RIO GRANDE, Ohio — The University of Rio Grande is turning to a familiar face to get its men’s volleyball program off the ground.
The school has tabbed former women’s volleyball graduate assistant coach Nick Rawls as the head coach of one of its newest athletic programs.
Rawls spent the past six seasons as the head men’s volleyball coach at St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, N.C., where he posted a 57-69 record overall.
“It’s nice to know a lot of the people and the coaches who we met previously are still there, so it’s very familiar. We know what we’re getting into,” Rawls said of his return to Rio Grande. “It was inviting to know that you had a chance to go back into an environment where people care about you and want the best for you. That certainly made it attractive.”
Rawls started the men’s volleyball program at St. Andrews immediately upon his departure from Rio in 2015.
His Knights went 0-22 in their inaugural season, but quickly transformed into a championship contender, capturing Mid-South Conference titles in both 2018 and 2019.
The 2018 team was ranked ninth nationally, while the 2019 squad – which finished unbeaten in conference play – was ranked No. 10. Both teams earned national tournament berths.
Rawls, a 31-year-old native of Brantford, Ontario, Canada, said the familiarity of building a program from the ground up – and learning from the mistakes he made in doing so at St. Andrews – will be beneficial as he starts the same process at Rio Grande.
“It’s hard – there’s no question about that. But I’m a little wiser now than I was then,” he said. “You just have to create realistic goals and guidelines and try to structure yourself on a 3- or 4-year plan. When you know what you’re trying to accomplish on a year-to-year basis, there’s no question that it helps.”
And those goals, as was the case at St. Andrews, may not mean success out of the gate for the program, which is scheduled to begin play in the 2021-22 school year.
“Year one is about building culture and putting your guys in a position to where they understand what your expectations are and how to succeed off the court in order to succeed on the court,” Rawls said. “It’s about building a family and creating the atmosphere that you want. It’s really easy to get ahead of yourself and see some talent and get really excited to jump all over it, but knowing how important it is to lay a foundation for the future is a huge advantage. If year one isn’t what we want it to be in terms of wins and losses, that’s OK. The focus is on the future and putting yourself in a position to make a run in the years that follow, rather than trying to do it all in that first year.”
Rio Grande athletic director Jeff Lanham said he’s excited to see what Rawls can accomplish in his return to the RedStorm athletic family.
“Coach Rawls has experience in starting a collegiate men’s volleyball program from scratch and we’re eager for him to get started at Rio,” said Lanham. “Nick has proven himself as a great coach and he’s well-respected throughout the sport. He’s a player’s coach who creates a family atmosphere within his program, which matches our mission here at Rio Grande.”
Rawls earned a Bachelor of Science degree in athletic coaching education in 2012 from West Virginia University, where he played three seasons of club volleyball. He also worked with the WVU women’s volleyball program from 2008-12 in a variety of roles including practice player, team manager and volunteer assistant coach.
Rawls, who earned a Master’s degree in educational leadership from Rio Grande, also served as the coach for the Brant Youth Volleyball Club 18-under and 16-under programs in 2012.
He’ll begin his new position at Rio at the start of the new year, working remotely at the beginning with the hopes of having his family relocated by Feb. 1.
Recruiting players to fill out an initial roster, obviously, will be job one.
“I think Columbus is a huge up-and-coming volleyball area and we’ll definitely be hitting central and northern Ohio,” he said. “I don’t know that there’s a ton of players in southeast Ohio, specifically, right now, but it’s only going to continue to grow and we’d like to be part of that growth. We’ll also look at Indiana, Illinois and Missouri – states that are part of that Midwest group – to try and bring in some talented kids.”
Men’s volleyball is played as a Spring sport, with the season beginning in mid-January and running through April.
“It’s a different game from what you see with the women in that the guys get up higher and hit the ball so hard that it becomes much more fast-paced,” Rawls said. “There are a lot less rallies than you see in the women’s game because the ball tends to get put away pretty fast. It’s dynamic and fun to watch and I’m excited to bring a product to Rio’s gym that people will be excited to come and see.”
Lanham added that it’s that excitement – and the sport’s popularity in general – that the school is hoping to build upon.
“Men’s volleyball is a fast-growing sport, not only in Ohio, but across our nation,” he said. “We’re excited to provide the opportunity for student-athletes to compete at the highest level of the sport while receiving an outstanding education here at the University of Rio Grande.”
Rawls said the RedStorm’s conference affiliation will – at the end of the day – be up to Lanham, but said the Mid-South Conference and the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference are the leading candidates.
“Right now, I have no clue what it will be, but the MSC seems to be the obvious choice to me because so many of the schools are relatively close by,” said Rawls, whose wife, Kylie, and sister, Sara, were also former Rio Grande women’s volleyball assistants. “But there could also be change in the MSC with some of the southern schools who play men’s volleyball talking about breaking away. It’s up in the air at this point, but we’ve also still got a few months before that decision would have to be made.”
Regardless of what conference his squad ends up being a part of, Rawls said he’s happy to be returning to a campus and a community which made a favorable impression the first time around.
“Growing up in southern Ontario, Canada, if you’d told me that I’d have all of these ties to a school that looks like it ought to be in Texas, but is located in Ohio, I probably wouldn’t have believed you,” Rawls said. “It’s really cool, though. My wife has two degrees from Rio and it’s a place she really cares about. We both had a positive experience there the first time around because we connected with people. It was almost like we had stronger roots with the people we were around there for two or three years than we did with the people we’d been around the last five years. I really appreciate Jeff and (Rio Grande) president (Ryan) Smith allowing us to have the opportunity to reconnect with many of those same people.”
Randy Payton is the Sports Information Director at the University of Rio Grande.