Redefining Not Rebuilding

jason kennedy



oston College volleyball players, young and old, looked at assistant coach Marissa Prinzbach like she was crazy. First-year head coach Jason Kennedy, however, let Prinzbach do her thing.

Well into spring practice leading up to the 2018 season, the former Dartmouth assistant introduced a volleyball tennis drill that she had performed during her playing days at Connecticut and Buffalo. Although fun, it required both calculated strategy and a great deal of physical effort. Little did the Eagles know, and as silly as it might have first sounded, the drill was just what the program—a group that had posted a 73-176 record, including an abysmal 22-96 ACC mark, over the course of the previous eight years—needed to rediscover its ambition.

Like tennis, players were positioned on either side of the court. Each had one hit to get the ball over the net, and if it landed in bounds before the opponent could get to it or the opponent failed to land their return, the other player was awarded the point. Within a week, volleyball tennis was facilitating head-to-head competition, which, soon enough, carried over to 6-on-6 action.

“I really think that was the first time Jason ever saw us really compete,” said senior Jane DeJarld, a 2019 team captain and three-year starter.

It was then that Kennedy—the former Southern California associate head coach—knew that he had something on his hands. In a matter of months, the warm up exercise evolved into something that meant so much more than your average drill. Something that Prinzbach even described as a “cult” of sorts.

Before practice and matches, BC players squeezed in volleyball tennis to get the blood flowing and the competitive juices brewing. They even went as far as creating a mini league in Power Gym, where the blonde players would square off against the brunettes.

Just as the level of play picked up, so did the rivalry. In fact, when some of the brunettes got highlights in the summer, they were forced to change teams before being pushed back to the blonde side when the fall rolled around. This past spring, the blondes were down a player, due to injury, but didn’t want any brunettes joining their “roster.”

They would be seen as a traitor, Prinzbach said.

With the help of Prinzbach and longtime assistant Kin Yun, what once started as a basic exercise had jumpstarted a culture change, something that Kennedy, the Heights’ 2018-19 Coach of the Year, sought to accomplish from the moment he stepped foot on campus. The 34-year-old wanted to show that the Eagles—who haven’t recorded a winning season since 2004 and have never reached the NCAA Tournament—that they could compete. That they had what it takes to finally win again.

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hen Kennedy heard that he was a candidate of interest in BC’s head coaching search in December 2017, he was in the middle of yet another NCAA Tournament run with USC. Actually, the Women of Troy were preparing to play eventual national runner-up Florida for a chance to play in their 13th Sweet Sixteen of the century.

Although Kennedy knew he wanted to be a head coach, the news took him by surprise. He didn’t expect to be taking the reigns of a program for another few years, especially considering that he thought his climb up the coaching ranks had been delayed after spending four years as USC’s technical coordinator. Nevertheless, he found himself with a chance to lead a Power Five program—an intriguing opportunity to say the least.

A Hawaii native, Kennedy was pretty picky with places that he wanted to live: a coast and a big city were all but requisites. Luckily for BC, it had both. Not to mention that the Eagles play in the ACC, which is often labeled the third-best conference in volleyball, behind the Big Ten and Pac-12. But, because he was from out West, Kennedy didn’t actually know much of anything about BC or its volleyball program. Of course, it only took a few internet searches to find out the Eagles’ history, none of which deterred the USC coach. If anything, it only increased his interest. He wanted to figure out why BC had struggled so much in the ACC.

A couple weeks later, he flew out to Boston to see BC. Even with the January cold, Kennedy fell in love with the school. As he walked around, he appreciated the beautiful campus and, most importantly, the newfound enthusiasm that had spread throughout the athletic department when Martin Jarmond took over as Director of Athletics in June 2017.

Shortly after, on Jan. 9, 2018—nearly a month after former head coach Chris Campbell’s eight-year tenure came to an end via resignation—Kennedy was hired by the second-year AD. Following two seasons worth of complaining, negativity, and more losing, the team was ready for any kind of change, according to DeJarld. But the fact that Kennedy was taking over was all the more encouraging.

“When we found out Jason was our coach, I think there was just so much more hope and such a clearer vision of what we could actually be as a team,” DeJarld said. “And that’s something that’s really helped us.”

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t may be no surprise that Kennedy grew up in Honolulu. His players describe him as down to earth, authentic, and humorously sarcastic. Prinzbach calls him modest. In her eyes, he toes the line between being too strict or too lenient, a skill that few volleyball coaches can perform effectively.

“I’ve never seen someone be as calm, cool, and collected as he is be as successful really in every aspect that he’s had in the volleyball world—whether it’s a recruiting coordinator, an associate head coach, whether it’s a datavolley guy that’s coming up with all of the scouting reports on the international and national level,” Prinzbach said. “I’ve never seen someone with this demeanor have this high of a success rate.”

