Ryan Baker’s Crash Course in Coaching

Ryan Baker's Crash Course in Coaching

Dan Glaser

Entering this weekend’s Patriot League Tournament, Raider volleyball had a 16-12 overall record and an 11-3 mark in conference play. Colgate ended up finishing in third place and matched the 1999 team’s school record for conference wins. That team advanced to the NCAA Tournament and the 2007 Raiders will join them if they beat Army tomorrow night and then either Navy or American in the Championship match.

One can point to many factors responsible for Colgate’s turnaround from its 7-20 overall record a mere two years ago. The record-breaking play of junior libero Jackie Adlam has taken countless points off the other team’s tally. A deep crop of underclassmen, such as sophomores Kelsea Loveless and Meghan Fanta and first-year Casey Ritt, improved the attack and setting. All four players along with junior Katrina Zawojski have been recognized for a slew of conference awards for their play.

But any discussion has to begin with Head Coach Ryan Baker. The second-year head coach has raised the team’s level of play and intensity. Take, for example, the team’s come-from-behind win against Navy on the road and near knock-off of top-ranked American.

Baker was a standout volleyball player growing up in New York Mills, a suburb of Utica, and then played four years for Ithaca College’s club team. Ithaca’s women’s volleyball coach, Janet Donovan, noticed Baker’s passion for the sport and asked him to become a team manager during his sophomore year.

“I hit balls and set up the net, but later on she let me run drills and be involved in coaching decisions,” Baker said in an interview last Friday. “She’s been to two Division III Final Fours, won 500 games, but she trusted me and I owe a lot to her for what’s happened since.”

Even so, Baker graduated from Ithaca in 2003 with a degree in broadcast journalism. He interned for WKTV in Utica during his summers and planned to send tapes to other TV stations to begin a reporting career after college.

But prior to securing a job in that field, the school offered him a position as a graduate assistant on the women’s team.

“I got to work with the volleyball team again and they paid for the start of my Master’s Degree program [which he completed this past summer],” Baker said. “By now, I was calling serves and running the defense. Coaching had become my dream.”

After Ithaca enjoyed a 24-19 season and an appearance in the ECAC Upstate New York championship match, Baker was hired by Clarkson to be its new volleyball coach. Despite being only a year removed from college, Baker had to run nearly every aspect of his program while being aided by only one part-time assistant. He made it work though, as the Golden Knights went 22-11, good enough for third in the D-III Liberty League. Six Clarkson players made the conference’s all-academic team, and Baker credits his players for making that year a success.

“[They] knew I knew the game, and never questioned me from the first day I stepped in the gym,” he said.

After hearing that Colgate had an opening for an assistant volleyball coach, Baker jumped at the opportunity.

“I knew about Colgate from growing up in New York Mills. I even went to some hockey games at Starr Rink. Janet got in touch with [Associate Athletic Director and former volleyball coach] Vicky Chun and they both agreed that it was a good post for me. I met with [former head coach] Jenna Panatier and was hired,” he said.

Panatier left after the 2005 season in which Colgate went 7-20, capping a three-season stretch where the Raiders went a combined 20-60. Still, Baker says that it was a productive year for his development as a coach. He formed good relationships with the players and learned how to recruit at the Division I level.

“I had a lot to learn about [recruiting], especially with both scholarships and Colgate’s academic requirements,” Baker mentioned. “I hoped I’d get the head coaching job, but I knew they’d get excellent candidates from around the country. It was the longest two months of my life to find out if they’d pick me.”

He was prepared to enroll at Duke University, where he would volunteer with their volleyball team and continue his Master’s study. But upon concluding his search, Athletic Director David Roach decided that Baker was the right choice for rebuilding the Colgate volleyball program.

“He had a passion for the game, Colgate and our student-athletes,” Roach said in a telephone interview. “His ability to push them while still caring about them really fit the ‘X-Factor’ I like in coaches.”

Baker insisted to his players that the goal for 2006 was to restore pride, confidence and fun to Raider volleyball.

“We had talent, but didn’t know how to play as a team,” Baker said. “I emphasized having everyone compete for starting jobs, but our players were smiling again.”

Coupled with the addition of Fanta and other recruits, many of whom played for championship-caliber high school teams, results improved dramatically. The Raiders nearly doubled their win total from seven to 14, the most since 1999.

Adlam smashed the single-season digs record and won Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year, while Zawojski earned conference first-team honors after finishing third in kills. Both playes made the all-Patriot League first-team this year but Ritt (all-Patriot League second team) and other players are now supporting them with outstanding play of their own.

“Never once have they shied away from competition and teamwork,” he declared.

In his spare time, Baker loves working on musicals, and he credits his summers performing with the Players of Utica Theatre for aiding his coaching mindset.

“I’ve probably done 18 live musicals now,” Baker noted. You need to move on from mistakes, which are inevitable, and just keep getting better, whether it’s on the next line or the next point. That’s why I emphasize having fun on the court. I know the players can get worried, because I do on stage, [but] we have to remember that it’s ultimately a game.”

Baker’s successful methods are gaining notice throughout the sport, as he will assist with tryouts for the 2008 U.S. Olympic volleyball team in February. He also coaches at prominent volleyball camps each summer.

“He’s willing to listen to people who went through similar things in order to get better,” Roach said.

Whatever happens this weekend, Baker and the Raiders want 2007 to start a trend.

“I want us to eventually contend for the conference title each year, if not do well in the NCAA Tournament,” Baker declared.