Photo by Javier Gutierrez.
Photo by Javier Gutierrez.

The UC Santa Cruz men’s volleyball team wasn’t satisfied just making it into the top three rankings of the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA). The Slugs worked to hold their ranking for eight weeks straight.

Among various accomplishments for the team, Todd Hollenbeck received one of NCAA Division III’s prestigious awards in his fifth season as head coach, the 12th AVCA Coach of the Year award, a distinction earning recognition and respect from fellow coaches.

“It was definitely a surprise, but I’m honored,” Hollenbeck said. “I’m not really focusing on personal achievement, I’m just trying to be the best coach I can be.”

AVCA’s Coach of the Year award is decided by other Division III coaches who vote on a ballot that is sent out every two weeks. This year, the Southern California native led his team to a 6-1 record versus nationally ranked opponents and a perfect 9-0 against unranked teams.

For Hollenbeck, the journey to Santa Cruz comes after several career endeavors. The former NCAA Division I volleyball athlete from University of the Pacific dabbled in marketing, volleyball overseas and high school coaching before joining UCSC’s volleyball staff as an assistant coach in 2008. Three years later, he took the helm as head coach.

“Todd pours his heart and soul into this program because his commitment surpasses all other coaches I’ve played for,” said senior middle blocker Branden Torado. “I will miss playing for Hollenbeck more than I will miss the university. This four-year opportunity made me the man I am today. For this, I will always be thankful.”

Men’s volleyball secured a 24-6 record, which was a 10-game improvement following last year’s mark. The Slugs also finished with a top five win percentage of any NCAA Division III school (.8) and ranked fourth nationally in kills per set (12.64). However, the biggest challenge of the team’s season was its road schedule.

“[The Slugs] have an edge to their game because they’re coming from out west, teams don’t know them as well and Todd is changing that culture,” said Brad Wilson, AVCA’s award manager. “There simply aren’t enough Division III schools out west so his team had to travel a lot of mileage for games, which takes away the comfort of a home crowd.”

The Slugs played eight home games compared to 10 on the road, and 12 in neutral territory. Hollenbeck coached four All-Americans — Jake Landel, Jorge Reyes, Jake Hurwitz and Branden Torado — while leading his team to the NCAA quarterfinal where UCSC was defeated by Nazareth College in five sets.

Despite the early playoff elimination, Hollenbeck accomplished many on-and-off the court duties this season. His players and colleagues echo his ability to form bonds with his team, often noting his dedication by being willing to discuss anything.

“What makes Todd really special is he not only cares about his athletes’ performance on the court, he genuinely is concerned about their life outside the gym,” said Julie Roth, UCSC’s assistant athletics director.

While players list Hollenbeck’s coaching nature as extraordinary, a characteristic they often admired was his organization, crediting his ability to maintain focus through adversity.

“He kept us focused and organized with the goals we achieved this season,” said senior libero Jake Hurwitz. “It was not easy getting us to the NCAA Tournament with the schedule we had, so his award is well-deserved.”

As the off-season looms, Hollenbeck seeks to replace four seniors on the starting end but the seven current freshmen on the roster should help in alleviating some of that headache. A challenge this off-season will be attempting to ensure men’s volleyball remains in shape because Hollenbeck hopes to begin next season on a high note.

“We won’t see each other every day which makes things challenging,” Hollenbeck said. “We got to make sure to keep that never-be-satisfied mentality and keep pushing harder because we want more then what we have already accomplished.”