Kennedy really has done it all. He attended Santa Clara from 2004-07, serving as a setter and eventually a team captain. Then, two years later, he received a master’s in sports management from the University of San Francisco. In due time, Kennedy put his playing career and degree to good use. That said, his ascent was gradual, relatively speaking.

Once he graduated from Santa Clara, he took a job coaching Los Altos High School. During Kennedy’s four-year stint (2007-10), he led the program to four straight California Interscholastic Federation playoff appearances. But in 2011, he returned to the college ranks, beginning an eight-year journey at USC.

“It was absolutely the best thing that could have happened for me,” Kennedy confidently said of his time with the Women of Troy.

For four years, he worked as the program’s technical coordinator, a gig that required him to scout the opposition, come up with in-game strategy, and prepare gameplans throughout the season, all while supervising video analysis, exchange, and distribution. While he might not have had the title of assistant coach, he had already made a name for himself.

In 2012, U.S.A. Volleyball reached out to Kennedy, asking him to serve as the scout coach for the men’s and women’s Olympic Beach Volleyball teams in London. The opportunity was too good to pass up—and it also made Kennedy realize that he really did have an eye for talent and in-game strategy. Across the pond, he created scouting reports and analyzed tape to help the Americans, notably three-time gold medalists Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Misty May-Treanor, prepare for their upcoming opponents.

With the job, Kennedy formed long lasting relationships and ended up traveling overseas for the next five or so years. Taking four or five trips a year, he spent as much time as he could abroad, trying to learn about how to be successful at the highest level of play. In 2013 and 2015, he even worked on the FIVB World Tour, fulfilling similar scouting duties.

Approaching the 2015 collegiate season, Kennedy finally received the promotion he had been waiting for. Then head coach Mick Haley—who delivered USC women’s volleyball a pair of national titles in his 17-year stay with the school—hired Kennedy as an assistant, giving him the platform he needed to make a tangible impact on the program. That season, the Women of Troy’s best regular season campaign since it went undefeated in 2003, Kennedy helped develop outside hitter Samantha Bricio, who ultimately won the AVCA National Player of the Year award.

Then, for the second consecutive offseason, he climbed the next rung on the coaching ladder. Kennedy served as USC’s associate head coach during his final two years with the team. As Haley’s tenure came to a close, he entrusted Kennedy with more and more responsibility, both on the recruiting trail and on the court.

The Women of Troy might not have made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament in either of the seasons that Kennedy occupied the position, but Kennedy was still proud of what the program accomplished, especially in 2017. Despite being left out of the AVCA Top 25 Preseason Poll, USC posted a 25-win season and finished the year ranked No. 7.

Even so, missing out on the regional semifinal could be pegged as a disappointment for a school that’s won the fifth-most national championships in NCAA history. After all, at USC, the NCAA Tournament is the expectation—at BC, it’s the dream. And that’s a challenge that Kennedy’s now embracing.

“I think at SC, we were able to sit back and we were able to sell where we had been,” he said. “Now at BC, what we have to find … [is] the athlete with a little bit more of a chip on their shoulder and sit back and say, ‘Look, BC’s never been to the NCAA Tournament. They’ve never won a tournament match, but can you buy in and can you help be part of the first team that ever does?’”

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ennedy spent his first few months at BC trying to figure out if he had those players on his current roster.

Turns out, volleyball tennis was all they needed to show their competitive side. Before that, though, Kennedy struggled to get his players to put themselves out there.

“I think probably the first month or so, they seemed a little hesitant, not because I don’t think they believed what Jason was saying, just because I don’t think they necessarily believed in themselves to be able to do what he was asking,” Prinzbach said.

It didn’t help that the team hadn’t had a real identity in years. DeJarld conceded that, while BC had a great group of personalities, it lacked a cohesive style of play in her three seasons with the program. From the outset, Kennedy understood that he had to come up with a scheme that fit the Eagles’ roster. With just two players standing over 6-foot-2, BC entered the 2018 season as one of the shorter teams in the ACC. Kennedy determined that if the Eagles couldn’t beat opponents with size, they’d have to do it with speed.

Kennedy began to design an offense that was centered around passing, one that had the potential to even the playing field against the most talented teams in the conference. If BC played its cards right, it could hang with every other ACC program. And it did.

But first, the Eagles had to get through the non-conference slate—a test that they passed with flying colors. BC burst onto the scene, opening the season with a program-best 9-0 start. The Eagles won nine of their first 10 sets against the likes of Providence, Hartford, and Sacred Heart before sweeping both the Grand Canyon University Invitational and the Dartmouth Invitational.

