Michigan State Volleyball Schedule, Coach and Athlete Quotes at
Big Ten Volleyball Media Days

Michigan State Spartans Volleyball Schedule, Comments and Quotes from Coach Leah Johnson and MSU volleyball players Rebecka Poljan and Nalani Iosia

The Big Ten Volleyball Media Days event on Monday, August 1, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois at the Big Ten Network was attended by interviewees Michigan State head coach Leah Johnson and top players who discussed the Michigan State volleyball schedule, the upcoming season, the NIL, the recruiting success for the team and a preview on the NCAA tournament.

COACH JOHNSON: Thank you to the Big Ten. What a phenomenal opportunity to be here, to be representing Michigan State at the most elite conference level in the country for volleyball.

The Big Ten never fails to set the event higher and higher. This event is showcasing that. I was telling the athletes when we were arriving that some of my biggest joy is watching them get to shine, and this is an event that gives them another platform to do so.

We're grateful to be here. And thank you to the Big Ten.

We're now four and a half months going strong. 12 new faces to our roster. The majority of the people including myself have yet to play a full Big Ten schedule.

There's going to be a large learning curve. But that's the thing I'm most excited about. Quite honestly the grind, the climb, the process over time is why I coach. It's why I love to compete. That's what I should say. It's why I love to compete. They're why I coach, giving them that spotlight.

So hopefully you have lots of great questions for them and less for me. But I'm happy to take your questions.

Q. Nalani, can you talk about the change, the process, how it came about, what you think, anything?

NALANI IOSIA: I think the change has been something that was really good for me in every aspect of my life. I just needed just a new change, where I could grow as a person and a player. And I think this place was perfect for me.

Coach Johnson has been a huge impact on my life already even though I've only known her for four months. I feel I've known her forever. She's taught me so much about volleyball and who I am as a person and growing into something I've wanted to do for the past couple of years.

I think that's what inspired this change for me. And I think that's what I'm most looking forward to this season, just playing in the Big Ten, one of the best conferences for volleyball, super competitive every week, playing a top 10 seed and just growing in the game.

Q. What are the challenges of so many new faces on one team and kind of building rapport with one another, but also the exciting pieces of getting to do that as well?

REBECKA POLJAN: Being the senior, the one who has stuck around, it's been really cool to see everybody come in. Coach Johnson has done a great job not just recruiting great volleyball players but great people. There's going to be a learning curve when a bunch of new people.

Like, I met Nalani for the first time two months ago. But it's been really cool to see off the court that transition going from strangers to learning how to play around each other, to now being more comfortable and just being around each other more, becoming more of a family. It's been a really inspirational challenge to take on. But also to see everybody else growing so much. I've kind of gotten the privilege to see that behind the scenes and stuff.

But it really is an awesome thing to see so many new girls. We have two more girls joining us still. Very excited.

COACH JOHNSON: From my perspective, to add on to that, what's been impressive is the effort they've put in. Because it's very easy when there's so many new faces. Kind of like they teach you in CPR -- be direct with the person you want to help, right?

It would have been easy to deflect and defer to someone else to problem solve and bring the group together, because as we all know volleyball has no contact in the summer, unfortunately.

And so they've taken such stride to make themselves a family before I've even entered the gym with them. And I don't know that a lot of people would have put that effort into the level they have.

So I'm very grateful that that's the place that I get to step onto the court, where they provided, they've laid that ground work.

Q. You brought it up, the no contact during the summer. Can sense it bothers you. Do you see any progress there? Do you see it getting to a point where it will change?

COACH JOHNSON: I think it will change. Public pressure seems to influence the NCAA pretty frequently, especially when it comes to things of equity, inequalities. I think they're much more in tune with that.

When you've got the sport of volleyball, which is growing at an exponential rate on the women's and the men's side, the number one sport in girls high school, and then you're looking at this event, the inaugural right here in the Big Ten media day for our sport, it's almost impossible for it not to.

So that's my opinion. Their decision may be different. But I think they deserve -- now I'll tell you, I'm an advocate of letting our athletes have a lot of time of their own because that's where they develop their voice, their leadership. The very story she just told, that doesn't happen when I dictate every step they have to take.

And so I think there's a caution there as well. I want to step out of the way more often and let them guide themselves, motivate themselves. So that will be a balance I'm looking for, but when you've got what I could have done eight weeks this summer, just learning names, let's be honest, right?

Learning positions, repositioning, introducing a system. So we're going to have two and a half weeks before we're expected to win our first game to do all of that with all these new faces. And we're going to do frickin' do it.

Q. I noticed you have a very unique presence so far since you've joined the team. You've had fun events. You've brought in a lot of international players. And something as well as I saw that you brought in Brittney Kimball to be a brand ambassador. Talk me through those unique changes that you brought to the program.

