Bartsch Infiltrates the Boys' Club

Michelle Bartsch and UCI libero Michael Brinkley
Ed Chan
Michelle Bartsch and UCI libero Michael Brinkley

Friday morning, after helping coach her team to a win that secured them a place in the men’s volleyball national championship match, UC Irvine Assistant Coach Michelle Bartsch handed in the team’s laundry to the attendant at UCLA.

“So, women’s volleyball?” they asked.

“No,” she sighed. “Men’s. Men’s volleyball.”

People just don’t understand this anomaly that is a woman coaching men’s volleyball. Especially not a woman just out of college herself.

An AVCA All-American, Bartsch and her University of Illinois teammates stormed all the way to the women’s national championship match in 2011. Although they lost to UCLA in the final, it was a season that broke many Illinois records, including claiming the program’s first-ever No. 1 ranking in the AVCA coaches’ poll.

Following that season, Bartsch shipped out to Puerto Rico where she played a season of professional volleyball before returning to Illinois to finish her undergraduate degree in sports management.

She graduated in December, and having nothing else scheduled until her wedding on June 22, Bartsch didn’t know how to fill such an awkward time slot. So she called the assistant coach from her last season at Illinois, David Kniffin, who had just secured the head men’s coaching position at UC Irvine and asked if he would like a volunteer assistant coach.

Which brings us to today.

Bartsch gives the UCI team the utmost credit in treating her with respect, although she admits she was nervous at the beginning, especially because she is so close in age to some of the older players.

“They listen to me,” she said, “which is nice. I was worried about them not respecting me at all, but I think because I played, and they actually saw me play because they were watching Knif when we were in the final four, watching him coach.”

Bartsch also has national championship-match experience that should prove valuable to the Anteaters tonight when they play BYU for the chance at the 2013 title. In fact, every person on the coaching staff at UCI has played in a national semifinal or final, at least once, some multiple times.

In the match, Bartsch will be monitoring serve and pass, as she always does, and helping libero Michael Brinkley stay focused in such a stressful situation.

“He’s amazing,” Bartsch says of Brinkley, “But he gets kind of antsy during a game, so I have to calm him down.”

Bartsch admits that she never pictured herself coaching men’s volleyball, and the faster game took some adjusting to.

“When I first got [to UCI] they gave me a whole bunch of video and I was watching it, and I was like rewind, slow motion, because this is really fast,” she said. “But I’ve adjusted to it. I didn’t think I had, but a couple of months ago . . . I went and watched a girls game, I was watching it online, and I was like ok, this is really slow.”

The best part about working with the men for Bartsch, a self-proclaimed “volley-nerd,” is learning new things.

“You can never know everything, but I’ve been playing [the women’s game] forever so new things are always awesome.”

And once they got over some terminology differences, the guys are learning a lot from her, too. As someone who has played the more ball control, longer-rally women’s game for years, she’s able to offer a different perspective on the men’s game.

“I don’t think they’ve ever been coached by a girl who’s played,” she said.

Bartsch is also not afraid to make the guys question the claims they make about the difference between men’s and women’s athletics.

“It’s funny comparing guys and girls because [the team] always makes fun of girls for being emotional and I think they’re just as emotional as girls,” she said. “And they don’t want to admit it. It’s funny because I can give them crap for that and they’re like ‘Ok, you’re right.’”

And she is. We witnessed more than a couple tears from the losing players on Thursday night from our courtside seats.

Although Bartsch says she hasn’t given much thought to life after her wedding, she mentioned a couple of possibilities. She’d like to continue coaching, although she couldn’t say if she would continue with the men or return to women’s. She doesn’t want to be a head coach, preferring instead to use her exceptional organizational skills (“I’m really organized and OCD about everything”) to be the best assistant coach she can be. Or, she could transition to the beach game, something she’s been working at since moving to Southern California. She recently attended a tryout for USA Beach and is still waiting to hear back. Then there’s always playing pro indoor in Europe, but definitely not going back to Puerto Rico where she had a rough experience playing for a team that wasn’t very good. The 2011 women’s volleyball national runner-up and All-Tournament team member is not a fan of losing.

But no matter where she ends up, Bartsch knows one thing: her husband-to-be will be joining her. That’s the best part about his field of study, computer science, he can pretty much find work anywhere.

Bartsch didn’t offer any predictions for tonight’s game, except to say she’s excited, mostly for the team.

“I think it will be a packed place, which will be awesome,” she said. “[The team has] learned so much this season, it will be nice for them to portray that and show everyone. . . They’ve all become actual volleyball players. With guys, compared to girls, there isn’t as much ball control. But that’s also because the guys hit it way harder, but they’ve actually developed a lot of ball control this season and it’s been nice to see that. Usually when you watch men’s it’s like missed serve, ace, kill.”

And Thursday’s matches gave a little preview of that ball control. There were quite a few long rallies, and tonight, with the teams a bit more evenly matched, we should be in for a great show.

After matches, when the teams and coaches funnel through and shake hands, Bartsch said she often has to deal with the opposing team’s coaches failing to acknowledge her, perhaps assuming she’s a member of the stats squad or something. We hope tonight, whether the ‘Eaters win or lose, coaching a team to a national championship match is enough to gain some respect for a very talented and knowledgeable young woman coaching men's volleyball at the highest collegiate level.

Correction: In the original version of this article, VBM stated at Bartsch is the only former Division I female volleyball player now coaching men's Division I volleyball. Cassie Crumal, a setter for William and Mary from 2007-2010, is a co-head coach for the men's volleyball team at Lees-McRae, a Division I program in Banner Elk, N.C. We apologizing for leaving Crumal out of our analysis.

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