Boise State volleyball coach Shawn Garus has a resume loaded with firsts.
The first Bronco to win Mountain West coach of the year in 2015.
The first one to repeat in 2016.
A Mountain West regular-season championship in 2016.
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And now Friday night in his home state of California: Garus leads Boise State in its first ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The Broncos (25-6), one of 64 teams competing on 16 campuses around the country this weekend, take on Western Kentucky (30-2) in Maples Pavilion on the Stanford campus.
The match starts at 5:30 p.m. MT.
If Boise State beats the Conference USA champion, it would face the Stanford (21-7)-Denver (23-8) winner in a second-round match Saturday night.
Naturally, Garus is focused on Friday. The Broncos have won 14 straight matches; Western Kentucky has won 21 straight and is making its third straight appearance in the NCAAs.
“We did reach our goal for this year, but we’re not done. We’ll try to talk about things a lot this week and free their minds so they can just go out and play,” Garus said. “I think if we do that, we have the talent to compete with a lot of teams out there.”
Garus arrived on the Boise State campus in 2009 to interview for a head coaching position with a program that had one winning season in 10 years. He spent the previous four seasons as the head coach at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, but the California native was intrigued by a move closer to home.
Boise State’s long-struggling program won nine matches in 2008. Within two seasons under Garus, the Broncos were a 20-win team.
“I did not cut a bunch of players when I got here,” he said. “I inherited a bunch of players when I got here and tried to convince them that they had the talent to play at this level.”
Those players who withstood the instability of a “revolving door of coaches,” and a move from the Western Athletic Conference to the Mountain West, turned out to be crucial to the growth of the program.
“The results that we had this year, or last year when we were really, really good, are not just from the group that was here at the time, but was from the kids maybe four or five years ago that were helping build this program,” Garus said.
Garus believes in taking fragile foundations and creating strong, solid ones built on trust. He’s also direct and open.
When All-Mountain West first-teamer Maddy O’Donnell was in the recruiting process, she remembers staff around the program describing Garus by saying, “You know what you’re going to get from him.”
“That’s something I appreciate,” said O’Donnell, a senior middle blocker from Irvine, Calif. “It makes it a lot easier for us to come in with the same mindset every day and not worry about how he’s going to react. He can get honest when he needs to, but he’s also really encouraging.”
Junior outside hitter Sierra Nobley, the 2016 Mountain West player of the year (another first for Garus), was recruited by Garus and said he is the reason she chose Boise State out of Scottsdale, Ariz.
I liked the vision he had for this program, with building it up and bringing in better and better recruits,” Nobley said. “Not just building any old volleyball team, but building a championship team.
Garus spent some of his early coaching days watching championship teams in the morning and coaching his own team in the afternoon. As a coach at Division II University of Colorado at Colorado Springs in 1998, Garus would watch the national teams train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs before afternoon practices with his players.
The men’s and women’s national teams played side-by-side, with a black curtain separating the courts. The women would train with a lot of technique and calculated movement, while the men played with an attacking, blocking style, banging balls with high levels of strength and athleticism.
“It kind of shaped what I wanted to do as a coach,’’ Garus said. “Half the practice would look like the women’s when we were doing movement and balance and ball control things, and the second half was really competitive.”
Garus left UCCS to become an assistant coach at Texas Tech (2002) and then the University of San Francisco (2003-04) before moving to North Carolina with his wife and young family.
When Garus coached at San Francisco, the West Coast Conference had a handful of ranked teams, and the Dons qualified for the 2003 NCAA Tournament. The team faced the University of the Pacific in the first round — at Maples Pavilion on the Stanford campus.
“We’re going to a site that I have played at before, that I have coached at before,” Garus said. “We’re staying at the same hotel that I stayed at before.”
There will be a lot of familiarity for Garus and his coaching staff on the trip to Stanford. But for the players, this is all new territory.
“We’re all just so excited and just taking it all in,” O’Donnell said. “Just loving every step of the way because it’s going to be over at some point.”
The Broncos sold out their final two home matches in Bronco Gym, and despite all the recent success, Garus is maintaining a humble attitude.
“You never know when you’re going to be back,” he said. “There’s a lot of hard work that goes into a getting a team to this place or getting a program to this place.
“We’re going to have to keep the work ethic at a high level if we want to get back and make this something that’s regular.”
The future does look bright — O’Donnell is the only senior on the roster — but this season has been one-of-a-kind for the Broncos.
“That’s something I think people need to understand,” Garus said. “How special this is and you don’t know when you’re going to get it again, so let’s make sure we enjoy it to the fullest.”
NCAA Tournament at a glance
▪ How to watch: The Boise State-Western Kentucky match at 5:30 p.m. MT Friday will be streamed free, and live, through the Pac-12 website (pac-12.com /live/stanford-university).
▪ Saturday: The two Friday winners from the Stanford site face each other at 8 p.m. MT. Stanford and Denver play in the second match Friday.
▪ Treasure Valley players: Junior libero Maddi Osburn (Vallivue High) and sophomore outside hitter Emily Sullivan (Bishop Kelly High) play for the Broncos. Osburn made the All-Mountain West first team.
▪ Mountain West: Two additional league teams made the NCAA field, Colorado State (vs. Kentucky on Friday in Seattle) and UNLV (vs. Utah on Friday in Provo, Utah). The Mountain West is 2-5 in the past four NCAA Tournaments, with Colorado State producing the two wins in 2014.