COACH JOHNSON: I appreciate you using the word "unique". I think that is something that is important to us. I don't mean "different," like others aren't better, but unique to who we are.

We want to identify in our own spaces as Spartans. I'm not often looking to replicate someone else. But I can certainly respect and appreciate great things other people are doing at other institutions.

So Brittney has added -- she spent several years with the Big Ten, working on the ground at Michigan State. And in my opinion, with the NIL, with volleyball being, I think, becoming the most dominant women's sport, that's trending, right?

And then the ability to reach so many people, why wouldn't I have an expert to do that for us in-house? And to share the story because it's an intimate sport in a way others aren't.

Fans know the personal stories of our athletes. Not just the win-loss. And how do I help them demonstrate they're more than so much more than just the uniform they put on in the sport they play? That's the access I want to provide them as a coach.

I'm a means to their bigger goals. My job is to find those spaces where I can help them flourish in so many ways, not just be successful on the court. That's in addition to.

Q. I'd love your opinion on this, but before I think I'd love to hear what Rebecka and Nalani have to say. We're talking about this idea of women's volleyball being a sport that is ascending in popularity and growing. I'm curious if any of you three were given the opportunity to make a unilateral change to how women's college volleyball works, based on, hey, my experience as an athlete, I think we should change X to do something better, what would you recommend?

COACH JOHNSON: This one requires thinking.

REBECKA POLJAN: Yes, it does.

COACH JOHNSON: Be patient.

REBECKA POLJAN: Volleyball is growing exponentially. I can even see that within camps and stuff and going different places. People love volleyball.

I appreciate it has been getting better. But just air time for women's volleyball matches. I think exposure is huge. I think they're doing more of that. But I love when I walk by a restaurant and there's Big Ten volleyball on.

That is so cool for any women's sports. Sometimes you'll see softball during the World Series but no other time. But I think it's really cool when we get the recognition because we are playing at such a high level that it becomes like a basketball game, like rewatching of a basketball game or football game. Volleyball deserves to be on that level.

NALANI IOSIA: I think to go along with that, just things like this as well, how this is a first for women's volleyball, I think that's a huge step. I feel it could have came a little earlier, just this could have been a regular thing to make volleyball feel a little more appreciated.

When I heard about this, I was so excited. I couldn't believe, I felt like I was a celebrity. It was one of those things. You just feel like you're being treated like you're on top of the world.

I think women athletes in general should have that feeling every year to just go in with that. And events like this, even smaller events would also bring a lot of awareness to the sport in general.

Q. Rebecka, what's your take on playing all your matches at Breslin Center this year as opposed to Jenison. And also for all of you what's been the best part of the inaugural Big Ten volleyball media day so far?

REBECKA POLJAN: It's a really cool thing we get to play at Breslin. I have grown up, for those who don't know, I've been there, I've grown up in Michigan. Grew up a State fan. Wanted to be a women basketball player. I have distinct memories when I was younger, I want to play basketball at Michigan State.

Fast forward I'm a volleyball player here. And it's really cool we get an opportunity to play at one of the biggest stages at Michigan State. Obviously football has the most capacity, but Breslin is an electric center, and I'm so excited to play in it.

Am I going to miss Jenison a little bit? Yeah, that's my home. That's where I've played for the last four years. But we still get to practice in there. And the distinct Jenison smell.

But, yeah, just so excited to get into the Breslin Center. We had the opportunity to play our spring game there. And it was so cool. I think that's just a huge step for volleyball at Michigan State.

Q. What's been the best part of media day so far for each of you?

REBECKA POLJAN: Me beating coach in ping-pong.

NALANI IOSIA: I think my favorite part, meeting all the people who do the work behind the scenes. I think it's really cool to see the little things that people do to put Big Ten on the map. Just having this big conference and just knowing what people do, the little things.

Like, I met some guy at lunch who was making a spreadsheet for rosters. I was, like, whoa, that's so cool. Just knowing everyone in the room just plays a big part into this is something that is not exposed. There's no behind the scenes of those things and people that put the work into that. I think that's been my favorite part.

Just meeting new people and this experience overall has been really awesome.

Q. Rebecka, you have a new coach for the first time in a long time, who is very different. What about Coach Johnson has -- certainly I know there's answers to amuse you, interested you, been impressed by, anything like that?

COACH JOHNSON: Should I put on my earmuffs?

REBECKA POLJAN: No, you can listen. I love Coach Johnson so much. If anything, she's allowed me to find my voice on the team. And that's something that I felt like it's coming in and just finding my voice on the team. I've grown in so much confidence as a player, as a volleyball player, as a person since she's been here.

I would also say, kind of to your question, she has set the standard at Michigan State. And that's something that she came in and with a mission to do, whether it be like our nutrition, the way she coordinates efforts between strength training, nutrition, athletic training, our load even. She looks at all of those things.

