June 14, 2020 – By NJP
As the 2020 Fall volleyball season approaches for Georgian Court University, there is an air of confidence surrounding Head Coach Dan Sempkowski. Dan has brought an abundance of success to the program since joining eight years ago and with a strong bunch of returning players as well as some solid new recruits and transfers, he feels the sky is the limit for the 2020 campaign. GCU posted 30 victories last season, won the CACC tournament and earned a #6 ranking in NCAA D2 volleyball headed into the NCAA tournament.
Dan is not a stranger to winning. From his early roots in New Jersey, playing high school at East Brunswick through his college days at Ramapo, and now Coaching at both College and Club, his passion has driven success. The momentum is rolling as we head to the Fall so the risk of COVID-19 delays or rescheduling is certainly a road that none of us want to see traveled.
Dan’s success has grown off the court as well. He recently welcomed his second son and has built a wonderful family life. What can be better than life at the Jersey shore, 2 young boys, a successful job as Coach, and of course some beach volleyball mixed in. We wish him and the Lions well…
Here is our interview with Coach Dan…
Hi Coach Dan…Tell us a bit about yourself?
I was fortunate to grow up in East Brunswick, a town that had a very successful volleyball team at the time. The first opportunity to play organized volleyball was tryouts my freshman year. I immediately fell in love with the sport. It helped that we were an extremely successful program at the time and won two state championships during my high school years. I was a libero, but High School sports at the time did not recognize that position until 2006, so I played Outside Hitter.
I played with the Warren Sixpack Volleyball Club starting my freshmen year in 2003. I’ve pretty much been involved with the club as a player, coach, or director since then in some capacity, although much less when I lived in Missouri for almost 2 years. I now have a family of four making it much more difficult to balance that involvement and I am much less involved with the club. I am Director at the Shore Volleyball Academy now.
I attended Ramapo College where I also played in the Men’s Volleyball team from 2005-2009.
Despite all of the indoor volleyball, beach volleyball was preferred sport where I pretty much played every single weekend tournament from sophomore year of high school through college.
What motivated you to become a college volleyball coach?
Definitely just the love for the game, especially at the higher levels. The majority of the time spent by a full-time Head Coach is off the court, but my Masters Degree is in Education / Athletic Administration so I really don’t mind the administrative side that is a much larger portion than the actual on court coaching part.
Can you share some advice for current high school level volleyball players and students? (Technical, mental, recruitment, etc…). Can you share one tip for a current high school player to improve their game?
I am still a firm believer that you need to just get out and play. Grab 3 friends/teammates and just play at whatever local courts are available. Youth sports are obviously extremely structured now, but there are still beach/grass courts available all over the state and plenty of open gyms.
From the non-playing side, think about what kind of teammate you are. Everyone is a great teammate when you are winning. How are you when you are losing, things don’t go your way, you are benched, etc.? This includes both what you verbally say, and what your body language says. College coaches definitely pick up on that.
Tell us about the 2020 Lions. Where do you expect to finish? Who do you expect to be your top contributors?
One of the great things about Georgian Court University are the expectations that we can have in our program. Every year we are expecting to be among the top teams in the conference and competing for a conference championship. 2020 is no different. We are coming off of one of our best seasons (30-7, CACC Regular Season and Conference Tournament Championships), but return several starters so we intend to be in a similar position next year.
Two of our top returners are our outside hitters. Senior OH Aubrey Binkley (Toms River, NJ) and Junior OH Kinsy Haschke (Texas) both had great seasons and have big expectations for next Fall.
Half of the GC roster is made up of players from NJ High Schools. Tell us about your recruitment philosophy.
From the recruitment side, we want the best players that are going to be a great fit for our program and continue to carry us forward to more success. To me, I don’t care where they come from. We do tend to maintain about half of our roster from our home state of NJ, but then have athletes as far as Serbia (incoming freshmen for 2020). It is also a mixture of athletes that found us, plus the ones that we found them.
You have had an enormous amount of success in your volleyball career, as a player at Ramapo, an Assistant Coach at Missouri Valley College, Club success at Warren Six Pack as Girls Club Director, and now as Head Coach at Georgian Court. What is the secret?
I believe it is just being passionate about the sport and always improving. As a player I was always working hard to get better. Now as a coach, it does require that same drive.
It also helps to surround yourself with the best possible teammates/coaches/mentors possible. I have been fortunate to play/coach with some excellent people.
What word of encouragement or inspiration can you offer current high school level players?
This is more centered towards those current seniors and juniors who lost their HS/Club seasons and all the recruiting opportunities that were lost just as quick. There truly are programs out there for athletes of every skill level, you just have to do the work to find them. Of course, every kid dreams of playing in the Big 10/EIVA at Penn State or another top program, but if that doesn’t work out, there are so many more opportunities if you are willing to put the work in and be flexible in your college search.
What was it like to have an undefeated year in high school as well as a state championship?
