Since arriving at Arizona, junior setter Emery Herman has often mentioned that one of the biggest changes for her was getting so much feedback on each set at the college level. It wasn’t something she had ever experienced. The person responsible for compiling and giving that feedback is volunteer assistant coach Gwen Egbert.
“I have a grading system where I watch every single set of any drill where we have more than one or two people,” Egbert said. “I grade that out for all of them. So I grade them out on the location, tempo, and then I also grade them out on do they get to the ball—that’s a plus or minus. So they get graded out, so they get results every single day on how that happens. So they know then they know how to change. They know what needs to happen the next day.”
This year, she has two more young setters who she is training in sophomore Ava Tortorello and freshman Ana Heath. The two are getting acclimated to the change in training that comes at the college level, including all that feedback.
“This is the first time I’ve had a setting coach,” Heath said. “At club we didn’t have that. It was more like setting the ball up correctly for the hitters to get to, but here it’s very technique-based and that’s the main thing that’s totally different that I’ve improved on.”
Tortorello, whose mother Liz Tortorello-Nelson and aunt Sam Tortorello were both setters in the Big Ten, echoed that sentiment.
“I never had setting practice in club because we were just focused on playing and winning,” Tortorello said. “So here it’s been really nice just to have one-on-one experience with Gwen and Dave telling us technique.”
The changes aren’t always easy to deal with on an emotional level, though. Tortorello says she’s had to get used to taking the feedback, especially in the volume that it’s given at the college level. It’s a mindset that requires being open to coaching.
“I think like today, during practice, it got to be too much for me, the overload of just communication,” Tortorello said. “I think some days are better than others and some days you’re more willing to take that input on every set. I think it just depends on your attitude towards it. And you have to come in every day being willing to hear that input because if you aren’t, then you’re not going to have fun setting. I personally liked the input on every set, even though it’s hard to hear sometimes. It’s always really helpful.”
For Heath, it’s about being able to focus on which things to fix first. She said that she sometimes has to focus on one or two things, then move on to the other input.
Egbert took over training the setters during the second half of last season. Before that, they had always been the position group that head coach Dave Rubio oversaw. It got to a point where he felt he couldn’t give the rest of the team what they needed if he was intently focused on the setters.
“That freed me up to kind of coach everybody else,” Rubio said. “When you’re the setters’ coach, you tend to only be able to focus on that one position. And so it was always hard for me because I was always spending so much time with the setters that I wasn’t able to give as much feedback to other positions whether it be the middles, the littles, or the outside hitters. So, having Gwen here for the last couple of years has really helped out.”
The change took some time to fully implement.
“Last year, we spent quite a bit of time together kind of feeling out what I want,” Rubio said. “And then this year was pretty easy, and I think it was good for Emery just to kind of get away from me and my relentlessness coaching the setting position. It’s good for her to hear that voice and a different emphasis.”
Herman has drawn from both coaches.
“Gwen has coached [and] been around some of the best players in the nation...and just has a different insight, different views than Dave,” Herman said. “Not in a bad way, but just there’s more knowledge to add. Having two people versus one is always good, just more knowledge of the game. It’s been great. She just has a different way of coaching. She has a different coaching style than Dave does, and I think change is always good...having both of them I think has been great for me getting a lot of feedback.”
One thing Rubio thinks differs between his coaching and Egbert’s is a slightly different focus.
“I’m much more tactically driven,” Rubio said. “I think she’s really big on technique and I am too, but once we start playing I’m really a tactically-driven, strategy-driven coach. The location for setting is the most important thing that a setter does, which I understand, but I tend to kind of get caught up in this tactical part of it.”
Location was one of the things Egbert noted as an area that the Wildcats’ setters need to improve.
“Location and tempo and making that consistent in a match,” she said when asked what the focus is right now. “And we’re in a little bit of a slump on that right now, but we had a good practice today with that.”
Egbert is seeing other improvements in all three Wildcat setters.
