BEREA -- On Wednesday, first-year Berea College volleyball coach Ashley Harris watched as her team hung with a USA South foe that hasn't dropped a league match all season.
Maryville College (19-6, 10-0 USA South) rolled to a 3-0 victory over the Mountaineers at the Seabury Center on Senior Night.
Berea fell to the Scots by scores of 13-25, 19-25 and 13-25.
Despite the loss, the Mountaineers second-set rally showed strong promise for a team and program that has made a remarkable turnaround.
Berea College is currently 10-13 and 5-5 in conference play -- and that number of wins a huge surge from recent years.
Last season, the Mountaineers scratched out just two wins.
The year before -- just three.
With only five wins in the past two seasons, the recent success has stunned many -- including their new head coach.
"You never know how it's going to go," Harris said of the first year of taking over an ailing program. "Everybody is still getting used to each other and the different styles of coaching and our language."
The culture shift has happened very quickly.
"That was was something I was actually shocked about, how fast that changed. It usually takes time to change the culture. You are constantly reiterating this is who we are and who we are going to be and our expectations. However, this group and our community has embraced the change and that has made a big difference," Harris explained.
A lot of the credit for the program's quick turnaround is due to the leadership of the seniors who were honored on Wednesday night.
"A lot of our success is from our returning core. They bought into it from day one. They said, 'Let's work hard and go after it. I see what your vision is and we want to be a part of it.' We would not be where we are not without that. It's been huge for us," Harris said of the team's willingness to adapt to the challenges of a new coaching staff and style.
Harris took over the program in March and had just a few weeks with the returning members of her team before summer break.
The coach explained how she tried to connect with the team and work with them on reigniting the volleyball program before a new set of players arrived in August.
"I had such a short time with them and then August came and we had a whole new crew and new challenges. They were so dedicated though, they wanted this. They really made it work," Harris said.
The coach praised the determination of seniors Marisha Mustafic and Bailie Parker, along with returning starters sophomores Hannah Headrick and Carolina Robles.
"They came in and had grit ... Who they are now, with who they were last year is two different people. Not only on the court, but their personal lives. It's been wonderful to watch that growth," Harris said.
The volleyball coach is no stranger to turning programs around.
Before taking the job at Berea, Harris was a key component of bringing Tennessee Wesleyan's volleyball program to new heights.
She served TWU's head coach for five years, where she became the winningest coach in program's history. Her team set over 40 program records in 2018, including the most single-season wins and longest winning streak. Her team also set program records for single season blocks, assists, kills, and aces. The 2018 TWU team finished 4th in the nation among NAIA schools with 317 blocks
Harris was named as one of 30 under 30 coaches by the American Volleyball Coaches Association in 2017, a list recognizing the 30 best coaches under the age of 30.
Harris said she is hoping to do the same for the Mountaineers.
"I was so blessed to have this opportunity. I found it really appealing. This is somewhere they had a clean slate and you could really come in and make it your own," the coach said.
Harris said was drawn to Berea College because of its unique mission and resources.
"I know that my kids are taken care of. I appreciated that Berea helps them get them ready for that next step. They have numerous resources here that help our kids grow in all aspects. That's what I was looking for," Harris said.
Harris didn't have to look far to find her assistant coach in her new position.
Ian, Harris' husband, is the Mountaineers' assistant volleyball coach, and served as the assistant volleyball coach at TWU prior to the couple's move.
Harris said the husband-wife coaching duo, while unusual, works well and has allowed the couple to grow stronger as leaders.
"Most people say, 'You guys are never apart!'" Yes, we are never apart," Harris said with a laugh. "For some, that doesn't work. For us it does. We mesh so well, there is a little bit of that yin and yang. We feed off each other."
It helps when your assistant coach and you have a shorthand on the court as well, Harris admitted.
"He is in charge of the back line and he does that well. He also recruits for us. It's great because I trust him. I can concentrate on the front row and everything else," Harris explained.
"He was originally a football coach. About three or four years ago, we sat down and discussed how our careers were going to grow if we didn't make an adjustment. Just figuring that all out. Even when he was doing football we were always on the road together and I would drag him to tournaments and matches and volleyball clubs. He helped me recruit even then. He knew what I was looking for and what my language was. It wasn't completely out of the blue when he decided to help me coach volleyball, He was already kind of doing that," Harris said.
The coach said the couple approaches their coaching with a player-first mentality and try to establish strong bonds with their teams.
"We are a family. Literally," Harris said with a laugh. "That is also how we run things. Our players are more than just players. They are big sisters to our daughters. We depend on each other and work together like a family."
Harris' approach seems to be working and others have taken notice.
Southern volleyball coach Jeremy Grant praised the Mountaineers recent success.
"I graduated from Berea ... I've watched them play. They haven't been the best," Grant said.
However, this season the coach said the Mountaineers were unrecognizable from season's past.
"It was like a total different program. They were running things at tempo and speed. It looked like a whole different Berea College team. That program is going to be good," Grant said.
Harris has already gotten two commitments from local players.
Southern's Hannah Martin will likely join the program next season.
Something, Harris said she looks forward to as the Mountaineers try to gain more depth.
"We look to carry between 20 and 25 kids, it's all about that depth. There was one week this season, where I had five or six kids out. It makes it hard, especially when the kids are your hitters. That's where you get boxed in. I want to see what our options are and be able to have players that can come in and help us. You can't do that if we only have seven or eight players," Harris explained.
So far, Harris said her first year has been amazing.
"It's been a lot of fun. We are still motivated and want to keep pushing forward. I'm very excited to see what we can do in the future," Harris said.
The Mountaineers are set to return to action Saturday at Agnes Scott.