She knew the transition would encompass a number of different challenges, but moving from a high school to college volleyball coach has been exhilarating for Bri Ebenhoe.
So much so, her eyes light up when talking about coaching the Waldorf University women’s team.
Ebenhoe, who built the Aquinas High School volleyball program into one of the area’s power-houses during her seven-year run with the Blugolds, had a homecoming of sorts when she returned to La Crosse on Tuesday night.
Waldorf, a 700-enrollment university located in Forest City, Iowa, is in the same conference — North Star Athletic Association — as Viterbo. And while No. 2-ranked Viterbo swept Waldorf 3-0, it wasn’t easy.
Those who know Ebenhoe and the way she coaches would have expected nothing less.
“It has been exhilarating and it has really pushed me to grow as a coach, as a communicator, as an educator. I am just happy to get the chance and am trying to step up to the challenge,” Ebenhoe said.
“I coach the way I always do, but we focus on the things we are doing well, the victories that we have and knowing that if we string enough of those together, good things will happen. On the sidelines of Aquinas or the sidelines here coaching at Waldorf, you are going to see me do the same things and jumping up and down about the same stuff.”
Ebenhoe coached some very good athletes at Aquinas and made things happen. Aquinas went 31-5 and earned its first WIAA state tournament trip in 2016, her final season. She was the 2014 Tribune volleyball coach of the year while at Aquinas and a two-time MVC coach of the year.
She coached four all-state players and 33 all-conference selections. All of that, she knew, meant little when she took the Waldorf job in February.
“It has been a lot of fun. I have been really fortunate to walk into a great group of athletes who are really trusting me and implementing the ideas we have,” Ebenhoe said. “They are not shy about giving me their thoughts and ideas, so it has really been helpful in making the transition.”
Ebenhoe is building Waldorf — a program that has gone 26-51 overall and 8-16 in the NSAA in the two years prior to her arrival — the same way she did at Aquinas. Serving and defense, she said, needs to come first.
“We are kind of building in the same way, and it will start with serving and defense, something we can hang our hats on,” Ebenhoe said, “then bringing in people who like our style of play and our style of coaching. People who want to come in and play some excellent volleyball.”
Ebenhoe, whose team lost to Viterbo 25-20, 25-16, 25-12 to fall to 3-15 on the season and 0-4 in the NSAA, knows becoming competitive in a league that features nationally ranked teams like Viterbo (No. 2) and Jamestown (No. 23) is an uphill climb. She also knows it takes time, but with nine of the Warriors’ 16-player roster being freshmen and sophomores, there is plenty of promise.
Recruiting, she said, is something she enjoys.
“It is a very interesting game to go out and recruit players. It is so much fun as I get to talk to some really awesome athletes and awesome young women and get them to our campus and try to figure out if this is the right place for them, if we are the right fit for them,” Ebenhoe said.
“Sometimes you play all of your cards right and the answer is still going to be ‘no,’ but in the end we are just looking for athletes who want to learn and get better every single day.”
Viterbo coach Ryan DeLong, who has built the V-Hawks into a national power, was excited to coach against Ebenhoe, who was one of the coaches in DeLong’s club team, the 14 Adidas V-Hawk Xtreme, for six years.
“It is a different style, a different level, but you have to give Waldorf credit. They played hard and they played scrappy,” DeLong said. “I knew with Bri coaching them, they would fight hard. Like I said, Waldorf, and every other team, is going to come out and give us their best game every night.”
Waldorf did just that and Ebenhoe said playing intense, highly aggressive defense is one of the building blocks of the program she is putting in place.
“We are doing our best to be scrappy and fight and then learn from that so we can continue to implement things,” Ebenhone said.
“We are still young, but learning and growing.”
Ebenhoe, who taught middle and high school science while at Aquinas, also teaches at Waldorf. She said she enjoys that aspect of her new job, too, as it allows her to integrate into the student body more than just being in athletics.
“I am a coach full-time, but have a couple of courses to teach. It really allows me to get to know the student population and the student-athletes in other sports,” said Ebenhoe, whose husband, Matt, is on her staff as an assistant coach just as he was at Aquinas.
“It has been really nice.”