Zavolta joins tradition of alumni turned coaches

New Assistant Women’s Softball Coach Jessica Zavolta, ’18, will become part of a group of Allegheny athletes who have returned to their alma mater to coach the sport they played as undergraduate students.

Zavolta’s hiring was announced in July of this year by Head Coach Beth Curtiss, whose previous assistant coach was also an Allegheny softball graduate.

“It’s really special to have players that want to come back and coach,” Curtiss said. “It’s one of the most rewarding parts about my time in the last six years here.”

Curtiss said Zavolta’s particular expertise in catching and pitching made her a natural choice for the position.

“We did a search for the position, and I called a few of the candidates, and Jess was by far the most qualified for the position,” Curtiss said. “Not many had a lot of experience — the particular experience I was looking for.”

Zavolta was a first team all-NCAC pick in her senior season as part of the 2017-18 Gator team that reached the NCAC Championship Tournament. A team captain for three of four years at Allegheny, Curtiss said Zavolta’s leadership was a valuable part of the team’s success and will help to ease the transition from teammate to coach. Zavolta said she anticipates a smooth transitio.

“With being a captain for the past three years, I’ve been seen as a leader to most of these girls, if not all of them already, so just kind of taking my leadership to that next role,” Zavolta said. “There obviously will be that kind of fine line now, but I think that they’re all respectful enough to not cross that because they know me as a person, and I also know them as a person.”

Softball Team Captain Samantha Valera, ’20, is eagerly anticipating working with her former teammate.

“We were really excited to hear that (Zavolta) was coming back because we all freaked out at the end of last year that she was leaving us because she’s been such a big rock for the team,” Valera said. “She has this very calming presence, so it’s good to have her back on the coaching staff because I think that’s going to really translate and help the new girls and kind of keep us going on the hot streak that we’ve had for the past year and a half I would say now.”

Curtiss said Zavolta will have an advantage in the recruiting process because she will be able to provide in-depth information on Allegheny and share her experiences with potential prospective student-athletes.

Zavolta is the fifth member of the current Allegheny athletics coaching staff to return to work at their alma mater. Head Cross Country and Track Coach Ben Mourer, ’07, Assistant Golf Coach Abby Sorensen, ’12, Head Women’s Lacrosse Coach Ashley Hughes, ’08, and Volunteer Assistant Swimming Coach Rebecca Dawson, ’00, are also graduates of the programs for which they now coach.

Mourer, whose wife is also an Allegheny alum, said his personal experience with Allegheny made him eager to join the staff.

“We both pretty much just said ‘Yes, if this is a possibility, we want to come back to Allegheny’ because we both loved it here. We both loved our experience,” Mourer said. “We loved the town of Meadville.”

Sorensen said her own personal experience made the transition into a coaching position as smooth as the experience Zavolta anticipates.

“I’ll tell you I thought coming back as a coach would be super easy, and honestly, it was,” Sorensen said. “I got to skip a huge learning curve in that I didn’t have to learn my way around campus or figure out the different faculty and staff members and departments. I didn’t have to learn different talking points for recruits.”

Sorensen was part of three rosters that qualified for the NCAA Division III National Championship in her time at Allegheny. She said she was eager to accept a position working under Head Coach Jeff Groff.

“I knew him so well, obviously, having been my coach, and obviously respected what he had done with his program and his style, and I was just really, really happy to be able to recruit at a school that I believed in,” Sorensen said.

Curtiss said Zavolta’s experience working with her as an athlete will translate well to working with her as an assistant coach.

“She knows me really well, and I think that she can help some of the new players transition in and give them a little bit of guidance that will be helpful because I think that she knows how the program works,” Curtiss said.

Hughes said her particular experience with year-round training as an Allegheny athlete helped her to prepare to ease the transition of her players.

“I played soccer and lacrosse here as an undergrad, so I was always very busy and always had the opportunity to pretty much be training 24/7,” Hughes said. “So having that mindset for me of being that dual sport athlete who was always in season of some capacity really helped me mentally be prepared for that and hopefully help to get our student athletes into that same focus.”

Hughes was named to two Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches’ Association All-Region teams as a Gator and is currently third on the all-time career goal list and points list and is second in assists. Despite her successful career, Hughes said she is even more motivated as part of Allegheny lacrosse in her current position.

“I think that having the Allegheny pride helps me stay motivated as a coach in terms of recruiting.” Hughes said. “There’s always frustrating moments with coaching, but I ultimately know that I have a lot of motivation to get our first-ever championship here, conference championship here.”

Hughes, who recently finished her fifth season coaching at Allegheny, said she left Allegheny with hopes to return as a coach. While her return came sooner than anticipated, Hughes is also enjoying being part of the changing landscape of Allegheny College and Allegheny athletics.

Mourer said one of the things he enjoyed most about returning as a coach was seeing the way the best parts of the cross country and track team culture had remained a part of the Allegheny experience.

“There were still some of the old stories, still some of the traditions that were the same, which was neat to hear,” Mourer said. “I try to distance myself from them as the coach, not being a part of the team that way anymore. But it was really cool to know that the culture is still keeping a lot of the things alive.”

Mourer was part of four conference championship-winning cross country teams as an Allegheny athlete. He was also part of four indoor and outdoor track conference champion teams, totalling 12 conference title-holding teams in all. He considers his time at Allegheny to be an advantage as a coach.

“I can relate to not only the experience all my athletes have as student athletes, but definitely I can relate to it because it’s the exact same school, taking the exact same classes, running the same roads on runs,” Mourer said. “It’s definitely been useful.”

Dawson said she has seen positive change in both Allegheny and in her sport between her time as an athlete and her time as a coach. Dawson earned 15 All-American titles as an Allegheny swimmer and was inducted into the Allegheny College Athletic Hall of Fame in October 2016. Dawson said Division III swimming has become much faster and much more competitive.

Dawson has seen the broader athletic experience change in her time at Allegheny as well.

“It’s gotten bigger and more visible,” Dawson said. “I feel like the coaches are known on campus and the athletes are known for excellence in the classroom and in their sport.”

Reflecting on her positive experience drives her to be a positive part of student athletes’ time at Allegheny, according to Dawson.

“I look back at being able to swim here, compete at such a high level and get the education that I did, and it’s an experience I wish everyone could have,” Dawson said.

Sorensen expressed a similar hope for her own athletes and prospective student-athletes.

“I was just really happy to get the opportunity to recruit golfers who could hopefully have the same or better experience than I did at Allegheny,” Sorensen said.

Dawson said the opportunity to become a Gator again is a unique and special experience.

“It’s super cool to walk down through the offices here and see that there are so many alums that come back,” Dawson said. “You know and you understand and you relate, but you also have the experience of being outside of Allegheny and kind of bridging those two worlds. It’s just lovely.”