Volleyball has been a significant part of 25-year-old Caroline Walters’ life for years.
She played growing up in Los Gatos, Calif. for what she said was as long as she can remember, received a scholarship to play at Santa Clara University, and three years ago, she became an assistant coach for the Cal Poly women’s volleyball team.
At the beginning of September she was offered another opportunity — becoming an interim head coach, taking over the position of head coach from Jon Stevenson.
“We tried to make it as normal as possible for the girls,” Walters said. “It comes fairly natural to me. The coaching aspect didn’t change that much.”
The team was only four matches into the season when the decision was made to offer Walters the job. Cal Poly athletics director Don Oberhelman said he’d “lost confidence in the former coach’s ability to lead the program” and turned immediately to Walters. She said her reaction to the offer was shock at first and then, “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
“I think she’s very bright, thoughtful, articulate and determined,” Oberhelman said. “When you make a change like that right at the beginning of the season, you want to try to make it as seamless as you can make it.”
Her sophomore year in college, her team at Santa Clara made it to the Final Four. After that, Walters said she saw volleyball from a more tactical point of view, and was always interested in coaching.
At 23, Walters was approached by Stevenson about the assistant coach position at Cal Poly — he had worked as a volleyball coach at Saint Mary’s, she said, and Walters played against his team while in college. Coaching at Cal Poly was her first time coaching a college team, and Walters said it’s been an amazing learning experience.
And she isn’t the only Walters associated with the team — her younger sister Kate is a setter on the Cal Poly squad. Walters said it’s a unique experience having her sister on the team, but it brings the entire group closer.
“In reality they’re all my little sisters,” Walters said.
Walters said as an assistant coach she saw herself as a confidant and more of a “bad cop,” but now she’s thinking more about what the players are thinking and developing an attitude of “we’re all in this together.” She now makes the decisions that, as assistant coach, she would formerly just support, along with the team’s other assistant coach Justin Hutchins.
As an assistant coach, Walters said she did a lot more planning for the girls, and now that that other person isn’t there, they’ve all had to take a little more responsibility.
Oberhelman said when he first got to Cal Poly approximately five months ago, he sat down with each of his staff members for a meeting — including Walters.
“I walked away very, very impressed with her,” Oberhelman said. “I said to myself, ‘She’s going to be a head coach very soon.’”
He said Walters is very young to have the position, but he still has great confidence in her ability to lead the program.
“My message to people would be: ‘Don’t judge her by her age, judge her by her experience,’” Oberhelman said.
History sophomore and outside hitter Kristina Graven said Walters handled the transition to the new position, and knows the game well.
“I think she’s a really good teacher,” Graven said. “She’s done a really good job of taking over the team and leading. She has a lot of different perspectives on how to do things.”
Walters said the best experience she has had coaching at Cal Poly is seeing the girls mature into adults, and teaching them lessons that they’ll use not only in playing volleyball but in the rest of their lives.
“Getting better every single day has been our motto,” Walters said. “Fighting for every point no matter what the score is … have that fire in your eyes for every single ball. I think we’ve been able to do that this year.”
The team hasn’t yet found its stride this season, Oberhelman said, but the women are getting a great educational experience and the wins will come. Great coaches show their temper and emotions, he said, but never lose control of them, and Walters has that ability.
Walters said the team’s goal is still to win the Big West, and the players are definitely improving.
“The results haven’t been ideal, but the attitude is fantastic,” Walters said. “We’re in control of our destiny.”