My junior year we went undefeated (2004). Looking back, it is tough to remember much about those times other than it was the one season of 3 out of 5 (much better than 2 out of 3). I know the only sets we lost in the regular season we were without our injured 1st team All State Opposite Tony Yates, so crazy to think how even without a top player in the state we still won. The State Final match we also dropped 2 sets after going up 2-0. That team was far from the most athletic, but 90% of the entire program was playing volleyball year-round to some extent.
My senior year is the memory that sticks out as we were going for a 3rd straight state championship, up 1 set to 0 in the NJ State Semi-Finals before a dropping the match and ending my High School career. I don’t think that will ever not sting.
Are there any rule changes that you would like to see to better prepare NJ High School students for college?
I alluded to this a little bit earlier, but going from best “3 out of 5” to “2 out of 3” matches was a huge set-back for NJ volleyball. It completely takes opportunities away from all NJ HS volleyball athletes. Being an extremely condensed state, it doesn’t make sense we ever made that switch. I was against it when I was a HS athlete and still feel the same way. I would support any and all ideas to go back to “3 out of 5”.
How difficult is it to coach your libero’s after putting up 837 career digs for the Roadrunners?
I’ve been fortunate to consistently recruit super high level libero’s. When I started at GCU, my starting libero from Puerto Rico had probably been around the game just about as long as I had since they start playing at 4 and 5 years old down there. That is the one position that I have been fortunate to always recruit well too, so it is more about providing them opportunities to have success against each team we are playing.
Tell us about your new recruited class as freshman in 2020?
We are very excited about our incoming 2020 class. With 5 committed athletes, we expect four more years of success here at Georgian Court University. They truly have the ability to challenge for playing time immediately, while also continuing to grow as athletes. There is a lot of potential in this group. Our practices in 2020 are going to be at an extremely high level.
Faith Bennett (Setter) – Transfer Junior from Notre Dame De Namur University (Originally from Nevada)
Nylene Mateo (OH) – Incoming Freshman from Bogota, NJ
Yarlin Ozoria (RS/OH) – Incoming Freshman from Lakewood, NJ
Jana Borkovic (L) – Incoming Freshman from Serbia
Kaliyah Calhoun (MB/RS) – Incoming Freshman from Lakewood, NJ
Is there a teacher, mentor, coach or someone else who contributed to your success along the way that you would like to highlight?
Just to name a few real quick, all of which I truly appreciate: CJ Werneke (former Rutgers Head Coach), Sam Schweisky (Princeton Head Men’s Coach), Pedro Trevino (NJIT Head Women’s Coach), and former coaches of mine Don Vanderbeck and Fred Siegle. They all helped me in my volleyball career.
Tell us about your assistant coaches and other staff at GCU…
We’ve got the best staff I have ever had right now at Georgian Court and I am extremely fortunate that they are all here to help out and make this program what it is. They also make my life significantly easier.
Jason Ulrich is my top Assistant and just wrapped up his 7th year at Georgian Court. He is also the Jackson Memorial HS Head Boy’s Volleyball Coach. He is an amazing coach and I am so disappointed they did not get to show the state how strong his boy’s team was going to be this past Spring in their 4th year of existence.
Shannon Clark is an Assistant who is going into year 2 with us. She was a Setter from Stockton University.
John Bracco is a Volunteer Assistant who played at St. Joe’s many years ago. He is going into year 2 with us.
Kelsie Blue (3 years) and Jess Pedroza (2 years) are both Georgian Court University Alum and former NJ High School players as well. Kelsie played for Southern Regional and Jess for Manchester Township.
What advice do you have for parents of players on high school teams?
I am still a ways from being a parent of a player (my sons are 2 years old and 1 month old. Potential Southern Regional players many years from now – I have to say that to rub it in for my Assistant Jason who would have much preferred I moved to Jackson this past winter).
It really is about providing an opportunity for your child to fall in love with the sport. It isn’t soccer where every single town has their own travel team, so it may require some traveling to get to club teams, courts for pick up, clinics, or camps. In the end, it is definitely worth it. While NJ is still behind, many do not know Volleyball is the #1 team sport in the US for girls in terms of participation at the High School level, only behind Track & Field among all sports.
Tell us more about the GCU program for any players who may aspire to play there…
One of the top NCAA DII programs in the NJ (and Northeast). To sum up my recruitment pitch; it is an opportunity to play a very high level of volleyball, while still having the ability to truly focus on academics. Geographically we are in the smallest DII conference in the country, so we are still able to get a full day of classes on game days. Not to say the balance of sports/academics is easy, but it is a lot easier when you can leave between 2-3PM for a conference game and get home before midnight. That balance is why I have settled in at Georgian Court and the Division 2 level for 8 years already.
To see a game, our schedule should be available soon at www.gculions.com (would be posted now, but as you can imagine everyone is going through some changes due to COVID). All of our games are web-streamed for those who could not make the trip.