“Ava has had a big jump from being a freshman last year,” Egbert said. “Learning and adjusting to the college level...has been a pretty big jump. I think Ana is really coming along. She’s really athletic, so that helps, and she’s a good learner. So she’s come quite a ways. And she came early, which also helps. Normally when they come in as a freshman, there’s so much to learn, and then they have school on top of it. The fact that she’s had a semester, that has really helped. Emery, being a junior, understands where she needs to be and how hard she needs to work. She’s always been a really hard worker, but just some of the things that Dave wants to do offensively, she’s kind of bought into those quicker and adapted quicker.”
As Gwen Pell, Egbert was a setter and hitter at Kellogg College and Nebraska in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She joined the Arizona staff last year after spending several years working at Rubio’s volleyball camps.
“I’ve known Gwen for a long time,” Rubio said. “She and I are of the same generation. She’s a couple years younger than I am but she’s certainly been around the game as long as I have. Throughout all my previous years of coaching, even at Bakersfield, I knew who she was. She was always one of the top club coaches and had one of the top teams in the club arena. And she coached some of the greatest players. You know, Jordan Larson has been one of the best outside hitters in the world for the last decade. But the relationship really became much stronger when [former Arizona assistant coach] Gregg Whitis was hired here. He and Gwen were really, really close and he was like, ‘We need to get Gwen to camp.’”
After spending several years working at Arizona camps, Egbert spent a season as the volunteer assistant coach at Indiana in 2020-21. The next year, she decided to come to Tucson to work with Rubio and to get out of the cold during the fall and winter months. Home is still in the Midwest, but she gets to experience a different city and way of life by coming out West.
As for why she decided to take on volunteer assistant coaching positions, Egbert told former Nebraska head coach Terry Pettit that the positions suited her because she didn’t have to be involved in recruiting. She could just help kids improve their skills, but she still got to coach at the Division I level.
After two years in the Pac-12, there are some things she misses about the Big Ten, though. The biggest one is chartered flights.
“It was really nice,” Egbert said. “You could bring whatever you want on the plane. So we buy all our stuff like at Costco or whatever, you can load it up on the plane. And once you land on the plane, you’d go to the airport, there’s no line, no nothing, they just check your ID. Then you get off and there’s your charter bus. I mean, it just saves so much time. When we were done, we could get right on and go home.”
It’s one thing the Wildcats would probably love to have as they go out on their second straight road trip this week to face Oregon State and Oregon.
Arizona Wildcats (10-3, 0-2 Pac-12) @ Oregon State Beavers (6-6, 1-1 Pac-12)
When: The match will be held Friday, Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. MST
Where: The match will be held at Gill Coliseum in Corvallis, Ore.
TV: The match will be aired on Pac-12 Oregon.
Stats: In-game stats will be available at Oregon State Live Stats.
Rankings: Neither team is ranked in the AVCA poll. Oregon State is No. 91 in the unofficial RPI as of Thursday at 1:20 p.m MST. Arizona is No. 74.
Rubio says: “Oregon State had a nice win against Cal in five. I was just scouting that match. But on the road—second week on the road for us now—and we haven’t been playing sharp. We haven’t been playing that well. So, right now, I don’t know what to tell you.”
Arizona Wildcats (10-3, 0-2 Pac-12) @ Oregon Ducks (8-2, 2-0 Pac-12)
When: The match will be held Sunday, Oct. 2 at 12 p.m. MST
Where: The match will be held at Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene, Ore.
Stream: The match will be streamed on Oregon Live Stream.
Stats: In-game stats will be available at Oregon Live Stats.
Rankings: Oregon is No. 16 in the AVCA poll and No. 7 in the unofficial RPI as of Thursday at 1:20 p.m MST. Arizona is No. 74.
Rubio says: “Oregon just had a great win against Stanford. I’m not sure if they’ve ever beaten Stanford since Matt’s been there, but they beat them in three. They’re on cloud nine. I’d rather play Oregon on Friday than Oregon State. Oregon has their all-star team of talent, so whether or not we can match up to that, we’ll see. But I’m actually not really concerned about either one of those teams. I’m more concerned about what we do on our side of the net and us playing better.”