Exactly three years ago, on January 26th, 2016, Texas Tech hired Tony Graystone as its new volleyball coach. Graystone was given a tall task with the goal to uplift a program that was involved in a long-lasting crisis. Now, three years later and after back-to-back winning seasons, coach Graystone has agreed to talk with Viva the Matadors about these three years in Lubbock.
The result was a brilliant chat with an easygoing person, who takes care of his job and clear ideas for his program.
Coach Graystone, we can say you spent your entire professional life coaching volleyball. Where does this passion start from? When and where did you start coaching?
I started right after college, I started getting involved in this sport when I was in college, and then I started coaching when I was in grad school. I was coaching high school ball and then, after I got my master degree, I decided I wanted to do it full time. Two years later I became head coach and that was that. I fell in love with volleyball in college and everything started from that.
We can see from your biography that you’ve served as the head coach for 10 years at West Texas A&M and for seven years at the Texas A&M - Corpus Christi. Which memories do you have of these two schools?
At West Texas A&M, my very first year as an assistant coach, we won the national championship. And that was pretty cool for my first time being a college coach. We had such a great year and then a year later my head coach left and helped me to take over the program for her. She left so I got put in a head coaching job pretty quickly, maybe before I was quite ready for it. But that whole community was so good about supporting me in our program. And we had a lot of success there. That was really the best place I could have been to start my career. And then when I went to Corpus Christi, I left because I wanted to rebuild the program and I wanted to go to Division I. That program needed a lot of help. It was in bad shape and so the biggest memory I’ve got of that time was just rebuilding a program and giving it a new tradition and then giving it some success that it never had before. And because I’ve been able to do that I was able to get it here at Texas Tech.
Then in January 2016, so three years ago, you have been hired by Texas Tech. What were your feelings in that moment? Were you scared by the fact that the team was coming from a long period without winning seasons?
I wasn’t scared. I felt definitely there was a lot of pressure. This program is a big job in a great conference, and you know there’s a lot of expectations and the program hadn’t had a lot of success. So, it was a lot like what I went through at Corpus Christi just on a bigger stage. And that first year was tough. We had a lot of things that had to get fixed. I was happy that by the time we got to year two we were able to start winning a lot more and get better players in, just getting everything on the right track and so it was a really tough start but we had to go through that to get to where we are now.
I would like to skip the 2016 season and talk about 2017, the first winning season of Texas Tech in almost 20 years. In my opinion, this was a true turning point for the program as it discovered it could be competitive again. Did you expect a season like that?
We thought that we were going to be able to do that because we brought in three transfers and they were all very good. They had a big impact on us right away. And they just did all the things that we weren’t able to do in 2016. So we sold all of our holes right away. We had a new group, we had those transfers coming in, and we had a couple of our first recruits, so we were just able to do it the way we wanted to do it. That was kind of our launching point.
I think the icing on the cake was the positive participation in the NIVC, a nice run in which your team won four straight games before losing to Ole Miss in the tournament final. What can you tell us about that adventure?
It was very important for us. We hadn’t been in the postseason for a long time, we were excited to get in, we just had that opportunity to keep playing and we felt like as a team we were still in a rebuilding mode. So, we thought we needed some more time to finish our rebuild. So the postseason in the NIVC gave us extra matches and it helped the team, as we learned how to win on the road, just being in a tournament environment, practicing for another three weeks and the whole thing. So it just helped us kind of change the whole expectations of our program.
Do you think the NIVC run last year helped psychologically this year?
Yes, for sure. We just feel better about our program and where we felt like we could go and we did get a lot of confidence from playing the tournament.
Now we come to this season. The team improved once again its regular season record and its conference record, too. Are you satisfied of what you have seen in 2018 or maybe the second part of the Big 12 schedule could be a little bit better?
We got off to a great start, we were really in a good position. We had a couple of big injuries that slowed us down and then the second time through conference play everybody knows each other and they’re a little bit more ready for you and if so we didn’t finish in the way we would have liked. Here are some reasons why. But overall we look at the whole thing and we’re happy with it. But we would have liked to finish strong, no question. We were right on the bubble for being able to get into the NCAA tournament and we just came up a couple of wins short. So that has helped us with our offseason but for last season we really saw what we could have gotten there.
In your opinion which was the best game your team played in 2018?
Probably when we won at Baylor, they were ranked, top 20 at the time and it was the Big 12 opener for us. That was a great win, we hadn’t beaten a ranked team in a long time. We gave the best of us so it was a big win.
Let’s talk about 2019: the team will lose two important pieces in Missy Owens and Katy Keenan. How will the team manage their replacement?
Missy was the center of the team last year, first-team All-Conference , she is a special player, so we’ll have to turn to a young player, who is very good, just inexperienced, just have to learn the position. But we feel pretty good about her. Katie maybe is a little bit harder to replace because we’re so young at her position and we still have our other starter coming back from her injury and she isn’t quite ready yet. So that position is a little bit more up in the air. But we have talented players, they just have to figure it out and how to do it at the Big 12 level. We feel like our outside hitters are very strong. I feel good about what we’ve got but our team is just going to be built a little bit differently than it had the last couple of years.
The other thing Texas Tech fans discovered in 2018 is freshman Brooke Kanas, who earned All-Big 12 freshman team honors. Did you expect she could have this fantastic season and what is her potential?
I won’t say she came out of nowhere, we felt like she was going to be a starter for us. She got off to a slow start and then it was really the match that we won at Baylor where she really figured it all. She had a great match and she was definitely the reason why we won that match. She was a difference maker and that propelled her to a great Big 12 season and got a lot of individual recognition. But we love her arm, her jump, she’s a versatile player, and we feel like she’s got a ton of potential to be an All-conference origin maybe an all-American type player. She’s really a special talent. The sky is the limit with Brooke.
And according to you, who will be the surprise of 2019 among your players?
I think Alex Kirby, our new setter. We are a team that all about Missy Owens last couple of years and so now we’re turning it over to Alex. I think she’s going to have a great year. Our team is built around a lot of balance, we’d like to give the ball to a lot of players, with different girls stepping up and doing a good job. We have a couple of freshmen that came here this fall and I’m pretty excited. about and write them out the freshman class.
Talking about freshmen, the team landed another All-American in Audrey Tuttle, but it seems all the class can bring something important to Texas Tech.
Audrey is on campus right now, she graduated early. And so we’re excited to be working with her already. But we’ve got a couple of other players that we really feel like are going to play right away. We are in our fourth year coming out but this is only our second recruiting class. So we are excited now that we are starting to really get some players in that we’ve been recruiting for a long time. We know exactly how they’re gonna fit in but the 2019 class is strong for us.
Is there something you’d like to say to the readers of Viva the Matadors and in general to Texas Tech fans?
We’ve been so excited about how our program has gotten better in the last few years, how our support has grown, and people are so much more interested in us. It seems like our reach outside Lubbock is gotten bigger and bigger. The university is so supportive of us, we’re actually taking our first abroad trip, this spring we’re going to Italy in May. And so we’re really excited about that going to be a great experience for us. And it is one more way for us to build our team and get stronger and get some more time together. So I love that you’re reaching out and trying to show your readers what we’re all about and giving us another way to connect with them.