SF State volleyball enjoying renaissance under Hoffman

Matt Hoffman didn’t plan on being a volleyball coach, but he’s transformed the Gators into a contender

Matt Hoffman was teaching a weightlifting class at Cupertino’s Homestead High School in November of 2012 when his wife Noel called him in tears.

She’d been at the doctor’s office with their nine-month-old son, Owen, and finally had an answer for why Owen would stare off into space and wouldn’t engage: He had global neurological delays and intellectual disability.

Since Owen’s condition brought him home to the Bay Area after three years at a successful Division I program, Hoffman — who never played competitively beyond high school — has rebuilt middling Division II San Francisco State into a contender.

“This is my first time having to really build anything,” Hoffman said last week. “One one year at a time, one piece at a time.”

Hoffman’s first year was a difficult one — a last-place, 1-25 finish — but he had an approach, one that blends self-actualization with analytics to achieve results the program — which was shuttered from 2004-07 — hasn’t had in years.

Before every practice, sitting between the folded bleachers and the basketball stanchion, each player writes three words in a notebook, then on a whiteboard for their team to see. Two are intention words — what they want to focus on that day — and one is an action word — how they want to be. Afterward, they’re graded on mindfulness and execution of those words. Then, they sit in a circle and do breathing and visualization exercises for four minutes.

Hoffman used to be a stickler for starting practice precisely at noon.

“I’ve become much more user-friendly,” he said.

Hoffman lettered in both volleyball at Homestead in the late 1990s, but it was just something he did for fun. He didn’t even try to walk on to the team when he attended Long Beach State, intending to be a physical therapist or athletic trainer. In 2001, though, his high school head coach Roger Edwards suddenly passed. Hoffman came back to the Bay to mourn with his former teammates and slowly came to a realization: He wanted to coach volleyball.

After transferring to San Jose State, Hoffman began playing club ball for the Spartans. After graduation in 2003, he coached at Freemont, Gunn and then Homestead — winning a Central Coast Section title for his alma mater — and coached both boys’ and girls’ club teams, before hooking on as a volunteer assistant at Stanford.

“I didn’t know much about coaching at all,” he said. “I mean, I think back to some of those practices, and they’re not very good. I didn’t know what I was doing. I learned from a lot of people that had done it a lot more than me.”

While at Stanford under five-time NCAA champion John Dunning, Hoffman also coached and taught P.E. at Homestead. He realized he couldn’t advance his career splitting time, and that’s why, in April of 2013, five months after Owen was diagnosed, Hoffman took a full-time assistant job at Wichita State and moved his family to Kansas.

Within a year, Hoffman became top assistant to the now-legendary Chris Lamb, and in three years, they won 77 matches and two league titles, making two trips to the NCAA Tournament. Caring for Owen, though, was getting to be more difficult for Hoffman’s wife Noel to do while Hoffman attended to his coaching duties, especially as their daughter McKenna got old enough to need ferrying to various youth sports.

Hoffman wanted to move closer to home, where family — his in Cupertino, Noel’s in Sacramento — could help. He also wanted his own team, and San Francisco State had an opening.

“I didn’t think I would be an assistant coach for 10 to 15 years,” Hoffman said. “I’m just not wired that way.”

The Gators women’s volleyball program last won a league title in 1988. The facilities were a shade below those of local prep power Sacred Heart Cathedral and the cost of living was much higher, but there was greater access to some of the world’s top doctors for Owen. It was also the perfect testbed.

Hoffman is a fan of Michael Lewis’s book “Moneyball,” about the market-inefficiency-exploiting Oakland Athletics. Both his previous bosses — Lamb and Dunning — believed in the math of volleyball, but at San Francisco State, which couldn’t fund as many scholarships as most other teams in the conference, Hoffman had to go further.

“To be successful on an unequal playing field, you have to find other ways to level the playing field,” Hoffman said. “Just putting player for player up against some of the bigger teams in our conference, it doesn’t add up. We had to find other ways to maximize our skills and talents.”

Before backfilling the incoming recruiting class, he recruited three juniors as soon as he got the job, banking on the future and picking up a commit from high-volleyball-IQ outside hitter Drew Morris.

He mapped various peripheral stats across sets, games and seasons onto spreadsheets, color-coded based on how strongly they correlate to winning. He’s used those to determine how to focus practice.

When his team was 4-14 in opening sets last season, but 9-9 in second sets, he incorporated a full six-on-six game called 18-25 at the start of practice, so his team could get right into competing after warm-ups. The next weekend, they went 3-1 in opening sets. This year, they’re 7-4.

About a year ago, he started to warm up practice with out-of-system drills where setters dig and liberos set. It’s led to additional in-game swings, which translate into kills. Their kill percentage is now 17th in the nation.

The numbers are just part of a holistic approach that involves the emotional and psychological wellbeing of Hoffman’s players.

Hoffman’s family regularly attends games and scrimmages and, every year on Christmas, the entire team drives to his Concord home for dinner. Owen, still non-verbal but happy and energetic, is the star. It gives the Gators a sense of home.

Coming from a family of educators, Hoffman has filled his office bookshelf with books on how people learn and make decisions. He’s constantly learning about learning, adjusting his coaching to fit his players. A mental performance coach comes in twice a month.

After going 9-43 in Hoffman’s first two seasons, San Francisco State won 14 games and reached the postseason last year for the first time since 2014. They began this year 8-2 — the program’s best start since 2012. They also matched the team’s longest win streak on record by taking seven straight.

“I don’t think they pay attention to that at all,” Hoffman said. “I brought it up and they just kind of stared at me like, ‘Can we go to practice?’”

Morris was Hoffman’s first commit, when she was just a junior in high school. She didn’t waver after the 1-25 campaign, and this season, she’s the captain of a Gators team picked to finish first in the California Collegiate Athletic Association’s Northern Division.

Said Morris: “I knew he was building something.”

rgorcey@sfexaminer.com

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