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Grambling State’s volleyball program pushes forward a year after controversy

Players on reconfigured roster set sights on winning a SWAC championship after finding stability — and success — last season under their new coach

Spring season for Grambling State University’s volleyball program looks different from a year ago, with a new coach, new players and a new attitude.

After spending last spring mired in controversy after then-head coach Chelsey Lucas cut the entire roster, the program is now in a rebuilding phase. In their first regular season under new head coach Paige Phillips, the Tigers finished third in the Southwestern Athletic Conference with their best record in more than 10 years (15-12, 12-4 SWAC) before making an early exit in the first round of the SWAC tournament in November.

The team began spring workouts in February with one goal in mind: winning the program’s first conference championship since 1997 .

“I really would hope for us to get a ring next season, but that starts by just everybody just putting in the work, like, pushing each and everybody on the court,” said junior libero Nyah Ellis . “We’re really, like, competitive, so we be pushing each other in practice. So, if we can keep that up and just [have] positive energy then we can do anything.”

It has been a fast turnaround for a program left reeling after months of turmoil last year. Controversy enveloped Grambling State volleyball in April 2022 when Lucas decided not to renew the scholarship players recruited by the previous coaching staff two months into her tenure as head coach.

The move left many former players scrambling for scholarships late into the spring. After several players and their parents accused Lucas of intimidation, retaliation and unfairness, the university denied any wrongdoing and launched an internal investigation into the volleyball program in May. Grambling State fired Lucas in July , attributing the decision to findings from the investigation, which is still ongoing. To date, the school hasn’t given specific reasons for Lucas’ termination, and players have declined to speak about their former coach.

Only six of the 18 players from Grambling’s 2021 roster played collegiate volleyball elsewhere during the 2022 season. Five players went to other historically Black colleges and universities in the SWAC, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, and former Tigers setter Kalee Cadwell transferred to Louisiana Tech. Setter Sheila Borders was the only 2021 player to return to Grambling State for the 2022 season.

Lucas’ firing left the team without a head coach with the start of the season in August less than a month and a half away. The new roster, recruited by Lucas before her termination, consisted of Borders, five transfers from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, six players from community colleges, three freshmen and two other Division I players.

They spent nearly a month without a head coach and completed summer workouts under the scrutiny of national media, which ultimately helped them bond.

“We’re just keeping things like, keeping things flowing. Like, we didn’t have a coach for a second, but we still had help around and we still maintained and we still worked out. We always worked out, always seeing what we had to do,” said graduating senior and right-side hitter Destiny Thomas . “Don’t get me wrong, like, it was fun. It was an experience. It was adversity, but nobody shut down. Nobody broke down.”

Senior middle blocker Haley Gomez said dealing with the backlash was initially difficult as misinformation circulated in the media.

“All we could do was try to stay together as a team. We would have frequent team talks making sure everyone was staying strong mentally. We decided as a team that we would stick together and not let this distract us from our goals,” Gomez said.

“There were five of us that transferred from UAPB, so we really leaned on each other to stay strong and lead the team together. Overall, dealing with the negativity brought the team together quickly, and I believe this helped us out a lot during the season.”

Grambling State announced Phillips’ hiring on Aug. 9. The 25-year-old Phillips, who had spent four seasons as an assistant coach for North Carolina Central, was tasked with taking over despite having no head coaching experience.

“I’ve worked under great people. They taught me everything that I needed to know. It’s just kind of taking a leap of faith and going for it,” Phillips said. “It was like, if I wait another year, then a head coaching job may not come around in a year or two, you know, but I know I eventually want to be a head coach. I’ve done the work to put myself in a head coach’s position. So, I might as well take it and just go from there.”

North Carolina Central head volleyball coach Jody Brown , whom Phillips played under and coached with, knew Phillips was prepared to lead the Tigers – that’s why he and former Eagles athletic director Ingrid Wicker-McCree recommended the young coach for the Grambling opening.

“As far as the timing of everything, she brings what they needed and that was just someone who’s going to care more about the kids as opposed to just their coaching record,” Brown told Andscape in November. “It’ll be more about the team instead of her. I think that was the big thing. A lot of coaches think, you know, it’s about them. Well, it’s not about them. It’s about the kids.”

The season was not without drama for Phillips due to the lingering aftermath of the school’s previous coaching hire, questions surrounding Phillips’ age and the learning curve for the first-time head coach. Despite the internal and external pressures, she worked to remain a steady presence for the players and refocus the team.

“Her best trait this year was being calm, like, being calm in situations, like, she didn’t get hectic. … When things go wrong, she’s like, ‘OK, guys, everybody take a breath. You know, we can talk about it,’ ” Thomas said. “She didn’t freak out, she just breathed. She’s a very patient person, and it’s a good thing.”

Learning under Phillips was an adjustment, Gomez said.

“I was used to a different coaching style, just as she adjusted to us. I really appreciated her accepting us with such a positive attitude and putting us to work right away,” Gomez said. “She took what she was given and led us through a very successful season.”

The turmoil the Tigers endured makes their third-place finish in the SWAC even more impressive, Gomez said.

“I know we could have finished the season on a higher note in the SWAC tournament, but I hope next year the team remembers that feeling and uses it as motivation,” she said.

Despite the disappointing tournament loss that ended the Tigers’ season, Thomas believes their success on the court was the equalizer for everything they encountered before the start of the fall semester.

“It’s really what you make it. Like, we could’ve went down this road depressed or we could keep going. You push it to the end. … We all had the same end goal, so it made it easier for us. We all know what we wanted,” Thomas said. “When everything happened, we were strong already, so, like, it really didn’t affect anything. We just knew our goal. We all had one end goal: to win and keep going.”

Trayvean Scott , Grambling State’s vice president of intercollegiate athletics, was looking for a new coach with integrity, accountability and excellence. He believes he has found all of those things with Phillips’ hire.

In a short time, the volleyball program finally has met the athletic department’s expectations, he said.

“We talk about what’s important now. We always talk about the same level of expectations across the board in every sport. She’s been able to come in and create expectations and now try to stretch those goals and exceed those expectations in creating a consistent winner in a volleyball program,” Scott said.

Gomez, a graduating senior for the Tigers, knows the team pulling together and rallying on the court this season laid a strong foundation for the Tigers to win.

“Having a great first season definitely helped to set the foundation for the future of Grambling volleyball. We changed the team culture for the better and set an expectation for every season to come,” Gomez said. “The expectation to not only compete at a high level but also beat great teams outside of our conference will benefit the program for years to come.”

Phillips is filling out her recruiting class, searching for an assistant coach and finalizing the Tigers’ spring game schedule, which begins in mid-April – things she couldn’t do during her first season because she joined the program so hurriedly in early August.

“Chelsey did bring in a great group of girls. I’m not gonna put her down for that. She definitely did. But now they’re mine, and I have led them past this point,” Phillips said.  “I have put my own stamp on it because I’m doing this every single day. … I gotta lead them through practice [and] I got to coach them through games.”

Phillips learned a lot during her first season leading the Tigers, and with the drama seemingly behind them, she hopes to build on the program’s momentum.

“This group, they’re really hungry just because they see what their potential is and what they can do,” she said. “So I’m really excited for next season. I know they’re ready to play.”

Mia Berry is the senior HBCU writer for Andscape and covers everything from sports to student-led protests. She is a Detroit native (What up Doe!), long-suffering Detroit sports fan and Notre Dame alumna who randomly shouts, "Go Irish."