New coach Ashleigh Fitzgerald has her eyes on the future of the McNeese State volleyball program. (Rick Hickman / American Press)
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 15, 2014 4:21 PMThe last time Ashleigh Fitzgerald took a job at McNeese, it was under slightly different circumstances.
She was offered her first coaching gig in 2006 on extremely short notice and lived in married student housing as she learned the ropes as an assistant coach on the Cowgirls volleyball team.
Now six years after Fitzgerald departed for a head coaching job at Division II Drury University in Springfield, Missouri, McNeese has chosen her for another first in her career— her first Division I head coaching job.
This time, Fitzgerald is a bit more established than when she last arrived.
“It’s great to be back,” she said. “I never thought when I left five years ago that I’d be back in this capacity.”
From downtown development to campus improvements and higher morale, Fitzgerald said Lake Charles and McNeese are drastically different than they were when she left.
In her five seasons at Drury, Fitzgerald compiled an 87-74 record and led the volleyball team to its only three winning seasons in program history.
The timing worked out as Fitzgerald was looking to break into Division I coaching and McNeese was left without a head coach when Terry Gamble left for Jacksonville State after four seasons with the Cowgirls.
Gamble told an Alabama newspaper McNeese had one of the smallest budgets in the Southland, but Fitzgerald said the program is “funded to be successful,” and that she will have more resources available than she was used to in Division II.
McNeese Athletic Director Bruce Hemphill said the position had interest from all over the country, but called Fitzgerald the right fit for McNeese.
“She has maintained her connections with coaches in the area, at the high school level, collegiate level as well as the club level, where that is so important in recruiting,” he said. “Possibly her biggest attribute is her people skills and her way to communicate.”
Fitzgerald won’t have much of a chance to make a huge impact through recruiting this year, with only one senior departing from the 2013 squad and only one senior on the 2014 team. But the new Cowgirls coach said she has connections with a number of McNeese graduates coaching high school volleyball in East Texas and will reach out to players who show potential.
“If you stick a good athlete who’s an okay volleyball player and surround them with athletes who are a little bit more skilled and train them up, then you can make an athlete a good volleyball player,” she said. “We’re going to look for the best athletes we can find and just try to build a little volleyball IQ and I think we can be really successful in the Southland with that kind of mentality.”
In addition to recruiting plans, Fitzgerald said she wants the Cowgirls to be a vital and visible part of the community, which would help boost the profile of the sport locally and in turn improve interest and prospects in the area.
Fitzgerald spoke highly of the job Gamble did putting together the team, but said she has a different vision than the last Cowgirls coach.
“They are excited for a little bit of fresh air and a little change in direction,” Fitzgerald said. “I think Terry is obviously a very good coach, but I think we’re very different. They are responding well to that and I’ve tried to emphasize to them that I want to be a good teammate and I want them to be champions for each other. I want them to bring energy every day and to move on when they mess up, because they mess up an awful lot. That’s just sports, that’s volleyball, that’s life. We’re trying to look at winning as a byproduct of having really great processes. They are buying into that pretty quickly.
The Cowgirls only got a few days of spring practices with Fitzgerald and concluded the season with a tournament at Louisiana-Lafayette last Saturday. Even though she said she wishes she had more time with the team during the spring, things have gone well in the early going.
“It’s been very easy to quickly form relationships with these kids and it’s very easy to pull for them and cheer for them,” she said. “I’m thankful (Gamble) recruited them and I’m excited to move forward with them and to really get after it.”