Nov. 1, 2007
by Jeff Smith
Sherry Dunbar has always been passionate about Bloomington, Ind. As a kid, growing up on the outskirts of the town, she always followed the Hoosiers and even attended the occasional home basketball game in the nose-bleed balcony seats of Assembly Hall. She calls Bloomington the "ultimate college town" and can tell you just how important the Indiana-Purdue rivalry is...in any sport. Yet growing up through the volleyball ranks and thinking about what her dream job would be, she never considered coaching at Indiana.
My how things have changed.
In her first year as head coach of the IU volleyball squad, Dunbar has brought renewed energy and a level of excitement back to a program that needed it ever so desperately. She has instilled a work ethic in the team and has demanded nothing but 100 percent from each player that takes the court at University Gym.
Dunbar inherited a program that had not had a winning season since 2002 and had managed only a total of five conference wins in the past three years. Not since 1999 has Indiana had a winning record in Big Ten play and it has managed to post only five conference seasons above .500 since 1982.
Since arriving back to Bloomington, Dunbar has led the Hoosiers to a 14-10 overall record and 5-7 in Big Ten action. Despite the sub-.500 conference win total, Indiana has already accumulated the same number of wins in league play it did in the last three years combined.
"I tell the kids all the time that you have to deserve success. You don't get lucky that many times," Dunbar said. "When I came here in December, we worked them. They started to believe that by working hard, they deserved to win. These kids are fighting for wins. It is a privilege to be here."
Dunbar came from a program where not only was losing not an option, it was almost unheard of. After her playing days at Ball State and assisting coaching positions at San Francisco and Tennessee, Dunbar landed her first head coaching job at College of Charleston. In four seasons there, Dunbar compiled a record of 113-22 (.837), with four Southern Conference regular season titles and three conference tournament titles. Her teams also advanced to three consecutive NCAA Regionals from 2004-06.
The transition for Dunbar, having come from a widely successful program to one that has struggled for years, has been the biggest obstacle for her personally in her rookie season.
"For me, coming from a program that was averaging five losses a year, this season has been an adjustment," Dunbar said. "With our program making changes, it has been tough for me to lose because I am so competitive."
The Hoosier coach points out that one of the main differences between College of Charleston and Indiana is the process of advancing to the NCAA Tournament, something IU has not done since 2002. At her previous school, the conference's automatic bid was really the lone hope for assuring a spot in the postseason tournament. In the Big Ten, one of the premier volleyball conferences in the nation, Dunbar points out that a team could be seventh or eighth in the league and still be selected.
"You come into the Big Ten and every match is so competitive and intense. There are no days off, no matches off, no games off," she said. "In the Southern Conference, we won all the time, so it's been important to keep the kids and myself positive."
Lauren Ditteon, a senior right-side hitter from Terre Haute, Ind., has welcomed the coaching change and says that Dunbar has made significant changes in the team's training style and mental attitude. She points to the creation of the "Pyramid of Success," which Dunbar describes as the "definition of what it takes to be a full-time student-athlete, where academics and volleyball are the top two things in life outside family."
This season not only has been about a new belief for the Hoosiers, but also new opportunities. In IU's home-opening tournament, the matches were moved from University Gym to Assembly Hall with hopes that fans in town for the football game would migrate over to take in volleyball. Prior to Midnight Madness festivities a few weeks ago - an event Indiana calls "Hoosier Hysteria" - fans were encouraged to pack Assembly Hall early for a volleyball showdown against Michigan State.
They showed up. All 11,086 of them. A school record.
"That was something that our program has never gotten to do, Ditteon said. "It was a great experience and we still hope to bring more of a crowd to volleyball."
The following week Indiana hosted rival Purdue in the annual battle for the Monon Spike. Having not captured the coveted trophy in the last five years, the Hoosiers topped the Boilermakers, 3-1, marking one of the school's top wins in recent history.
"I was crying after the match," Ditteon said. "It was a defining moment of my career."
Dunbar was thrilled to help Ditteon and the rest of the Hoosier seniors achieve the win, but also pointed to the underlying meaning of what the victory meant for the program.
"To have an in-state rival that is a true rival, it's great," said Dunbar after the win. "It's a recruiting rival, it's a university rival, and definitely a sports rivalry in every sport. So we just talked about pride and representing the Cream and Crimson. I could tell they (her players) were ready to play, they just had that attitude about them."
The winning attitude has continued, Dunbar says, regardless of wins or losses.
Just last weekend, the Hoosiers quickly dropped the first two games (23-30, 20-30) to No. 8 Wisconsin, but stormed back to claim the next two (31-29, 30-28), before dropping the deciding fifth game, 16-14.
"We had the opportunity to win against Wisconsin," Dunbar said. "We had two match points to beat the eighth-ranked team in the nation. We are just fighting all the time right now. You can't count us out."
Wisconsin head coach Pete Waite agrees.
"Indiana started getting stronger and more confident," Waite said after the five-game thriller. "They're a team that has nothing to lose at this point, so they're going after everybody with everything that they have."
Eight games still remain in the conference season with a host of Big Ten teams locked at 5-7 in league play, including the Hoosiers and Ohio State, their opponent this Friday. The combined record of Indiana's final eight Big Ten opponents is currently 45-53 (.459).
The Hoosiers may not win them all, but Dunbar believes that her team will be competitive. That's what they were re-taught to be back in December and nearly one year later, Dunbar likes the fight in her team.
"They are fighting for their lives out there and I am proud of them for their resolve," she said. "It's about the team that wants it the most and I believe we do."
Ditteon is quick to point to the young roster the Hoosiers have and the talented group of freshmen coming in next year. She feels that IU has a promising future in volleyball.
Dunbar, however, says the focus is on the senior class.
"I told are seniors they can be the group that changes things. They can leave a legacy here."
Then again, so can she.