“I was thinking I should probably retire at that point,” Kennedy said, chuckling.

BC finally lost its first match of the year on Sept. 13, falling to Harvard in five sets. Yet, a week later, Kennedy’s team got back on track in the biggest of ways. The Eagles won their first two ACC contests of the season, besting Clemson and Georgia Tech to start 2-0 in conference play for the first time in program history.

As the season wore on, though, the Eagles’ record started to take a hit. BC endured both a seven and a five-game losing streak, separated by a three-set sweep over North Carolina. Amid the five and a half week stretch, BC dipped below .500, making its undefeated start seem like a distant memory. Rather than panic, Kennedy put the situation in perspective.

In the 12 matches that the Eagles dropped, they only lost 10 sets by more than five points. Not only that, but BC had back-to-back match points in the span of five days, first at Wake Forest and then at Virginia. Kennedy was quick to point out that, a couple years ago, the Eagles wouldn’t even be in that position.

In order to keep his players in check, Kennedy employed a plus/minus system, similar to the metric used in hockey and basketball. He believes that the statistic allows him to objectively evaluate his roster, while holding his players accountable to a standard of excellence. Additionally, it promotes a multi-dimensional style of play. For instance, if a player logs an error on one end, they can make up for it with a block on the other.

As the calendar turned to November, Kennedy incentivized the home stretch of the season for each graduating class. For the seniors, they still had a chance to get to .500 and leave the program with more wins in 2018 than they had recorded the previous two years combined. The juniors, on the other hand, had a chance to build momentum that could be carried over to the following season. Meanwhile, the underclassmen served as the spark plug for a new era of BC volleyball.

The Eagles ended the year just like they started it: on the rise. BC won two of its final three matches of 2018 to wrap up the year with a 15-15 record—its highest win total in 15 years. To put that in perspective, the Eagles had never won more than 14 matches since it joined the ACC in 2005. As far as Kennedy’s concerned, however, the Eagles’ record only told part of the story. He believes their consistent play and resilience are real source of optimism.

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orey Baum remembers the first time she saw Kennedy. She was 13 years old, playing on the West Orange High School court in Winter Garden, Fla. Baum assumed that the USC assistant was there to scout other players—in reality, he was watching her.

After her match, Kennedy gave one of his cards to Baum’s coach. She called him, and the rest was history. Since, the two have been talking on the phone once every other week, not just about volleyball, but life in general. Kennedy got to know her parents, and she even flew out to California a couple times to see USC and the coaching staff.

Baum was sold on USC and, of course, Kennedy. So much so that two months after Kennedy took the job at BC, Baum followed suit, flipping her commitment in March 2018. Fellow Class of 2019 recruit Gabby McCaa joined the libero, leaving what was regarded as one of the best recruiting classes in the country to come to Chestnut Hill. Coupled with three additional prospects, Baum and McCaa spearheaded an Eagles recruiting class that falls inside PrepVolleyball’s Top 55, the best ranking in program history.

“I couldn’t imagine myself playing for anyone but him,” Baum said.

Baum has Kennedy’s back, just as he has her’s. She wants to do whatever it takes to help him make history at BC. An early enrollee, Baum’s been practicing with the Eagles since January. Even though she’s a freshman, she’s more experienced than many players on the team, at least in terms of her relationship with Kennedy. She knows what he’s looking for and isn’t afraid to help the others continue adapting to his expectations.

“It’s almost like he has one extra person to help get his culture the way he wants,” Baum said.

Kennedy and Baum have a special bond, but he treats all of his recruits with the same kind of respect. Sure, he measures their skill level, but he also sees them for who they are.

“[He] makes every kid feel valued, feel important—which, coming from a top-five program in the country, you just don’t see that type of outreach or that type of charisma from some of those bigger schools,” said Prinzbach, who originally met Kennedy at a high academic camp in Northern California a few years back.

Kennedy and Prinzbach establish relationships with recruits years in advance, texting and calling about everything ranging from on-court performances to science projects. Kennedy isn’t turning BC volleyball around for himself—he says it’s about the group, the program.

“There’s only so many opportunities out there where you feel like you have a chance to do something pretty special and you’re not just trying to rebuild something,” Kennedy said. “This is isn’t necessarily to me a rebuild, it’s a redefinition of what we want this program to be.”

Featured Image by Bradley Smart / Heights Editor
Photo by Tiger Tao / Heights Staff

Andy Backstrom

Andy served as the sports editor and managing editor of The Heights, wrote over 450 articles, covered hundreds of Boston College sporting events, and made lifelong friends in McElroy 113. Like what you see? Follow him on Twitter @andybackstrom.

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