Penn State mainstay brings passion to Cavaliers
Pennsylvania native Dennis Hohenshelt brings winning history, demanding style to Charlottesville
Dennis Hohenshelt had been a Pennsylvania man his whole life. It was where he went to school and played volleyball. It was where he coached men and women, high school players and college student-athletes. It was where he started a family and thought he would live and work until he retired. But Jan. 26, 2012, Hohenshelt became a Virginian, and he could not be any happier.
*The Keystone State *
After growing up in Harrisburg, Pa., Hohenshelt attended Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., where he was a member of the men’s volleyball team and earned his bachelor’s degree in secondary education and social sciences. He became an assistant coach and later head coach in 1996 at Juniata after graduating. Then in 1997, he started a 16-year chapter of his life at Penn State.
Hohenshelt was named an assistant coach on the Penn State men’s volleyball team in 1997, a position he held for 10 years. His tenure included an appearance in the 2006 national championship game, the team’s first in 11 years.
That success was followed by six seasons as an assistant on the Penn State women’s volleyball team under legendary head coach Russ Rose. During Hohenshelt’s time with the team, the Nittany Lions won four consecutive national championships from 2007-2010, and nearly broke the NCAA Division I record for longest winning streak in a team sport with 109 consecutive victories while compiling a 199-18 record. Hohenshelt was involved in match preparation, player development and recruiting, and he helped guide Arielle Wilson as she set the NCAA Division I record for career hitting percentage.
“It was a great experience, it was a place I could have lived for another 16 years and retired,” Hohenshelt said. “It’s a great athletic department to work for, with great coaches and great student-athletes.”
Meanwhile in Charlottesville, women’s volleyball head coach Lee Maes seemed unable to improve the program. Virginia’s record dipped in three out of his four seasons from the previous year. Maes brought in the first two ranked recruiting classes in Virginia history, but failed to earn a winning record in all but his first season.
Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage revealed that Maes had resigned Nov. 29, 2011. The announcement came four days after the Cavaliers dropped their last match of the season at home against Virginia Tech, finishing an abysmal 10-20 overall and 4-16 in the ACC. The athletic department immediately began looking for a replacement to turn around the program. One name kept coming up: Dennis Hohenshelt.
Hohenshelt’s dream had always been to become a head coach. He had enjoyed his fair share of success at Penn State, but having a team of his own meant something more. His dream finally came true Jan. 26, 2012 when Hohenshelt accepted the head coaching position at Virginia. After spending almost his entire life in Pennsylvania, he now had a new home waiting for him in Charlottesville.
“It was sort of hit the ground running, don’t really have time to even think, had enough clothes to get by for a few days, trying to figure out what’s what, find a place to live and still be able to go see the family back at Penn State,” Hohenshelt said. “In a way, I think that it was a good thing that there was so much for me to do that I really never had time for shock. I thought, ‘Let’s go, let’s get to work.’”
The Cavalier Coach
Hohenshelt’s first job was to find two assistant coaches who could help implement the changes he had in mind. The first hire was Stevie Mussie, then an assistant at NC State, to serve as recruiting coordinator and oversee the offense. The second hire was Aaron Smith, a former assistant at Northwestern and a player under Hohenshelt at Penn State.
“[Hohenshelt’s] definitely a players’ coach,” Smith said. “He knows how to relate with his players, and that was something I found attractive when I went to Penn State. I felt like I could talk to him. I felt like he connected well with all of the players in training. We understood what he wanted and what he was trying to teach us.”
With a coaching staff in place, Hohenshelt got to work teaching his new team his style of play. Having experienced a winning culture firsthand at Penn State, Hohenshelt had a good understanding of what was needed to improve the team. His core philosophy is that the players should not only play their hardest every match, but also push themselves every day in practice and in the gym.
“It’s definitely been a more competitive atmosphere, and we’ve all gotten better,” freshman hitter Kayla Sears said. “Now we just take everything more seriously. Everyone is in the same mindset of wanting to get better and making the program the best that it can be.”
The team has not yet turned a corner in Hohenshelt’s first season. The Cavaliers (5-14, 0-9 ACC) are in the midst of an eight-match losing streak and have yet to tally their first conference victory. But the team may be nearing a breakthrough after coming within one set of upending perennial ACC powerhouse North Carolina this weekend. Hohenshelt knows winning takes time, and he has no desire to be anywhere else.
“Everything has been first-class, everything they’ve done for us has been first-class, so we have to start rewarding the athletic department with some wins,” Hohenshelt said. “I think that will happen, and everything we need to win is here.”