Breaking fingers, winning matches: TCU hopes to build on remarkable turnaround

By all accounts, TCU women’s coach Jason Williams is pretty mild mannered. He isn’t prone to animated lectures and barely raises his voice. He gets his point across without histrionics.

It all belies his past as a football player at Austin College.

Although there have been a time or two when Williams lets his football side come out. Just ask Audrey Nalls. In 2022, Williams’ first season at TCU after a longtime stint as an assistasnt at Baylor, Nalls went from underachieving to overwhelming, as evidenced by her first-team All-Big 12 selection.

Audrey Nalls passes at Wisconsin/Michael Clements, Ellman Photography

“He didn’t try to change a whole lot of my style of play,” said Nalls, a fifth-year outside hitter from Waxahachie, Texas. “For him and me — and for the whole team — it was more like, if you’re a hitter, you are hitting high, and you’re breaking fingers.”

Williams confirmed the story.

“I put her on a no tip or roll rule,” he said. “I was like, ‘Audrey, you have a cannon. Why would you use a BB gun? Stop doing all this tip and roll crap and just crush balls and break fingers.’ ”

That simple, direct approach to the game helped TCU make one of the most remarkable turnarounds in Division I in 2022. After going 2-14 in Big 12 play in 2021, the Horned Frogs went a program-best 11-5 last season — 17-11 overall — and made it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016. They upset Washington before losing in the second round to Wisconsin.

It should be noted that Williams didn’t hang up his helmet and magically transform into a volleyball mastermind. After two years of football at Austin, he played beach volleyball, serving mostly as a setter. He also married a setter, the former Cory Sivertson, the first volleyball player inducted into Baylor’s athletic hall of fame. Not coincidentally, their daughter, Callie, played at Baylor and after transferring to TCU also made the Big 12 first-team last year,

From there he worked his way through the club and junior ranks before landing as an assistant at Baylor. He was with the Bears from 2015-22 then was ready to take on the challenge of having his own program.

Before Williams’ arrival, TCU had six consecutive seasons of sub-.500 volleyball in the Big 12. Interest across campus had waned, and the program seemed to be stuck in neutral.

So what led to the abrupt turnaround, the biggest by any Power 5 team last season? Williams attributed it, in part, to being an older first-time coach. He had been around the block and had seen Baylor achieve a good amount of success in his time on the sidelines there.

He also credited his assistants, including Kyle Luongo, he held over from the previous coaching staff.

“I have a rockstar staff,” Williams said. “They’re all around the same age, mid-30s, and they’ve all been in the game a long time. That’s one of the best pieces of advice I ever got: Hire people smarter than yourself, and you’ll be OK.”

Williams said he also tried to keep things simple. To be sure, he set certain standards he expected to be met. Otherwise, he didn’t try to pile too much on his players.

The final piece of the puzzle was Callie. A setter – surprise, surprise – Callie Williams finished at TCU for her final season under her father’s watch. She amassed more than 1,000 assists (9.29 per match).

“It was definitely a huge turnaround,” said Nalls, who had 424 kills last season (3.85 per set). “Jason coming and bringing his daughter along … we wanted a new excitement for volleyball. We wanted to love the game again.

“It’s really a lot of the confidence as well. A lot of us girls who had been here, we kind of lost confidence. We go 0-14 — or whatever it was — and it’s just an immediate switch the next year. So it was gaining back the trust and the confidence.”

The turnaround wasn’t instantaneous. Williams said it was a good eight to nine months before his players fully understood his system and his expectations. The new, aggressive style took some getting used to as well. Williams said the team lost some games early because he “would not let them get into these pillow fights that I call it. Be aggressive because it’s going to pan out down the road.”

The proverbial light bulb came on during a late-September match against Baylor in Waco.

After the Bears cruised to a 25-13 win in the first set, TCU battled back to force overtime in the second set before falling 29-27. The Frogs then earned a breezy 25-15  victory in the third set.

And though Baylor ended up winning in four, Williams said he could sense something was happening. His intuition was confirmed three days later when his team earned a 24-26, 25-16, 25-19, 25-18 win over Iowa State.

The senior class hadn’t beaten the Cyclones before.

“A lot of players were like, ‘We’re not that far from Baylor,’ ” Williams said. “The last couple of years, they thought beating Baylor was literally unattainable.

Audrey Nalls

“And then we beat Iowa State at home the next game, and I think at that point, everybody thought, ‘OK, we can actually win some games in the conference this year.’ ”

Added Nalls: “He saw potential in us and wanted to bring out the best in us and make it fun. … We just really trusted what he was going to do for us, and he just brought out the fun side of volleyball for us.”

