It’s been an eventful opening to the season for Vassar Women’s Volleyball team. Vassar hosted the Seven Sisters Championship last weekend on both Saturday Sept. 13 and Sunday Sept. 14. It was during their game against Mount Holyoke College that VCWV Coach Jonathan Penn hit his three hundredth win, a huge milestone for a coach that has been with the program for the past eighteen years. The whole weekend, however, was a great success for the team, with three decisive victories ending with the scoreline at 3-0. The Brewers only sustained one loss the entire weekend at the hands of Wellesley. It looks to be a fine start to the season for the team and Coach Penn, whose three hundredth win can only be a good omen for this year.
Coach Penn has been playing volleyball since he discovered the sport in middle school and for him it was love at first spike; “That was it, I knew there was nothing else I wanted to play.” Penn’s history with the game is outstanding and the caliber of those coaches that he’s had the pleasure to play under is what really drove him into becoming a coach. “I was really lucky to play in Southern California when I did, as it was sort of like the renaissance in Men’s Volleyball. Part of it was the people I was able to play under, Gary Sato was one of the greats. I got to play for Tom Tait, whose one of the legends of the game. I was lucky enough to have some of volleyball’s greatest players as my coaches.” Gary Sato is now the assistant coach of the U.S. Men’s Volleyball Team, while Tom Tait is widely considered the father of the men and women’s volleyball program at that institution. It may be going too far to suggest that Coach Penn could hold a similar title here at Vassar, but with three hundred wins to his name and six liberty league championships, he is Vassar’s most successful volleyball coach to date.
Coach Penn was originally hired in 1996 on a one-year interim basis. One of the greatest appeals of coming to coach at Vassar was the freedom that he available with the program as a whole, “I could coach both men and women’s team. Being at a place where I could coach both genders was hard to turn down.” After his first year and his clear proficiency for the game and coaching, the athletics department had no choice but to keep him on. Having secured his position, Coach Penn created a list of five-year goals for the volleyball program and went about achieving those. “I felt from very early on that the women’s program should be a nationally recognized and nationally competitive team. There were a range of five year goals; the first five years was to be in the NCAA tournament, and the next was to be regionally ranked, which we got, and the third five was to win the conference.” Coach Penn hit every single one of these goals.
Vassar championed the Liberty League seven years running, from 2001-2007, they retained the Liberty League title. Since then Vassar has not been able to regain their space at the top. Coach Penn believes its the standard of the league as a whole that’s progressed, “Everybody’s getting better, and the other team’s in the Liberty League have improved so much over time, and now everyone’s up there with us after we set the standard all those years ago.” Vassar raised the bar in the Liberty League and Coach Penn is confident that his team can live up to the standards their predecessors left for them, “The league is the most competitive it’s ever been, but I also think there isn’t a team in it that we can’t beat. Every match is going to be a grind but I don’t.”
It’s obviously not just about winning for Coach Penn who works closely with his players to make sure that they’re achieving to their greatest potential both on and off the court. “We’re real big believers that what we do as a team and as a program echoes into the rest of their lives. We have a set of core values that we’ve developed together, for both on and off the court. We want to push integrity, responsibility and respect.” Senior Taylor Mosley attested to this attitude, saying that trust was a huge part of the relationship she and other team members shared with Coach Penn, “I can come to him with any problems I have both on and off the court.” Mosley also echoed Coach Penn’s message that it’s about more than just volleyball, “Probably the biggest thing is that we don’t just play volleyball, but it’s also about obtaining skills that we can use outside our sport.” Versatility is one of those skills Mosley outlined, “He’s not a traditional coach. He believes every player should play every position. He makes us feel like we’re all important and have something to contribute to the success of the team.” Coach Penn’s concentration on his players is evident, “I always feel a little bit weird about coaching those milestones, since I didn’t hit a single ball. I just have to keep turning it back to them. I love being a part of what we do here.”
When it came time to choose his gift, the choice was obvious. The women’s volleyball team all pitched in for a little trophy that’s actually a bowling cup, because scoring three hundred points is a perfect game. “He was very emotional about it, when we gave him our present. He thanked the team for working so hard for him, and he really showed his appreciation for us,” reflected Mosley on the celebration. Hitting three hundred wins, over 18 very successful and productive years, was perhaps not one of Coach Penn’s sought for goals but it is a testament to his aptitude with the sport and the kind of manner that he inspires in his players.