Dustin Sahlmann has no grand illusions of where the Kansas Wesleyan men’s volleyball program is in his first season as head coach.
“This isn’t a rebuild, this is just a build,” said Sahlmann, who was hired in March, 2022.
The Coyotes were 2-18 during the program’s inaugural season. They were led in their final 18 matches by interim coach Kate Madsen, who was Jessica Biegert’s assistant on the KWU’s women’s team during the fall season.
“I definitely consider this year one for the program,” said Sahlmann, who came to Wesleyan after two seasons as women’s coach at Lyon College (Ark.). “We had to give the program the structure we want to have and let them know that it’s important to get the job done in the classroom as well as on the floor. Just putting all those things in.
“I have been a head coach and an assistant coach at programs that were in the same type of shape that this was in but I’ve never had a complete build where there was never any history of a program.”
Sahlmann has spent the last 10 months implementing the culture and program he wants while also constructing the roster. Five returned from last year and Sahlmann signed eight freshmen. There’s one junior and no seniors on the roster.
Sahlmann said building the program will take some time.
“Anytime a coach takes on a project whether it’s a rebuild or build it’s more about the process than it is about the results,” he said. “We’ve got to establish culture, a way of doing things, how we want to play, new expectations, all those kinds of things. I told them I’m going to be asking you guys to do things differently and to be open minded and let’s learn.
“We actually developed a saying this week – process over product. In order to get a final product, you’ve got to follow the processes in those steps.”
Patience will be imperative.
“I’ve got a bunch of guys, a bunch of young, a bunch of freshmen that all came from very successful winning programs,” Sahlmann said. “They’re used to results but we’re doing things at the college level, not at the high school level now.
“It’s a different type of coaching than everybody’s been used to but I told them that if they want to get the type of results that they’re used to getting they’re going to have to go through the struggles first in order for us to get there. We’ve talked about how this is going to be the toughest it’s ever going to be, it’s only going to get easier from here.”
Headlining the list of returning players is outside hitter Viet Nguyen (SO/Wichita, Kan.) and setter Angel Diaz (SO/Waukegan, Ill.). Both were starters last season. Nguyen was named honorable-mention All-GPAC last season.
“(Nguyen) is obviously the cornerstone piece of the returners just because he got a ton of match time, a ton of experience playing last year,” Sahlmann said. “But when you’re trying to do things that are new and different, you’re going to struggle. He’s a big physical presence on the court and so that’s going to help him as we go through.
“Diaz is a great personality within the program. His attitude is fantastic, he’s always upbeat, he’s always willing to work hard and do whatever you ask.”
Opposite hitter Adam Zielinski (SO/Plainfield, Ill.), defensive specialist Petrie Moua (SO/White Bear Lake, Minn.) and middle hitter Colin Lindo (JR/Las Vegas, Nev.) also return. Lindo sat out last season.
“Zielinski just comes in and goes to work every day,” Sahlmann said. “It’s nice to have some lefties on the roster so that makes for a good piece as well. Moua spent some time on the floor just a practice guy but he’s improved dramatically and just follows the process of what trying to do. Lindo wasn’t able to see the court because of some eligibility issues but he’s hungry and anxious to get on the floor and do what he came here to do.”
Sahlmann expects four freshmen to provide immediate and significant help – setter Marcus Taylor Evangelista from Brazil and three California natives, middle blocker Kahlib Lawrence (FR/Burbank, Calif.), outside hitter Justin Burras (FR/Burbank, Calif.) and libero/defensive specialist Jeremy Lapeze (FR/Burbank, Calif.).
“Evangelista spent five years playing at a high club level where he wasn’t ever around his parents,” Sahlmann said. “Those international guys when they play club, they live with the club with the club guys. He brings a level of maturity and drive for everybody.
“Lawrence is 6-foot-5, really long, really athletic. He’s going to be able to do some things for us that we couldn’t get done last year. Burras takes care of the ball and serve-receives really well. He’s very intelligent, knows how to score points. Lapeze has a really high volleyball IQ, understands what’s going on on the other side of the net and puts him in position to make plays on our side.”
The schedule is difficult but there are six home matches – the first two February 1 inside Mabee Arena against Missouri Valley and Central Christian in a triangular. KWU plays at 6 p.m. against Missouri Valley, and follows against Central Christian.
“I’m not ever afraid to play teams that are more established, higher ranked across the country because that lets my team know where we are and where we want to get to and know that the work is definitely real to get there,” Sahlmann said. “We’ve got eight to 10 matches versus teams that are either ranked in the top 15 or receiving vote.”
The Coyotes open the season against No. 10-ranked Jamestown on Friday in Jamestown, N.D. and play Dordt on Saturday in Sioux Center, Iowa.