They say you must play the best if you want to be the best. Trent Kersten’s first official game as head coach of the LMU volleyball team qualifies: LMU faces the University of Texas, the No. 1 team in the nation and the 2022 national champions, on Aug. 26, at Long Beach State University. Kersten was hired in January 2033, after a three-year stint as head coach of San Jose State University. In his final year at SJSU, he took the team to its best conference finish, 2nd, most conference wins, 14, and a 21-9 record. He has been involved with the USA Volleyball High Performance programs. Kersten was interviewed about the Texas match, his philosophy, and his goals for the team by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch
You’re opening match this season, against the University of Texas, the 2022 national champion and the No. 1-ranked team this year, is just days away on Saturday, Aug. 26 at Long Beach State. How does an opportunity like that shape a team and a program like ours?
We want to be a program that puts ourselves in the toughest situation we can against the highest level of adversity. It’s a great opportunity to play against the defending national champions. In a match like that, you go out and give it your best shot, play your brand of volleyball, see where you get exposed, learn from it, adjust, and get better. They’re going to expose us in some ways, and, hopefully, they get exposed. I’m really fired up for that match. And we play a really good Long Beach team the next night. Our schedule is loaded with teams that are going to finish in the top three of their conferences.
You’re following in the footsteps of two LMU coaches, Tom Black and Aaron Mansfield, who elevated the program during their tenure. Is your challenge different when you take on a program that has been improving compared to one that has to build from the bottom?
Every team has new challenges that are going to be novel to a situation, even if the challenges are similar and whether you’re going from a tournament team that’s trying to be a Sweet 16 team or a team that wants to be in the tournament mix. A lot of the difficulties are similar, but the people are always different. So, everything is novel. You have to have a lot of grace as a coach and try to inspire a level a play and a level of commitment that it takes to play at a tournament level or a Sweet 16 level. Obviously, this program has been successful. But in my very first call to my team, I said if we’re not dreaming bigger than that, then that’s an issue. Yes, we are a small private school in L.A., but our volleyball program is pretty elite, and we can compete at a high level. As coaches, we have a really good idea of what it takes to play at that level and the commitment that is required.
You inherit a program with recent success. As a new coach, do you also inherit recruiting advantages because of that success, or do you have to start with a clean slate?
A little bit of both. What previous coaches did for the program is a really big deal for LMU volleyball. So, you have come into a program and appreciate the history and tradition of excellence that it has. That being said, you have to recruit people with the vision for the style that you want to play. You have to get people who are in alignment with it and want to be part of it and who are committed to the craft. You want to play at a really level and graduate students at a really high level, and you want to have a lot of fun. So, it’s a combination of respecting what was done before and using that momentum plus your vision for where you want to go.
You’re a coach in the USA Volleyball National Team Development Program, working with U18 and U19 players. How does that benefit you as coach of LMU’s team?
Any time you get to work with the highest caliber of athletes in the country, and also when you’re surrounded by the highest level of coaches cross the country, it elevates your approach and gives you new ideas to bring back to your work. I’ll continue to be involved in USA volleyball in whatever capacity I can. My biggest mentor is John Speraw, the head coach of the program, and we talk every other week. Here at LMU, we’re trying to bring what’s happening in the international game to our gym on a day to day basis and help us play better, and hopefully also preparing our student athletes to play professionally. I want our young women to have the option of playing pro and feeling that they have to skill set to play pro and perform very well whether that’s in Italy, Poland, or wherever they want to go.
In basketball, you sometimes see teams that try to play a half-court game, a slower style with set offenses. In volleyball, it seems as if I never hear a coach who says they want their team to play something other than a fast-paced style. Is that style pretty much universally pursued in D-1 volleyball?
D1 volleyball is definitely fast, in just about every facet of the game. That being said, there are teams that try to slow the game down a little bit. Should that be our default at LMU? No, I want to play fast. Our team is comfortable with that, and we have two phenomenal setters who can run that offense. We’ll play fast. We want smart, situational volleyball players, and we want to cause stress for the opponent with our systems but not at the detriment of hitting the ball as hard as we can as often as we can.
Kolby brings experience as a coach at the NCAA Sweet 16 level. He’s recruited lots of highly talented athletes. I’m excited to see his day-to-day impact on the team. This is Sarah’s first full season in coaching, so I’m excited to see her growth. The team absolutely adores her, and she’s our ultimate connector. She’s going to help elevate the team in a lot of ways. So much of the credit should go to them.
Does the departure of BYU from the West Coast Conference, a perennial conference power, change the competitive environment for LMU volleyball?
No, we’re not talking about anything other than what standards do we need to create in order to win the WCC championship. Their departure means the loss of two Sweet 16-level matches. But they’re on our pre-conference schedule, and we’re playing them in Provo. It’s always hard to play in Provo, it’s a tough place. But, why not accept that challenge? If you look at our schedule this year, you’ll see that we aren’t scared to schedule anybody. Let’s go play a high-level match in a tough environment. That’s what the first round of the NCAA tournament is going to look like for us. Hopefully we’re in that conversation in December, and we have a bunch of experience going into it.