Story by Kristi Vettese, UCSD Athletics Communications
It’s safe to say that the continuing success of the UC San Diego women’s volleyball program is due at least in part to having one of the most accomplished athletes to ever play the men’s game as its head coach.
Olympic gold medal winner and collegiate hall of famer Ricci Luyties is currently in his fourth season leading the Tritons. A native of Pacific Palisades, Calif., he has had an extraordinary volleyball career at different levels, boasting a combined 25 years of playing and coaching experience in the sport.
After graduating from Palisades High School in the Los Angeles area, Luyties went on to become one of the most decorated setters in UCLA history, leading the perennial powerhouse to four consecutive national titles between 1981 and 1984. He guided the Bruins to an overall record of 126-7 during his time, which included a pair of undefeated seasons. A two-time NCAA Player of the Year and All-American, he was inducted into the UCLA Hall of Fame in 1995 and his No. 11 jersey was retired the following year.
In and around his time as a collegiate standout, Luyties also achieved success at the international level as a member of the United States national team from 1981-1988. Alongside Karch Kiraly and Steve Timmons, he helped Team USA win a gold medal at the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.
After earning Olympic gold, Luyties continued playing, but focused his efforts on the beach game. For 12 years, he competed regularly on both the AVP Tour and the FIVB World Tour. Luyties’ career on the sand featured wins in seven pro beach volleyball events, including the 1991 U.S. Championship with teammate Adam Johnson.
The coaching portion of his career got underway when Luyties began dabbling in it while at UCLA.
“I started coaching in college and got involved in camps,” said Luyties. “Coaching really wasn’t something that I was looking for. I just started getting more and more into it during my time off from the sport and I really started to like it.”
Luyties slowly began getting involved in the women’s game, coaching various local California clubs such as Wind n’ Sea Volleyball Club, Coast Volleyball Club and La Jolla High School. He says it wasn’t that he made a conscious decision to switch over to women’s volleyball, rather it just kind of happened that way.
“It was really the opportunity that opened up for me,” said Luyties. “I still coached some men's teams, but when I started coaching at the collegiate level, it was exclusively with women’s programs.”
The coaching bug led Luyties onto the college scene, where he served as an assistant at the University of Colorado for three seasons, a span in which the Buffaloes went 55-36 overall.
Luyties then earned his first collegiate head coaching job at Southern Mississippi, leading the Golden Eagles to an overall record of 85-96 over six seasons. In 2009, Southern Miss posted a 27-5 record and a 14-2 Conference USA mark to win its first outright league title. Luyties was tabbed the C-USA Coach of the Year as his team's 14 conference victories were a program best.
In 2010, Luyties returned to Southern California to take over the reigns of the UC San Diego women’s squad. He says coaching at UCSD has been slightly different than his previous positions because of the type of student-athlete that the school attracts.
“Here at UCSD, school work and academics are extremely important, and, in turn, the student-athletes are much more driven and motivated.”
Sara McCutchan, a senior middle blocker and two-time all-conference selection for the Tritons, says she most admires Luyties for the values he has instilled in the players and the knowledge of the sport he has passed down during his four years as head coach.
“I am so proud of our program’s strong reputation that Coach Luyties has helped shape,” said McCutchan, who hails from Irvine, Calif. “We love to win and strive to do our best as a team every day, but there are obviously times that we don't come out on top. On those days, I am amazed at how our team demonstrates composure, sportsmanship and resiliency, and those characteristics are a reflection of our head coach.”
After moving to NCAA Division II status for the 2000 season, UC San Diego became a major player in the ultra-competitive California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA). Luyties’ squads have continued that tradition, qualifying for NCAA postseason play all four years.
Luyties’ 2013 charges, which have been ranked as high as eighth in the nation, are currently 25-5 overall after kicking off the season with nine straight wins, equaling the best start to a campaign in the program’s history. The 25 victories are the most during the Luyties era, and the Tritons aren’t done yet. They earned their eighth consecutive berth in the NCAA postseason and will play as the No. 3 seed at this week’s NCAA West Regional in San Bernardino.
However, Luyties thinks that the most inspiring achievement by the team this season so far is the way the players have bonded and stuck together through the trying times.
“Even with the great nine-win run we had, we did have to overcome some adversity in the beginning of the season,” said Luyties. “The most impressive thing about this team is its ability to be resilient, deal with difficulties and continue on even stronger than before. We’ve done a great job learning from tough situations and that has kept us together all year long.”
Over his four seasons at UC San Diego, Luyties and the Tritons have compiled an 86-31 overall record to date, good for an impressive .735 winning percentage. In CCAA play, UCSD has gone 64-24 (.727).
Heading into their match-up with sixth-seeded Dixie State Thursday (12 p.m.), Luyties and the Tritons are relying on skill, confidence, resiliency and strong team chemistry to lead them through the NCAA West Regional and onto the NCAA Elite Eight in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
UC San Diego is on the road to winning a national title, its own gold medal of sorts.