By Frank Foreman
July 5, 2013 7:00 a.m. —
Volleyball pioneer Denny Patton has seen just about everything the sport has had to offer during his 56 combined years involved with the game. From the individual triumphs of players to the collective success from his coached teams, Patton has witnessed it all.
Perhaps it took that kind of experience to lead this year’s Tool City 14 Orange team to a fifth-place finish at the Junior National Championships last week.
When the squad left for Reno, Nev. to play in the premier volleyball tournament in the country, things were, lets say, not looking good.
“No,” Patton said, when asked if he thought his team would perform the way it did at Juniors. “If we went out their with our original lineup, with the way we were practicing and scrimmaging, we would have finished no better than 17th or 18th out of the 26 teams.”
The 14 Orange team, chalk full of talented players from the region, certainly had the ability to play well, but simply didn’t have the time to gel and develop a team chemistry. Practices were shaky leading up to the tournament, and following the team’s second scrimmage, Patton had seen enough.
“I was disgusted enough with the team that I switched the lineup entirely,” Patton said. “We only had two more practices and a scrimmage left before leaving. It was a little late in the game to be making those kind of changes.”
Those changes, however, proved to be catastrophic on some level, as a team that had little continuity stormed the courts in Reno looking to prove itself worthy of being there.
Mixing up the entire squad’s positions just days before the tournament might have been bold enough, but the boldest of changes had yet to come.
And this time, it wasn’t Patton who took the leap of faith. It was assistant coach Kelly Goodsel.
Following the first match on the third day of the tournament, a contest that Tool City lost, it was clear to Goodsel that something had to be done. The suggestion: Switch Saegertown’s Luke Dangel to a defensive specialist, and put Corry’s Austin Goodsel at libero.
Turns out, it was the perfect switch.
“Kelly came to me and said maybe we should switch the two players,” Patton said. “I thought, he might be right, so we made the change. From that point on, Dangel caught fire and made more defensive plays than anyone for the rest of the tournament. He wasn’t serving as a libero before, but now that he was, it turned out he had a beautiful serve. It was like we had a new player on our team.”
Austin Goodsel was now on the floor more as the libero, which propelled the team to six wins in a row, solidifying the change in personal as a brilliant strategy.
“To run off six wins in a row, we didn’t know we could do that,” Patton said. “Of the four losses we had up to that point, we replayed two of the teams that beat us, and beat them both pretty good. We just kept getting stronger as the tournament went on.”
Perhaps the strongest of those players was Zac Wigton.
A talented player for Cochranton, Wigton was sharp throughout the tournament, leaving Patton with only praise for the 14-year-old star.
“The guy who was the strongest player on the team was Wigdon,” Patton said. “He was really quick and really talented. He made some saves that other people wouldn’t have made because they wouldn’t be able to get to the ball. He was the leader of the pack.”
If Wigton was the leader, Meadville’s Nick Brady and Nick Rose were about as good of a supporting cast a team could have.
On the final day of the tournament, Brady went on a tear when he rotated to the right side of the floor, making the most of his limited time in that spot.
Not to be outdone, Rose was switched back to the setter position, where he continually got better and better, and made an impact at the net.
Making the decisions to shift players around requites an entire coaching staff, a staff that included Tom Gawlinski, Dan Jackson and Goodsel. The trio each brought something different to the team, a certain something that Patton realizes was invaluable.
“This year, we got more positive work from the assistants than ever before,” Patton said.
Tool City, which finished 10-4 for the tournament, was the perfect storm of great athletes and great coaching. Included in those great athletes are Corry’s James Goodsel, Conneaut Lake’s Mike Sperry and Maplewood’s Zach Wellman.
Calling the successful run from Tool City a total team effort is as cliché as it comes.
But when every player on the team contributes in a big way, and when every player continues to get better and better with each passing game, it’s near impossible not to credit the entire group of players.
“I hate hearing coaches say it’s a total team effort. To me, it’s like a coach is trying to cover up for someone, and that they don’t want to hurt any feelings,” Patton said. “But in this case, it was a total team effort. I’m guilty of what I hate to read.”