ultoday.com interviews UL Head Volleyball Coach Heather Mazeitis. She talks about her background, how she came to UL, and the recent "Team Cajun Experiment" with the players.

Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in Leavenworth, Kansas. I went to a JUCO first, Fort Scott Community College in Fort Scott, Kansas. Then I played for Central Oklahoma [UCO], volleyball, basketball and softball.

How did you end up playing three sports?

I was a big basketball star out of high school, and I thought that would be my ticket to fame. But then my senior year, more of the schools I wanted to go to were interested in me for volleyball, so I thought about it. The season is shorter, and I figured there was less running-- I was wrong.

So I went to play volleyball in college, but I also played basketball, and I had always played summer softball, so it all worked out.

You must have been pretty good.

The only reason I was any good was because I was mean.

Really?

Well, I was very, very competitive. I was one of 5 children, and we're all a year apart. Man, you had to fight for everything in our family. I'm very close to my family, but I think that's where the competitive side of me comes out.

And of course, I'm 5' 10", so that gave me an advantage in sports. Back then that was tall, but now it's not.

How many brothers?

I had two brothers, two sisters. I was the one that messed up the order; my parents were alternating between boys and girls, and I should have been a boy.

So you made up for it by fighting like a boy?

Yeah, for real. It made me competitive. I made good grades, I was a good athlete.

Anyway, I graduated from UCO in business & fashion, and I started my MBA. I only need 9 hours to finish.

When I was in grad school, I was working in Oklahoma City full time, and going to school full time when my mother called me and said, "Hey, come home. Kansas City-Kansas Community College is looking for a volleyball, basketball and softball coach, preferably one person." So I went and interviewed, and since I was a high school star in that area, they knew who I was, and hired me on the spot.

So I went back home, and I coached at KCKCC for 6 years... we won the volleyball conference title three times. Softball was strong too, actually both sports were Top 25 in NJCAA Division I.

My last year we had a really good softball team, but I took the head coaching job at Louisiana Tech, so I never got to coach them.

How long were you at Louisiana Tech?

Seven years. It's a good school, and the WAC is a fabulous volleyball conference. We played at Hawai'i one year when they were #1, and another year when they were #2. The WAC consistently ranked two or three teams in the top 25 every year. So you knew every time you stepped on the floor, it was time to play.

How did your teams do?

Horrible. My first 3 years, we had 2 Brazilians who were amazing, one of whom will probably be competing in sand doubles volleyball in Beijing, so we started off pretty good. The third year we placed 2nd in our division, which put us 7th in the conference. In such a competitive conference, that's not bad. And the other schools had a lot more resources than we did.

After that, it became a situation where all the schools were constantly getting better. We were too, but it was not enough. However, we were 15-4 against the Sunbelt while I was there... and before I got there, they were 0 for 30-something against the Sunbelt.

So now I'm here.

When did you get here?

I've been here 5 months, since January. We played 4 dates in the spring season, we went to Houston and played in the Texas Tornadoes Tournament. Penn State and Southern California were there, so it was good for us, the girls learned a lot. They got to see what my vision for this program is. Which at that point, was completely different from theirs, but they're starting to see it my way.

You recently took the players on a team-building exercise.

Actually, we called it "Team Cajun Experiment". We went up to a farm in Mamou, and we did things some of us had never done before. We drove 4-wheelers, rode a horse, rode a jeep through a muddy cow pasture. We had a blast, the girls want to do it again.

Did it build teamwork?

Well, actually my goal was as much social as team-building. The girls are all really good friends off the court, but they don't get much time to interact as friends. So this gave them some social time.

What do you want for your kids?

That they be great people.

Great people?

Great people. Good citizens who contribute to their community. And of course, all coaches want their players to graduate, to get a degree.

But I also want them to be emotionally connected to this place. A lot of athletes don't become rooted to the school they worked and fought so hard for. Athletes give so much of themselves... people often say college athletes get so much, but really, they give a lot more than they get. A lot of them don't get to study in the major they want because of the many demands and constraints. So they sacrifice a lot, and I want them to care about what they're doing, to feel connected to this place. I want them to come back to UL, to stay in touch with the community, to follow the teams and players who come after them, and to feel emotionally connected.

You didn't mention winning.

There are so many ways to have a winning program: kids who graduate, kids who come back to the University, families who are comfortable sending their kids off to UL. Those are the wins that nobody talks about, but it takes time to accomplish all that.

Because we want to build a program, not just a team. I know the formula for winning and building a team. But you need community support to build a program. You need to find local players, find local people who will support the program, and then bring in a couple of players who are fabulous. Once you do that, when the community gets involved, then the things you want to happen, start to happen.

Actually, coaching is the smallest part of the job. So much of my work is building the program and the community around it.

What do you want people to know about college athletes and college athletics?

Athletes are usually the best students we have, particularly the women. Look at the grades our kids get, they're overachievers in every capacity. They are competitors, they constantly pursue excellence. So if we're not winning, it's a devastating blow in their lives, and it affects them in many ways.

Our community needs to recognize what our softball and baseball teams have proven, that fan support is priceless to these kids, and to their performance. Some of our teams at UL are great, some are building, but they all want to be supported.

The community needs to know that the kids live for that, for the community support.

Let me give you an example of how important community support is. Hawai'i was #1 in attendance in the entire US, at about 8,000 per game. At Louisiana Tech we couldn't possibly match that, but we made sure that we were involved in our community, so that our community felt attached to us. And it worked, we averaged about 500 people per match. That doesn't seem like a lot, but there's no doubt we pulled off some upsets because of that crowd. And those crowds made us 4th in the conference-- and that's with almost no local volleyball going on where we were. There weren't really any high schools or recreation leagues playing volleyball.

Well, here in Lafayette we have a much larger population, and there is volleyball going on everywhere from adults to 5 year olds. If we put 500 people in Earl K. Long, you won't be able to hear.

We're fortunate to be here in Lafayette, where all the Cajuns are. We have all these people who are emotionally invested in this place. I have never met a prouder group of people than UL fans. It's not like that everywhere, it's not even close to being like that everywhere. Where we are, this town, this community, it's a great place for us to create something wonderful. People here are happy to support UL. The potential for local support is tremendous.

When I interviewed here, that's what I saw, a tremendous potential for building a team. And the great thing is that we have people in place who understand what needs to happen. David Walker and Scott Farmer have done a fabulous job, giving me the resources and the support, knowing that if they do, I can build a program.

We'll need money as we grow, but it's not just about money. It's about the community, and how can the community support the University.

So we need to get the community to come out and see some 6' 2" girls in spandex.

Pretty girls, at that.

Yep.