Of course, now the question becomes: What do the Horned Frogs do for an encore?

Suddenly the program has expectations. Suddenly there’s a bit of a buzz around campus, as evidenced by the record average attendance for home matches last season (1,642).

“To me, you’ve got to work two times harder than you did last year to kind of even get back to where you were last year,” Nalls said. “… You probably have to put a little more in than you did last year just to kind of stay up to pace with yourself.”

The return of Nalls, who played club volleyball with Texas right side Molly Phillips, will be a huge lift. Williams said he played “Jedi mind tricks” with Nalls last season to instill in her the belief that she could be an All-Big 12 player. At the end of it all, he said, she probably was disappointed she didn’t make All-American.

“This will be probably her final season,” Williams said. “I don’t think she wants to play beyond this. She wants to be an All-American. She wants to take the team to a place it’s never been.

“Last year was awesome, but this year is going to be twice as hard for the team to get where we were last year. She’s got to be a little smarter with her choices, and teams are going to game plan for her.”

Nalls spearheads a lineup that Williams calls “pin heavy.” Julia Adams, a 6-foot-3 grad outside from Plano, Texas, averaged more than three kills per set last season. Sophomore outside hitter Jalyn Gibson could be poised for a breakout year after averaging nearly two kills per set last season.

“She has just been a rock star in the spring and in the summer,” Nalls said of Gibson. “I really feel like it’s her time to let it shine a little bit.”

Melanie Parra

TCU will get a big lift from the arrival of Melanie Parra. A 5-11 junior from Mexico, Parra, a six-rotation player, won a national championship with Texas last season. She is a serving assassin who couldn’t crack the tough Texas lineup, but most observers agree she could be special with playing time.

The thin but high-jumping Parra, who plays outside hitter for the Mexican national team, appeared in only 45 sets for the Longhorns last season and said she was looking for a better opportunity to play.

Though she still has some challenges with communicating in English, she is fluent in volleyball.

“She has an elite serve,” Williams said. “She is an amazing volleyball player, and she knows how to score. Last year, Audrey was our high scorer (470.5 points), but now Melanie is going to draw some attention, which, I hope, frees up Audrey to be really, really good where teams can’t focus on her.”

Added Nalls: “Melanie has been just awesome to be around, just learning from her. … The volleyball, it’s just so natural for her, and just to have that image in the gym that we can kind of all pick off of, that’s going to be a huge deal for us to even learn from her.”

Said Parra: “It was difficult (at Texas) because I didn’t play too much, but I am so happy to win a championship. I play (on the national team) versus people who play pro. They are 30 years old … really old for me. So maybe that helps me more to have a really good game here at TCU.”

Helping to shore up the middle for the Horned Frogs will be Bri Green, a transfer from Denver who was an All-Summit League performer. Another transfer, 6-1 Riley Buckley from Missouri, will take over the setting duties.

Buckley started all 28 matches for the Tigers as a freshman last season and had the third most total assists (958) of any freshman in a Power 5 conference.

The defensive specialist/libero battle in preseason also will be key. California freshmen Meg Walsh and Jaylen Clark are, in Williams’ words, “elite in serve receive.” Junior Cecily Bramschreiber, who saw limited action last season because of a foot injury, also will be in the mix for the defense.

Though there are plenty of moving parts that need to come together, Williams said he already can see a difference in the team from last season.

“In the 2019 year (at Baylor), when we went to the final four … that summer was the first time the team actually took summer seriously. I would say, last year, I tried to warn them (TCU) they did not take summer as seriously as I wanted, but the season still worked out.

“This summer, they have taken it serious. … I was able to walk through the gym and see what they were doing, and I was really impressed with the upperclassmen really trying to hold to the standard, and the level of participation seemed to be enthusiastic from what I saw.”

Williams will find out right away where his team stands as, for the second consecutive season, the Horned Frogs will open the regular season with Friday against No. 7 preseason Minnesota and then No. 2 Wisconsin the next day. Both Big Ten clubs swept TCU last season.

But there’s a good bet the Horned Frogs won’t shy away from the competition. Fingers on the other side of the net might not be safe.

Simple and direct. That’s the way TCU will play. Just the way Williams coaches them.

“Obviously, we want to do well in the conference,” Nalls said. “We want to make the NCAA Tournament, but we want to go further than the second round. I think that’s always the goal. We got a little taste of it last year. What can we really do with it this year now that we’ll have a full year of training and experience?”

Said Parra: “We can try to win the championship. It will be difficult, but we have a really good team, so we can do it.”

Jason Williams talks to his TCU team during a timeout at Wisconsin in the 2022 NCAA Tournament

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