Women’s tennis and men’s volleyball: Building a winning culture at CSUN


Edward Segal

Jolene Coetzee, right, and Angela Ho, middle, shake hands with their opponents from Fordham after defeating them 7-5, as Yuliia Zhytelna, left, cheers from the sidelines on Saturday, March 18, 2023, at the Matador Tennis Complex in Northridge, Calif.

Edward Segal, Sports Editor

Becoming a winning team is a goal that every sports program strives for. That goal can be accomplished through victories and championships, player achievements and team accolades. But building a winning culture requires a deeper level of success that can’t be explained through statistics.

The women’s tennis and men’s volleyball teams at CSUN have gone on similar journeys en route to building a culture conducive to success on the court.

Women’s tennis entered its dual Saturday, March 18 against Fordham with six consecutive victories, while men’s volleyball came into its match that same day looking to recover from its first loss in nine games.

The women picked up their seventh straight win and have since defeated St. Thomas and Chaminade, putting them ahead of men’s volleyball for the longest win streak of any Matadors team this season.

Tennis, by nature, is a mental game. The sport not only requires the endurance to fight through two sets of at least six games each, but it also necessitates the ability to persevere through each point, and to do so alone.

“You have to be so strong mentally in tennis, especially in singles, because it’s just you,” Sasha Turchak, a three-season veteran with the team, said. “For me personally, every match that I play, I really try to believe fully that I can win and I think that’s kind of where you start, just believing in yourself.”

The Matadors women’s tennis team is the only Big West Conference team to be undefeated at home, holding a 9-0 record in matches at the Matador Tennis Complex. They sit at 3-1 in the Big West and 13-3 overall. The Matadors’ only losses came to PAC-12 powerhouses USC and UCLA, as well as the Big West-leading Hawaii Rainbow Warriors.

Jolene Coetzee and Angela Ho have led the way in doubles play for the Matadors throughout the win streak, earning victories in each of their eight matches. Their versatility on the court allows them to take opponents by surprise as they rotate between playing up close to the net and holding the fort down in the back. This adaptability has also helped them eke out victories in singles play.

In one rally en route to her two-set victory on Saturday, March 18, Coetzee ran towards the net to return a ball that her opponent hit lightly. She lunged forward and did the splits to extend the rally. Then, after her opponent quickly returned the ball, Coetzee switched to her left hand and sent it over the net, scoring the point.

“I’ve never done anything like that before,” Coetzee said. Her teammates yelled, “Ambidextrous!” as the graduate student pumped her fist in celebration.

“I’m going to get every single ball, and I’m not going to give up until I do,” Coetzee said.

Another player who has stepped up for the Matadors throughout the win streak both on and off the court is Yuliia Zhytelna. In singles play, Zhytelna has won six of her last seven matches, and needed a third set in only one of them. She has consistently produced for the Matadors in her own matches and has been a consistent source of energy while standing on the sidelines, cheering on her teammates as they finish each game.

The members of the Matadors tennis team have continued to build their chemistry and develop their cohesiveness over the past month as the team piled up wins. The players can always be heard talking to themselves on the court, beating themselves up for their mistakes and cheering when things go right. Head coach Gary Victor recognizes the importance of not ruminating on mistakes in such a mental game, but also of not letting the win streak make the Matadors complacent.

“They’ve got to keep the chip on their shoulder,” Victor said. “And I think they are. I think that there’s a bit of a chip on their shoulder for our team and that’s something that makes us special.”

Victor told the team that they should feel “an overwhelming sense of pride” about their victory, which he attributed to their hard work and their character.

The men’s volleyball team took on the Daemen Wildcats Saturday, March 18 for a five-set match that went neck and neck the entire way. In the final two sets, no team led by more than three.

The then-12th-ranked Matadors were undefeated on the road, but lost to USC and UCLA at a neutral location. CSUN men’s volleyball held a 6-4 record at home going into the match. They have been led by their dynamic offense throughout the season, though the team stats might not show it.

Outside hitter Kyle Hobus, who is fifth in kills and 17th in blocks in the Big West, is one of the anchors of the team. Hobus, along with Lorenzo Bertozzi and Griffin Walters, has been moving in and out of the Big West top 10 in hitting percentage over the past week. Walters is ninth in the category, and fifth in service aces. Donovan Constable is fifth in assists in the conference, while Taylan Cook is ninth in digs. To round out the starting lineup, Jano Tello had a career night in the sweep over Westcliff on February 22, when he recorded 10 kills in 10 swings. His performance generated the first-ever perfect hitting percentage in a game in Matadors history, and earned him Big West Men’s Volleyball Offensive Player of the Week honors.

The Matadors looked to bring this firepower into the match against the Wildcats, who had their own 11-game win streak snapped a few days prior. The first two sets were close in the beginning, but Daemen kept the Matadors at bay and won them both.

The Wildcats’ bench made itself heard the entire time, cheering the starters on and even lifting their 5-foot-10 defensive specialist, John Jaworski, into the air a couple times. In the second set, “I Gotta Feeling” by The Black Eyed Peas played during a timeout with the Wildcats up 13-11. After the music turned off, the Daemen bench continued singing the song as the Matadors served.

“Every environment, every match that we play comes with some unique challenges, right? And the fact that it’s spring break, we didn’t have the fans that we hope to normally have, so it felt like they have a little bit more of a presence than we hoped, and to be honest, it doesn’t change our approach,” head coach Theo Edwards said. “This match was a bounce-back match for us after our loss against San Diego, and I feel like in those first two sets it was more of what we saw on Thursday, and then we found ourselves. We had our backs against the wall and we finally started to respond and unfortunately it was too late.”

The timing was perfect for Daemen to try and throw the Matadors off their game. CSUN had 12 days off after picking up their eighth straight win, and came back just to be taken down 3-0 in a revenge game by UC San Diego.

But the Matadors would not go away. In set three, the Matadors held a two-point lead when a wild play resulted in Cook diving over the press table. He couldn’t save the ball, but after he got back up, his teammates yelled, “That was awesome!” The effort energized the Matadors, who are dead last in digs in the Big West, and they secured a kill on the next rally to take the 14-12 lead.

The Wildcats tied the set at 18 after successfully challenging a call that they deflected the ball before it went out of bounds. They again lifted Jaworski in celebration, but the Matadors proved it wasn’t over and scored the next five points. CSUN won sets three and four and looked to carry their momentum into the final one.

“We’ve played quite a few five-set matches so far this year, so we’ve gotten pretty accustomed to these long, grinding games,” Hobus said. “We’ve really tried to build a culture around family and playing together, so, we just lean on each other, and we know that we can trust each other, and if things get hard then we can just rely on each other.”

CSUN remained in front midway through the final set, but the Wildcats lived up to the hype they placed on themselves and closed out the match with two kills and a CSUN error.

“Progress is a little bit of a journey. So there’s times when you take a couple of steps backwards, and I think that’s what happened to us. We had a nice eight-game win streak and then we took a week off and some of that rust kicked in and that kind of impeded on some of the progress that we had made,” Edwards said. “And so for us to get back to playing the level of volleyball that we’re capable of playing is what you saw in sets three, four and five, and I feel like as long as we can do that moving forward, we’ll be in good shape.”