Kayla Banwarth’s career with USA Volleyball saw her win eight medals in international competition, including a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympic games. Today, she is the first-year head coach at Ole Miss, looking to change the culture and reach the program’s potential.
As a coach, Banwarth spent the past three years as an assistant at her alma mater Nebraska, where was the starting libero from 2007 to 2010 and reached the NCAA semifinals in 2008. While coaching in Lincoln, she focused on the passers and led the Huskers’ recruiting efforts. Nebraska reached the national championship in 2017 and made a repeat appearance in the title match in 2018. Her resume speaks for itself.
Joining her on the coaching staff is former Oregon setter Maggie Scott, who was the four-year starting setter at Oregon from 2014 to 2017. While in Eugene she dished out 3,369 career assists and led the Ducks to four NCAA tournament appearances.
When her time in the Pacific Northwest came to a close, Scott earned her masters and set at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne, England while interning with the school’s strength and conditioning staff. She joined the coaching staff La Salle University in 2019 and oversaw the team’s offense, floor defense, and recruiting. Her 2020 recruiting class was the highest-rated in program history.
Both first-year Rebel staffers took time to chat with The Cup about their playing careers, how Ole Miss will approach recruiting, program goals, hot dogs and Miley Cyrus.
My questions are in bold:
Let’s go back before we move forward. You were both very good players in your own right… do you have a favorite memory from your playing days?
Kayla: The bronze medal in Rio is obviously one of my most memorable moments, but winning World Championships in 2014 was super epic.
In my collegiate career, my sophomore season in 2008 was pretty special. We played in the Final Four against Penn State, and lost, but it was in Omaha with 18,000 Nebraska fans and it was a really exciting match.
Maggie: My freshman year we had a really successful run at the beginning and beat Hawaii at Hawaii. That was one of the moments that sticks with me because it was my first travel trip and you always dream of playing in front of so many fans. It was a five-set match and Hawaii is such a historic place to go play. Super awesome.
And I might get a nasty look for this one, but we beat Nebraska my senior year. They went on to win a national championship that year.
So you were transitive property national champions, as Ole Miss fans like to say?
M: Exactly. Sorry, Kayla.
Kayla, what was it about Ole Miss that brought you to Oxford, beyond the idea of coaching in the Southeastern Conference?
K: For starters, I vibed with the administration here really well. Lynnette Johnson, Julie Owen and of course our A.D. Keith Carter. I felt so much support from them and felt like we clicked right away. When I did come to visit, seeing the town and the campus... it’s a beautiful college town which is like Lincoln, Nebraska. I went to school in a college town and coached in a college town, so that aspect was important to me— that community feel and how Oxford rallies around Ole Miss athletics. Also, Maggie and I have seen a lot of gyms. The facilities here are competitive with some of the best in the country.
What we have here is special and I want to compete for SEC championships.
Once you accepted the job, you had to hire a staff and brought on Maggie and Beau Lawler. What led you to those two?
K: Beau was with me at Nebraska doing statistical stuff and data analysis. I would consider him an expert in that field in terms of game plan and scouting reports. He has coaching experience now in the SEC, Big 10 and Pac 12 and he’s a jack-of-all-trades type of coach.
I hired Maggie on as someone who can come in right away and work with the setters, she of course was a really good player at Oregon. She’s also my recruiting coordinator and has been killing it so far. Personality wise she balances Beau and I out. She has a ton of energy, loves to talk on the phone and has non-stop workaholic way about her.
Maggie, what was it about working with Kayla at Ole Miss that drew you to saying yes?
M: I was super excited when I got the texts and calls from Kayla, wanting to get to know one another. I’m from Saint Louis originally so I had friends who came to school here and had nothing but good things to say. I always heard great things about the campus, Oxford has a great reputation, and after spending time in Philadelphia, I realized big city wasn’t for me. I missed the college town feel and find the community so much more appealing.
I was immediately interested, and being in the SEC is a huge perk. The challenge that this conference presents is something that really excites us as a staff. We have been calling this program an ‘untapped gold mine.’ We get along really well as a group, I immediately felt comfortable with them and I believe it when they say we can build here. We’re working toward it and starting to see the vision come together.
When it comes to recruiting, is there a type of athlete are you looking for?
K: We are always looking for naturally-gifted athletes— girls that move well, are quick, explosive, jump well, and are all-around athletes. When I’m talking about volleyball players specifically, I am first and foremost looking for someone who can pass. I’m looking for excellent serve-receive and always asking ‘can she pass?’ because it’s the most important skill, in my opinion. That may be bias because I am a libero, but if you can’t pass the ball, it’s going to make the rest of the game really difficult.
M: We are looking for athletes that have the qualities you can’t necessarily teach in a gym. It’s going to differ for each position and obviously we don’t need a libero to have crazy good hops, but each position has that niche group of things that are needed. For example, at middle blocker, we want to get someone with super quick lateral speed. In the SEC especially, you’re going up against the best of the best night-in and night-out, which requires a certainly level of physicality in our gym to be able to compete at this level.
How do you value athleticism vs technique?
K: I’m looking for the best athletes. Technique is obviously a good thing, but not everyone trains the same way that we’re going to train. For us, athleticism and coachability are a little bit more important than having good technique.
Bria Samilton, your first recruit in the 2021 class played a lot of sand volleyball growing up and I know, Maggie, that you played at Oregon. Does having a beach background factor in to your evaluations at all?
K: It’s just an added bonus for me. I think there is a correlation between having played a lot of beach and volleyball skill in terms of passing ability, touch on the ball and reading ability. I think beach elevates those aspects of the game in particular. It’s definitely not a game-changer for us, or something that we’re actively seeking out, but it helps.
