Spending a game on the bench with MSU volleyball’s McFatrich

“Fatch,” as he’s called by most who know him, is David McFatrich. He was hired earlier this year to be the new head coach of Mississippi State volleyball, coming with an extensive resume, a long list of references and a proven plan for building a program.

BZRTKQCRSNAGSTC.20150829040743In the months since his hire, McFatrich has continually expressed his confidence that MSU volleyball will be a contender, and soon. He’s serious about winning and serious about making sure all resources are exhausted to make it happen. But, what’s he like, as a coach, once the matches actually begin? I figured the best way to get to know MSU’s new head man was to spend a game with him on the court.

Moments after noon on Saturday, McFatrich was getting ready for his first match of the day and his third of the Bulldog Invitational, his debut on the court at MSU.

“Pack it up, pack it in,” he said to no one in particular as he nodded his head and the speakers blared and the final seconds before the match began ticked off the clock. “Let me begin. I came to win, battle me, that’s a sin.”

For those not as hip as Fatch – or perhaps just a good bit younger – those are the opening lines to ‘Jump Around,’ the House of Pain hit that was playing in the Newell-Grissom building.

That’s sort of McFatrich’s style, though. Not House of Pain, necessarily, but his laid-back attitude and pension for fun. He’s serious about winning volleyball matches, and MSU went 3-1 in his first weekend of action, but the part of Fatch that’s just a big kid is hard to hide. It doesn’t hurt that he even kind of looks like Tom Hanks’ character from Big when a teenage boy is mysteriously transformed to having a grown-up body overnight.

“Bob,” he said, looking at me after he finished singing the first verse, “let me know if you see anything out there. I might hand it off to you halfway through the match.”

The approach makes sense, and really it seems pretty necessary. As many matches as a volleyball team has to play – State had four this weekend alone – you have to be mentally prepared for such a grind. If the players are dedicating their college years to weight training, cardio fitness, technical practices and competitions every weekend, and if coaches are trading 8-5 jobs for endless hours of nights and weekends in gyms, buses and film rooms, then they sure as heck better be enjoying themselves in the process. You’ve got to have a little fun. A lot of fun, preferably.

It’s an approach that translates to play on the court, too, for McFatrich and his staff. To paraphrase, they tell the team its OK for them to make mistakes, as long as they make mistakes playing as hard as they can. It’s volleyball. There’s going to be a back-and-forth. That’s the whole idea, after all. McFatrich just wants his team to be aggressive, active and comfortable. He’ll work with them on the fundamentals, and ideally those become second nature, coming out subconsciously as the effort on the court is given.

Fatch is enjoyable to be around. It’s why two of his players followed him from Central Arkansas when he was hired at MSU. It’s also why I was quickly comfortable sitting on the bench in the middle of a match, perspiring players, note-taking coaches and knee-checking trainers surrounding me.

So, the match finally began, Mississippi State vs. Jackson State. MSU was missing a few starters from the lineup, coaches opting to make sure players got rest on a weekend with so much action. The Tigers were up 6-5 after several minutes of play in the first set.

“We’ve got to get our killer instincts here,” McFatrich yelled to his players. “Now.”

The Bulldogs won three of the next four points, going into the first timeout up 8-7.

Those who had been on the court got seats on the bench. The rest of the team huddled up around them as McFatrich offered a pretty blunt review. They were winning, but he wanted more.

“This is awful. I want you guys to go out there and dominate.”

That, I understood.

“I want a reverse-flow first option in transition.”

That, I did not understand. But it apparently made sense to them and before long MSU was just a few points short of winning the first set, leading JSU 22-17.

“Bob,” Fatch called to me after the final timeout, “they’re not listening to me. You’re taking over.”

FAPPDNSPHLAVAMH.20150830034940I didn’t take over, but MSU won anyway and switched benches in preparation for the second set. By the time that set started, I was able to watch the coaching staff a little more closely, finally having become comfortable with the routine of sitting on the bench.

For instance, every player gets a high five when they come off the court. They’ll hold their hand out for all the staff lining the bench (the players themselves stand in a group at the end of the bench) and it would be quite impolite to ignore the request.

And when there’s a timeout, the seat you’re in is no longer yours. I learned that during the first timeout when I was writing something in my notebook and looked up to find a pair of eyes at the top of a 6’1” body quizzically staring at me, clearly wondering, ‘Why are you in my seat?

Oh, and don’t sit next to someone on the bench. Leave an open chair between each person. And wipe it off with a towel after timeouts. Those things get sweaty in a hurry.

So I was finally able to watch the littler things as the match continued. McFatrich himself always stands at the end of the bench closest to midcourt. Graduate assistant coach Marissa Collins sits closest to him, the former Southland Conference Player of the year under McFatrich at UCA who is constantly taking notes and serving as his sounding board as the points are played. At the far end of the court, assistant coach John Newberry stands with a clipboard and notepad, constantly taking notes of his own to consult with McFatrich as the sets move along. Between the two, student manager Kelly Costeira keeps a detailed log of statistics as the match is played.

During timeouts, there seems to be a natural flow of who leads. For some, McFatrich talks to the team as a whole. For others, the players talk to themselves, one captain or another typically taking charge. In some instances, McFatrich will pull a player or two aside for a specific message while the rest of the players hear from Newberry or Collins.

Whatever happens, there’s a mix of encouragement, direction and, of course, short rest.

By the time I finally figured it all out, MSU had cruised to victory, taking down JSU in straight sets.

“Good job, Buddy,” McFatrich said while shaking my hand in congratulations for the absolutely nothing I had done to contribute. “That was fun.”

Yes it was.

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