So I would say she's probably one of the most intentional coaches, is the most intentional coach I've been coached by, by the way that she communicates. She says language is everything.

And I totally agree with that. And she has done all the research. She listens to our strength coach and nutritionist and stuff. So I've loved playing under you so far. It's only been four months, and it hasn't even been a season yet.

COACH JOHNSON: I'm definitely going to disappoint her very soon, I'm sure.


You can ask her that in a month how she feels. But thank you, I appreciate that. And lucky to have players who are willing to learn.

Q. Being the Michigan State, what's been different or challenging for any kind of perspective?

COACH JOHNSON: The challenge has been the speed at which I have to accomplish things. And that's probably the expectation I put on myself.

We had seven athletes in the gym. So I had to build an entire Big Ten roster around those seven to be able to compete this year. And I don't think anyone in this room thinks you can build a Big Ten roster in ten weeks.

So those who are winning national championships on the Big Ten may have new players in and out, but they have a core of returners.

So that's something that I think has been most challenging. The flipside is I've really found kind of a fearlessness in this process because this is it. This is the biggest stage that we can get on, that highest accomplishment outside, within collegiate athletics.

And so at this point, why would I hold anything back? Why would I worry? What would I ask for? Why would I worry how I coach? Like, it's me. And I think that's been really rewarding, versus throughout your career you're like, I want to be perfect or I want to be this or I need to emulate this person because that's what they do at name your Big Ten school.

And now I get to just be me, because through that process I found myself. And I'm still learning every day. They challenge me every day. I say all the time I'm going to push you; I need you to push back. I have to get better too; you're not the only one getting challenged in this room.

I think that's been kind of the dual side of it. I get to go for it and, boy, is there a lot to do. So I'm trying to figure that out, too.

Q. We've been asking about the growth of volleyball and women sports, but as a woman's coach -- and we're trying to grow women stepping into coaching, even at the high school level but into the college ranks and growing the sport, how do we keep encouraging women to get involved and keep pursuing coaching opportunities, especially head coaching opportunities, not only to coach women, but also to coach, potentially, boys, young men?

COACH JOHNSON: Yes. I mean, I'm a big believer there should be a diverse staff on every sports team. Notice I did not add a gender to that. There should be women coaching men, men coaching women, young, old, different genders, identities. It doesn't matter. I think that makes everyone in the room better.

I'm going to refer to what Nalani talked about being here and seeing the behind the scenes of a production of this magnitude for a women's sport, like she's in awe by that. It's 2022. Should she be in awe by that? That's what we have to do.

We have to continue to sit in these spaces and talk about these things and ask these questions and spend the time shining a spotlight, even if it's not your greatest interest, because it very well could be you just haven't given yourself a chance to know that.

I didn't know I loved volleyball until I tried out in seventh grade. I didn't know I was a hockey fan until I started following the Blues when I lived in St. Louis.

I didn't know I want to play pickle ball one day because I don't move as fast anymore and that seems like that would work for me. You don't know.

If we don't know we want to continue to provide women opportunities like coaching in particular, they have to see the many routes that are available to them to get there.

And I respect the men in our league as coaches. Like, they are all equally deserving. But I also want women to have the avenues and the belief that that is where they belong. And so I'll keep talking about that as much as I can and I'll encourage them to do that, if it's their passion.

Q. Talk about getting the team together, how exciting was it to share your extended family with your brand new volleyball family, what was it like for team bonding?

COACH JOHNSON: I'm pretty informal as a coach. You're probably picking up on that. I wanted to -- I don't have family here. It's me, my husband, my two kids, two dogs, two gerbils, just one fish, I know -- that's who we get to celebrate our news with. So everything else is remote or virtual.

So being able to tell the team we're expecting a new child in January and to surprise them, especially because they don't know me -- I honestly was nervous how they would respond because I know they're generous people and they're excited for others and they care about other people, but was it going to freak them out? Were they going to have all those concerns everybody else probably had when they heard, like for some reason your brain doesn't work because you're pregnant. Like, okay, no, we can still do our jobs. Granted I do forget things more, but I think there's part of that. So demonstrating to them that I'm doing this. I don't know if there's ever been a woman actually have a child while in the Big Ten.

I'd be curious. Can we get a fact check? I don't want to spread false news here. I loved being able to tell them, it brought me a ton of joy. And their reaction it's a core memory for me now. It just totally changed the way I felt about my decision, because they embraced us and my family.

We even did a gender reveal later that night with them and their faces. I don't know, how did you guys feel.

REBECKA POLJAN: We're having a girl.


It's the team's.

COACH JOHNSON: It's the Spartan baby. We call it Noodle, Spartan Noodle. And eventually Noodle will have a name.

Press Conference
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports

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