M: It’s actually really funny too how many kids have been picking up beach since quarantine started because it’s all they can go out and play. We’ve been watching a lot of beach footage because it’s all they have to send us. It’s good cross-training.
Maggie, as Kayla said, you’re leading the charge with recruiting. How do you go about getting girls to buy-in and commit? What does your pitch sound like?
M: It’s no secret to what I do. For me, our program, and our staff, relationships are really important. In this day and age, I think there’s a lot of pitching a recruit with a super nice facility tour or selling all of the shiny things she can have. It’s really easy for kids to get caught up in that. But for us, we’re looking for kids who want to be a part of this family. We want them to get to know us and we want to get to know them. I think that piece goes a really long way and it’s something that kids really gravitate toward. We’re authentic.
And, I mean, it also helps that I have an Olympian with top-level coaching experience as a head coach.
Could you paint me a picture of the vision you want to bring to the Rebels? Do you have goals for 2, 3, 5, 10 years down the road?
K: My vision for the program in two or three years is to finish top five in the SEC. Right away we want to make the NCAA tournament. I think that is something that is definitely possible with us and the players that we have. I inherited a really good, talented, excitable group of players that allow us to be able to chase those goals immediately.
After seeing all these videos I think my team might be the sassiest team out there...and I absolutely love it. Can’t wait to get back in the gym with them! https://t.co/DuWWhrijOU— Kayla Banwarth (@KaylaBanwarth2) July 26, 2020
Five, ten years down the road, I think that this program can be winning SEC championships. I think we can be going deep into the tournament and playing in sweet sixteens, elite eights, final fours. I think we can do all of those things and turn this program into a nation powerhouse. That excites me, but of course, it’s going to be a process.
Can you tell me what kind of offense you are planning to run? Will it be a 6-2 or a 5-1?
K: I’m most likely going to be looking at a 5-1. I’m more of a 5-1 type of coach. In my opinion, 6-2s throw off the rhythm and complicate things a little bit too much. Obviously things happen and if we need to adjust, we’ll adjust. We’re trying to run a fast offense and go as fast as we can go while remaining in control.
M: We definitely like to run fast, that’s something I am a big proponent of. In the little bit of time we had the players in the spring, there was a big focus on transition to that tempo we’re pushing. They were running a higher ball before this.
We call it a fast and fluid offense. We’re going to be doing a lot of play calls and calling audibles. We like to put our attackers in unique positions that give them more freedom than a lot of offenses allow. We have the personnel to do it and the personnel to be really successful at it.
Maggie, can you expand on the setter group as someone who played the position?
M: We have three really talented setters on the roster right now. Lauren Bars brings a lot of experience as a three-year starter and someone who has been running the show in the SEC. She’s also just a great kid who has a lot of respect from her teammates. She’s also very physical as a front row option and attacks on two pretty well. She’s one of those kids with a great work ethic and wants to get better. We’re bringing in six freshman so it’s nice to have someone with that experience as a leader.
ICYMI last night, @laurenbars25 reached a career milestone, dishing out 2,000 assists in her career!— Ole Miss Volleyball (@OleMissVB) September 28, 2019
This has only been done three times before in Rebel rally scoring history!
Congratulations Lauren! #HottyToddy pic.twitter.com/5Zwurm3pJ7
Gabby Easton is a Clemson transfer with two years of eligibility left. She is a lefty, which is awesome for attacking on the second ball. She moves really well and is a really good athlete. Her mom was a setter so she comes from an athletic volleyball family and has a very high volleyball IQ. The team already loves being around her and she’s jumped right in.
Callaway Cason is a freshman who comes from one of the best clubs in the country. She has so much experience on the club level and has had a lot of success there. She’s a workhorse too. Really competitive.
Her and Gabby both committed without being able to meet us in person, so they stepped foot on campus and realized that this is where they want to be, which is pretty special. We were very excited to get both of them during this awkward recruiting period, to say the least.
Hypothetically, when you’re tied up at 24, what’s the mentality going into the next point?
K: Oh we’re attacking.
M: Yeah, we’re attacking 100%.
K: We’re going after it. If we have to side out, we are telling our hitters to be aggressive. If we’re serving, we’re telling our servers to serve tough and attack with the serve. Regardless of the score, regardless of the game, regardless of the situation, we’re going to be in attack mentality.
Which is more satisfying, a killer dig, a buttery set or a serve that drops for an ace?
K: A dig for me. When I played defense, I had a pretty territorial attitude when it came to my court. Getting a sweet dig is always pretty cool.
M: I’d always go with a buttery set. If you can get a nice one-on-one or one-on-none situation, it was magic. My favorite sets were with a bad pass that made me slide set or something like that. Honestly, if you gave me a perfect pass, I feel like I was less talented.
K: Maggie was the kind of setter that was sliding all over the floor and flinging around all of these crazy sets.
M: I was definitely super unconventional. I would love to find the middle if I was at the 10-foot-line and lay one in.
What is your go-to pump up song?
K: Ha! Well, it’s called ‘Feelin’ Myself’ by will.i.am with Miley Cyrus.
M: Migos’ ‘Fight Night’ came out my freshman year. That was a good one.
Who wins in a fight 100 duck sized horses or 1 horse sized duck?
M: I think the 100.
K: Yeah, I’d say 100 duck sized horses.
Is a hot dog a sandwich?
K: I don’t think it’s a sandwich. The bread is sideways, not sandwich ways.
M: But what if you turn it?
K: Then all the condiments will fall off...
M: But what if you only want ketchup?
K: Well, what if you want a chili dog? I say no, because the bread is the wrong way.
M: I heard an argument for a taco being a sandwich the other day. I think that’s a stretch, but I think a hot dog could be a sandwich. I’ll say yes.