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Watson, Seniors Find Balance in Only Year Together

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Coach Watson

Head coach Jason Watson is in his first year at the helm of the Razorback volleyball team. So far this season, the Hogs have posted a 3-18 record and are sitting in last place in the Southeastern Conference.

One of the challenges the first-year volleyball coach had to overcome when he first arrived in Fayetteville was how to win over the most experienced members of the program: the seniors.

“It is a challenge,” head coach Jason Watson said. “When I got here, the first meeting I had with this group is that they now have this new head coach and I asked them, ‘Who’s excited? Put your hand up if you're excited,’ and they all put their hand up and I did the same but I asked, ‘Who’s also really, really nervous and really concerned?’ and everybody put their hand up and so did I because it was new for everyone.”

But for the seniors and Watson, it’s been an amicable transition.

Seniors Danielle Harbin and Breana Jones both said they have never seen any type of defiance from the players toward Watson.

“That has never been the case,” Watson said.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been a learning curve for the seniors, however.

With the largest senior class in the Southeastern Conference with seven players, the season has not gone the way they hoped during their last hurrah as Razorbacks. The Hogs are tied for last in the SEC with a 3-18 record overall and just one win in conference as of Oct. 25.

“Certainly this hasn’t been the senior season that they’ve dreamed about, but when you’re talking about how the staff is going to talk to them and each other to move this thing forward, these seniors have done all the heavy-lifting in terms of changing,” Watson said.

Watson has acknowledged there has been some miscommunication between his players and the coaching staff, but not because of any disregard they might have for their coach.

“We haven’t had as much time as we would have liked to define the systems and what we’re trying to do,” Watson said. “Therefore, there isn’t this confidence that they can articulate what we’re trying to do because they are just not as familiar with what we’re doing it. I don’t view that as a negative, though.”

Jones said the seniors are still trying to learn Watson’s coaching style, even after 21 games of the season.

“Change is always difficult, but it's the way you handle the change, and I think we’re handling it in a positive way,” Jones said. “We listen to him, we respond to him and respect his authority.”

Transitioning from a coach like Robert Pulliza, who coached the Hogs from 2008-15 and was known for his more passionate and verbal personality, to a coach like Watson, who is more laid-back and less verbal, has been a major difference for the seniors.

“They’re completely two different people,” Jones said. “They’re both passionate, but they’re passionate in different ways. Jason is going to talk to you one-on-one and no yelling. On the other side (Pulliza) was more externally passionate and Jason is more internally passionate.”

The change is most noticeable during practices. Instead of yelling across the court at players when they make a mistake, Watson takes them aside personally and talks to them in a more conversational tone.

Jones said the seniors were not used to that kind of treatment.

“When you’ve been with someone for three years, you get used to their personality,” Jones said. “Then someone comes in and they’re on the opposite spectrum, it’s hard to know how to respond. Someone has been giving you immediate feedback and then someone now says ‘OK give yourself your own feedback and maybe I’ll come to you later.’”

At the beginning of the season, Watson and the team had hopes of reaching the NCAA tournament and to knock off volleyball powerhouses along the way. While that window has almost been closed, the team has different goals for the future of the program now.

“I’m just trying to get the team to stay in the moment,” Jones said.

For others, like Harbin, it’s about preparing the underclassmen for future success.

“For me, it’s helping the freshmen find their spot on the team and just getting this program back on track,” Harbin said. “Setting the foundation so when they come back next year they can be a force to be reckoned with.”

Harbin has been a bright spot for the Hogs this season. She admits the season was not what she had expected it to be.

Harbin leads the Hogs in kills per set, averaging about four per game, and also ranks in the top 25 in the country in attacks per set with 11.

Players like Harbin are difficult to replace, but Watson has been recruiting already this season in hopes to build for the future.

“The focus of down the line is part of the job,” Watson said. “I think they know that. I don’t think that me going recruiting is because I don’t care about the season. You have to do it; if not, you’re going to get behind.”

He said he still wants to be in the moment this season and not write the year off for the seniors already.

“We are definitely respected,” Jones said.

Harbin agreed with Jones, saying “this has definitely been treated like a normal year.”

With the 2016 season wrapping up and the seniors donning the cardinal and white for the last few times, Watson said he is sure their impact will be felt throughout the program for years to come.

“The emphasis has always been that these athletes leave the program in better shape than how they found it,” Watson said. “Any success we may have going forward is because of what (the seniors) did this season.

“It’s been tough, but I’ve been really proud of them.”

 

Alex Nicoll was the editor-in-chief of the Arkansas Traveler from 2017-2019. Before that, Alex was a sport designer, and he wrote stories for the news, lifestyles and sports sections.

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