In the third set of the last match, not only as the coach but in Pacific’s volleyball future, down 6-1 to host UC Irvine, Joe Wortmann called time.
He talked some volleyball strategy to his Tigers, already down two sets to none, with an unlikely chance of extending the match to a fourth set against the defending NCAA champions.
And then as his team headed back onto the court, Wortmann inexplicably called time again, the last timeout of his men’s coaching career at Pacific.
Two days later, fighting emotion, he recalled the moment.
When he asked for the second timeout, even the ref questioned him.
“The kids didn’t know what I was doing. I was almost sobbing. I told them, ‘You know what? I’m done. I called that timeout because now it’s up to you. And the last thing I want to be able to say to you ever is to enjoy it and have fun.’
“So they knew I couldn’t call anymore timeouts. I told them I wasn’t subbing and to enjoy the moment.
“That’s how we ended it and that’s about all I remember, actually.”
Wortmann composed himself and laughed.
Not that he hasn’t cried the past nine months. It was back in August when Pacific athletic director Ted Leland told Wortmann his program was going to be eliminated.
Wortmann said he wouldn’t have been as surprised if he had been fired, but recruiting was on an upswing with a young team.
“I thought over the course of over the next few years with the graduation of so many players in our league and us being a young team, we would be in a great spot to contend in this league.”
It didn’t matter. Pacific president Pamela Eibeck told Leland he had to make cuts because of finances.
“I know he got put into a very difficult position by the president … I think he tried to do everything he could,” Wortmann said. “So we’re the ones who took the huge brunt of it.”
It was a heavy time for the coach.
“The emotion was like, like, well at that time I described it like a death. There were all the emotions when one dies. There was anger, frustration, fear, total sadness, just all kinds of stuff. And it played itself out over the I don’t know how many months since then.”
On the court it wasn’t pretty, although by most accounts the Tigers never just mailed it in. Some players transferred at the semester break and were eligible right away at their new schools. Pacific finished with an overall record of 3-24, 2-22 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.
But there was that one shining moment, in the Tigers’ last home match ever, when they swept Cal Baptist on April 5, 25-14, 25-18, 25-22. The team exulted; students swarmed the court and mobbed Wortmann, the only coach the program has ever known.
“That was a marvelous affair,” said Wortmann, a baseball player in college at Loyola Marymount. “Cal Baptist did not have a chance.”
There were still two road matches left, at UC San Diego and UC Irvine. As they were 16 times previously, the Tigers were swept 3-0 both times.
The last match, at Irvine, was April 12, a day Wortmann will never forget. That afternoon, Wortmann played golf at Torrey Pines with his 15-year-old son, Patrick, and two former Pacific players, Chris Tamas, and Darrell Dilmore.
It was a long time since that day in August when he got word this season would be his last. His first concern was his players and where they would land.
Ohio State got one this season and will get five others next year. One freshman played at Cal Baptist this season. Australian freshman Thomas Hodges may have played his last Pacific match at Irvine, but he’ll return as an Anteater next season. Big sophomore Marty Ross is also going to Irvine. Freshman setter Josh Stewart is going to Pepperdine. And on and on.
In the meantime, Wortmann has been hired as an assistant to Greg Gibbons on Pacific’s women’s team, meaning his career in Stockton has come full circle.
Twenty-six years ago John Dunning, now coach at Stanford, hired Wortmann as an assistant for his women’s program, and in his first five years at Pacific Wortmann started the men’s program and coached a girls club program.
“There’s a lot that I can offer coach Gibbons and the program. And since I was there before, I have a deep connection with the alums of the women’s program.”
Indeed. He noted that at least five of his former men’s players are married to former Pacific women’s players.
While he doesn’t start officially until July 1, Wortmann sounded excited to be staying not only in volleyball but also at Pacific. He, wife Sharon, Patrick and their 18-year-old son Christopher know Stockton as home in every respect.
He runs summer volleyball camps for boys and girls, but before then is going to take a much-needed vacation.
“This has been a very taxing year emotionally and even physically,” he said. “I had back surgery right before the decision was made and right before that I had eye surgery and have to go in for another one.
“I really need to take a vacation, for my family as well. There are things around my house that have been asking for 20 years if I ever was going to take care of them.”
Now he has time to reflect, regroup and ponder that last day as a men’s coach.
His last pre-match speech focused on key words, specifically family, gratitude and love, he said.
“I don’t think I got through anything for more than 10 seconds without getting emotional. I’ve always been emotional, I even started welling up talking to you, but some of it hasn’t hit me.”
After finishing at Irvine, more than 20 Pacific volleyball alums joined Wortmann for a get-together.
“I know the very last thing I told the group that gathered afterwards: that I have been blessed and thanked them all for being a part of my life,” Wortmann said.
“The good news is we are all continuing on with new adventures and new lives and I look forward to seeing how that unfolds.”