. A head coaching job for Ben at Roger Williams brought them to New England. Nancy helped out at RWU until she took over the JWU program in 2014. Ben was hired two years ago at Wesleyan.
They had a chance to answer a couple of questions before what will hopefully become an annual tradition.
Have you treated this week like any other week, or have you kept your distance from each other leading up to the match?
Ben: I would say it has been business as usual in terms of my approach with my team this week. I want to win every match I coach and I know my wife is the same way. We really don't chat that much during the week about our teams so it has felt about the same this week.
Nancy: It's been like any other week. We really are both looking at this match as an opportunity for both our teams to be challenged and to learn something about ourselves whether we win or lose. Of course, winning is more fun, but I just want my team to get better and be prepared for playoffs and I know this match will help us do that.
You both have very similar coaching paths—started as head coaches at Power 5 Division I programs to Division III schools in New England—what did you learn from coaching at the top DI level that you brought to DIII? Were there major differences in the style of volleyball based on the regions?
Nancy: At the DI level the hours are insane for the entire academic year. Because the stakes are so high at DI, you really end up grinding through a much longer season which makes the DIII season seem so much more manageable (4-6 weeks shorter). But as far as volleyball goes, good volleyball at any age group or level is still good volleyball. I've coached from 12-U to DI college team. I basically coach the same way: Emphasize the fundamentals and teach people how to be tough under pressure.
Ben: Coaching at DI in a Power 5 conference is such a longer season and a bigger job. I would say being efficient with our time in the gym and being prepared for practice are the two biggest things I have taken away from DI. The style of play is different at the D3 level because the attackers aren't as physical so being a strong defensive unit and having good ball control can make you competitive in just about every match
How would you describe the other's coaching style? Is your coaching style the same?
Ben: I would say Nancy is very direct in her communication and a really strong trainer and teacher. I am different from her so my coaching style has to fit my personality.
Nancy: Ben is an excellent recruiter and he's rubbed off on me in that way. When coaching together, you know you have another coach in your program that will be loyal and has just as much invested in the success of the program, but there can definitely be differences in how to manage and proceed with the team at times. I'd say our styles are pretty similar. We both emphasize technique and movement, and demand a high level of discipline in the gym.
How has it changed since you first starting coaching together?
Nancy: We both have so much more experience to draw on that we don't necessarily need to ask the other, "What should I do?" When you're a less experienced head coach you tend to doubt yourself more and question every move you make a lot more.
Ben: I would say we both are just better now than we were when we first started coaching. We have spent a lot of years in the gym and we are probably both more patient at this point.
How much volleyball do you talk when you're home? Do you get to a point where one of you says "We have to talk about something else"?
Ben: Volleyball is part of the conversation at home because everyone who lives in our house is in volleyball season right now but I wouldn't say it dominates our time.
Nancy: We talk a lot of volleyball during the season because that is where our focus is. But Ben stays down at Wesleyan a lot during the season, so sometimes those conversations are quick ones over the phone.
Are you competitive against each other? Do you share strategies or keep them to yourselves?
Nancy: We definitely share strategies. In fact, that's the part I like most about us coaching our own programs. We can share what's going on in our programs, what's frustrating us about our teams, and then the other one can offer more objective advice because they aren't "in it" with you. We share a lot of drills with each other, too. But that's what coaches do with each other. I have other coaching allies that I stay in touch with and I call when I'm stuck on things.
Ben: I would say we are pretty competitive and we keep score in just about everything, whether it is Ping-Pong, dominoes, or fly-fishing there seems to be a way to keep score and have a winner and a loser. We share drills and ideas all the time but I will tweak things so it fits into my team's culture and she does the same.