PITTSBURGH – Assembling a new collegiate sports team in nine months is challenging on its own, but add a global pandemic year and the inability to scout and interview in person, and the task becomes even more daunting.
Val Pennington, 52, of Bellevue, Pa., accepted the challenge and accomplished the task. Hired in May 2020 as head coach of Carlow University’s inaugural men’s volleyball team, Pennington readied his nine-member roster for competition in the NAIA tri-match tournament in Tennessee in February.
Despite having to rely on social media, online presentations and recruiting services, Pennington was able to assemble a solid team.
“The good thing is, Pittsburgh is a hotbed of volleyball talent. We’ve put together a very small team, half of the size for competition at this level, but what we lack in size and ability we make up for in moxie,” he said.
At the Feb. 11 tournament, the Celtics faced Campbellsville (Ky.) University, ranked third nationally.
“They had a big roster full of big athletes and highly skilled players, and considering, I think we did very well,” Pennington said. “We were beaten, but I think we gained their respect.”
In the second match, the Celtics took a set from Thomas More University, Crestview Hills, Ky.
The team’s Feb. 25 home opener against Alderson Broaddus University, Philippi, W.Va., was canceled due to COVID-19.
This is not the first time Pennington has coached a start-up team. The 1986 graduate of the former Peabody High School in Pittsburgh, Pa., coached inaugural teams at his alma mater and the former Mount Alvernia High School, also in Pittsburgh. He also coached at Moon Area and Central Catholic high schools near Pittsburgh, as well as boys’ club volleyball at the University of Pittsburgh, where he attended.
Pennington is in his final year on Bellevue City Council, serving as president since 2019. He recently announced his candidacy for mayor.
He said he lives by the virtues that are hallmarks of Carlow University – mercy, justice and service.
“Service is very, very important to me,” he said. “That is why I am involved in municipal government. People are in government for two reasons – to serve the community or to get something out of it. I am definitely all the former and none of the latter.
“The same is true for volleyball. I do it out of love for the service. I’m proud of the people who I’ve coached and what they have developed into. I think that’s a hallmark of some of my former players, that they are really, really good people.
“As far as volleyball measurables, you look for players who are tall, coordinated, fast, smart, have the ability to synthesize, and recognize and read things on the fly,” he said. “Beyond that, I like people who have character. The players I recruit are the type of people I would want to be around, people who subscribe to the same mission that I do. I would never compromise on that. I would not bring in someone who is not a good personality fit for the team, the culture or for myself just because they were 6-foot-9 and a great athlete.”
Pennington said as a councilman, he focuses on social justice.
“I am really impressed with Carlow as an institution and with its declared intentions and dedication overall to societal fairness,” he said.
George Sliman, Carlow’s director of athletics, said Pennington was the right choice for the coaching position.
“Val is well respected and connected in volleyball circles, which helps with recruiting to a first-year program. In addition, he has a strong commitment to community service, and his personal values closely align with the University’s core values,” he said.
Timothy Phillips, vice president and dean of student affairs at Carlow, said in addition to Pennington’s local, regional and national experience, his modeling of community engagement and service make him a good fit for Carlow.
“He has had demonstrated success with getting to know the heart and soul of an institution, identifying its strengths and drawing on those strengths to collectively achieve success,” Phillips said. “Men’s volleyball furthers our commitment to draw from regional talent, foster campus pride through success and provide academic outcomes that send graduates out to enhance the communities in which they live and work.”
Pennington and his wife Molly have three children, Dash, 23, Phineas, 13, and Darla, 8.