Ben Somera is currently in the midst of his first season as head coach of the Wesleyan volleyball team. After three impressive seasons as head coach of a talented Roger Williams University team, Somera sees the Wesleyan program as a challenge, but one that is very worthwhile. The team has often struggled this year, currently sitting at 4-9 as the season winds to a close. Somera was diplomatic but intense with his take on the team, leaving little room for interpretation in his expectations. His vision for the team, which is centered around increased discipline and passion, will take time to implement but he believes it will lead to longterm success. Somera sat down to talk to The Argus about this vision, his history with the sport, and maybe play a bit of favorites.
The Argus: Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you aren’t coaching?
Ben Somera: Recruiting, scheduling, fundraising, alumni management, managing the admissions process, getting out clinics and camps. What I do in my free time is spend time with my family, do some fly fishing.
A: How did you first become interested in volleyball? When did you first start playing, and how did you get into coaching?
BS: I first got interested in volleyball growing up in Southern California. There’s volleyball on all the beaches, so every time you go to the beach you’re seeing people play volleyball. When you’re bored and there’s no waves, you go and play volleyball, so that was probably my first interest. As early as junior high, you’re out there at the bench and there’s guys playing, so that’s how that started. My first coaching opportunity was at the University of Southern California, where I went to school. I volunteered there, and as soon as I graduated there they gave me a position as a grad assistant. Then I’ve just slowly made my way around the country, taking different volleyball opportunities as they’ve arisen.
A: On that note, what was it that drew you to Wesleyan?
BS: I guess a lot of things. I’d been up in the general area for three seasons at Roger Williams University, and after assessing the region and the types of jobs I was looking for, Wesleyan had just about everything I was looking for. That’s in terms of potential, and secondary responsibilities, and facilities, and academic reputation. So there’s a lot of things, and I think Wesleyan’s perception as being a little more liberal and alternative kind of spoke to me as well. I think the University does a great job in trying to create a diverse environment, and that’s something that resonates with me as well.
A: You had tremendous success in your time at Roger Williams before coming here. What worked so well there, and how can you translate that to Wesleyan?
BS: I think any time you’re going to be successful, you have to surround yourself with people who believe what you believe. It would be hard for me to be a successful volleyball coach if I didn’t believe in what Wesleyan is trying to do, you wouldn’t get my best efforts. The same is true for the next team down, which is my volleyball team. What I believe in is [points to poster that reads: CHAD] communication, hustle, attitude, and discipline, and they’ve heard this many a time. It takes a little while for it to grab hold and build momentum, but we try and train it every day, and we’re going to try and recruit it in every prospect. There were a couple things I did in my first few seasons at Roger Williams that made people scratch their heads. We had a pretty successful team that won our conference. But I brought in ten incoming freshmen because I wanted at least that many people to be on the same page with me here, and they had heard that before they ever stepped on campus. So we went from going 21-11, to adding 10 freshmen with five of them starting and going 31-4. They get another year in, we win again and they go a little further in the NCAA tournament, and so that’s something I’m going to try to do here as well. I want my gym to be about CHAD, and either you train it and some people get it or you recruit it and they all get it.
A: Has it been hard to transition from such a strong team at Roger Williams to a Wesleyan team that has struggled?
BS: As a coach you have to have a realistic outlook on things, and either you enjoy the coaching or you don’t. I enjoy coaching this team as much as I’ve enjoyed coaching any team I’ve ever had. I think managing their expectations and getting everyone to understand the process is the biggest challenge, because you change the bus driver and they want a different route but there has to be work done before the route changes. I’ll have a lot of kids coming in and going, ‘What else can I do?’ and it’s not what you can do in this nine-week period, it’s what wasn’t done in the entire cycle of the years that you’ve been here. It’s like cramming for a test; it’s not gonna get fixed in these nine weeks. You have to start a new way of studying. I’m gonna study a little bit the entire time, and be ready for the test when it comes.
A: That sort of answers the big question, about how long you think it will take to right the ship.
BS: It can get righted really fast, I think. I mean, at Roger Williams it was 18 months. I expect to be in a completely different place 18 months from now, from this day here. I know the players I’m recruiting are there [motions to CHAD], that’s what they want, and I feel like there are a lot of pieces here and that’s what they want. They just need to learn how to turn it on and do the work throughout the cycle. We have our traditional season in the fall and our nontraditional season in the winter and spring where we’re not allowed to coach our teams, but that is not a phase of the year where you can go without playing volleyball. It’ll happen when it happens, but I think it can happen sooner than later.
A: Your assistant coach, Lee Maes, seems extremely well-liked by the players. What does he mean to the program?
BS: It’s amazing for a program at the DIII level to have as competent an assistant as Lee. It’s freed me up a ton to focus on finding talent, bringing them to this university, and showing them what this could be. To have somebody who can run and plan a practice and have it be productive is not a luxury most DIII coaches have. His experience at a variety of levels and his resumé is, I think, pretty incomparable.
A: The Class of 2019 has earned significant playing time this season, with first-years Emma Robin, Madeleine Lundberg, and Kelsey Tam [all ’19] all contributing to the team. Quite a few sophomores also are consistently in the matches, and [captain] Abby Southam [’16] will be the only player graduating. How important is it that this young team will have time to grow together?
BS: The more cohesive your unit becomes, the better. Playing time year to year doesn’t necessarily translate, I had three All-Americans at Roger Williams and they knew that we were gonna fill the gym with other kids just like them and that they were going to have to compete in our own gym to get out on the floor. I think you build trust and cohesiveness by showing every day in your own gym that you can be relied on to compete well. I think if we were doing that at a really high level our results would be different. When this gym is really competitive then the cream will rise.
A: What are your expectations for the end of the season?
BS: My expectation isn’t really about a result, it’s about how well we’re doing our process. Our practices this week have been better than our practices last week, and I don’t really know if that’s going to translate to wins, but the fact that they’re able to engage for 70 minutes rather than 45 is better. When that turns into 90 minutes, and then that turns into 120, we’ll be cooking with all the resources we can possibly have. It’s more fun to win, but that isn’t my biggest priority. We’ll get wins when we have a very competitive environment that prepares them weekly to fight. It’ll get there.
A: How will it get there?
BS: We have to fill our gym with competitive people. If I have 16 to 18 kids who all want to play, it’s pretty obvious that you’re going to improve. If I asked everyone on the team right now who’s competing the best, it would be easy for them to answer. They’d all say one person’s name, and we need four, six, eight, 12, 16 people’s names, then 18, then 20. I’m talking effort and attitude, communication, hustle, who does their job responsibilities.
A: So they’d all say Rachel [Savage ’17]’s name.
BS: Would you say Rachel’s name? [Laughs]. It’s transparent. She’s clearly bought into it. When we have 10 kids who are transparent, when they speak [CHAD] and you don’t even have to talk to them, we’ll be where we need to be. It’s obvious, to you, to her teammates, and that needs to get reflected over and over from teammate to teammate. That’s what we had at Roger Williams, we had 18 kids who would come into the gym and wanted to fight and see where they were in the mix. We can get that here; I truly believe that or I wouldn’t have come here.