Jennings has built something special at Michigan Tech
When head coach Matt Jennings took over the Michigan Tech Huskies volleyball program in 2012, things appeared to be at their worst. Under former coach Orlando Gonzales, the Huskies had gone from being a 14-15 team that qualified for the GLIAC Tournament to a 2-25 team that lost all 19 GLIAC matches they played just two years later.
It took Jennings three seasons to turn things around for the Huskies. In 2012, the team went 12-19 overall, and 7-11 in the GLIAC. The following year, they went 11-19 and 7-11 again in GLIAC play. In 2014, they took a step, going 11-16, but 8-10 in GLIAC play.
Things were quietly looking up.
In 2015, Jennings and the Huskies went 19-12 overall and 10-8 in GLIAC play. They qualified for the GLIAC Tournament. In 2016, they went 16-15 overall, but 11-6 in GLIAC play.
Jennings brought a quartet of players in for 2017, outside hitters Olivia Ghormley and Anna Jonynas, defensive specialist Megan Utlak and setter Laura De Marchi. All four had an immediate impact, as the Huskies went 20-11 overall and 12-4 in GLIAC play, They finished tied for second in the North Division, and earned a trip to the finals. They also earned a sport in the NCAA Tournament.
In 2018, the Huskies went 24-8 overall and 13-3 in GLIAC play. They lost in the semifinals, something they have not done again until this season. They also made the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season.
In 2019, they went 24-8, which was the best record a Huskies team completed since 1996, when they went 24-11 under Mary Kaminski. They won their first game in the NCAA Tournament, but could not get beyond that.
In the spring of 2021, they went 11-4 overall in the COVID-shortened season. They went to the finals of the GLIAC Tournament, but no further, only because there was no NCAA Tournament.
In the fall of 2021, the final season for the quartet, the Huskies went 25-7 overall and 14-1 in GLIAC play. They won the North Division outright, made it to the finals of the GLIAC Tournament, and again won their first game of the NCAA Tournament.
This season, Jennings and the Huskies went 20-10 and 11-7, which was a down year by the standards he has set, and yet they won 20 matches for the sixth time in seven years, with the other year being the COVID year, where they only played 15 matches.
As he looks back on everything the Huskies have accomplished in his tenure, Jennings feels gratitude for all the support the team gets at the SDC Gym night in and night out.
“The first feeling I feel is gratitude for the support we’re getting, and the genuine interest in seeing our student athletes be successful,” he said in an interview in early November. “The authentic, real rooting for our team to do well.”
As the Huskies have taken great strides on the court, the support off of it makes Houghton a genuine place for young women to come and play the sport they love while getting an education.
Of course, a large part of what makes the SDC Gym so much fun now is the addition of the Pep Band.
“The Pep Band has genuinely transformed our home match environment to the point where I don’t know what it would be like without them,” he said. “Just spend one week on the road, and you just realize quickly how lucky we are. It just doesn’t exist anywhere else that way, especially for volleyball.
“They come out in huge numbers…They are just there. I mean, when we’re in the playoffs, they come and support.”
Jennings is also proud to see the community support, as well as the students, at home matches.
“(A) community member might come up to me and be like, ‘I didn’t go to volleyball games, but once every other year. Now I go once a year, or I hadn’t been in a while, but now I try to go once a while or I don’t go to games, but I noticed this,’ that kind of thing,” he said. “I come from a big city myself. You just don’t get that kind of support for our sport in a lot of areas. I think that the authenticity of the support we get in this community is a real treat.”
While the players themselves may not carry memories of every match they play in Black and Gold with them when they move on to jobs or graduate school, or wherever their lives take them, Jennings feels they will carry one memory with them forever.
“The players are going to remember some of the games,” he said. “They’re going to forget most of the games. But, they’re going to remember what it felt like to play at home, for the rest of their lives.
“That part makes me feel really good that we’ve been able to build that.”