Former Flames Rachel, Johnathan Willis to coach beach team
October 11, 2013 | Lynchburg, Va.
Rachel Van Hofwegen was a senior outside hitter on Liberty University's women's volleyball team when Shane Pinder took the coaching reins in 2004.
As a sophomore in 2002, she was introduced to her future husband, men's volleyball player Johnathan Willis, by Meredith Andrews, a contemporary Christian recording artist, who lived on her hall.
Now, Rachel Willis is replacing Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre general manager Drew Sherwood, who started the beach program last year, as head coach of the Flames men's and women's beach volleyball teams.
"I am excited," Willis said. "Drew did a good job starting the program and there's a good base for it. I'm looking forward to what we end up doing this summer."
Willis, who received her masters degree in education in 2009 and works as an adjunct English instructor at Liberty, will be juggling multiple responsibilities as the mother of two children with a third due in December.
"Coaching is going to be a big commitment," Willis said.
She will be assisted by Johnathan, who coached Liberty's men's indoor volleyball team from 2007-2010 and has coached Randolph College's women's volleyball team since 2007 with assistance from Rachel and former Lady Flames libero and teammate Lara Bartolomeo.
All three were born and raised in Southern California — Rachel is from Riverside, Johnathan is from Los Angeles, and Bartolomeo is from Huntington Beach — where the beach volleyball scene is a large part of the culture.
"It's definitely big out there," said Rachel Willis, who looks forward to taking Liberty's top doubles tandems back there for the National Collegiate Sand Volleyball Association National Championships. "We're definitely going to go to nationals. The women did pretty good and men showed a lot of potential. They were competing with teams at a higher level than they'd faced at the regional level out here. Now that they've seen the competition, they're even more excited about getting back."
After focusing on the indoor game through high school and college, Willis started playing the beach game after her son was born in 2010.
"It was so much fun," said Willis, who teamed up with Bartolomeo to win the first Liberty Open last spring and occasionally plays mixed doubles with Johnathan for open tournaments. "We started playing as much as we could whenever the weather was nice and we had free time."
Her all-around performance has improved since she picked up the beach game.
"I'm faster and I can jump higher and I can pick up a lot more balls," said Willis, who tore her ACL playing indoor before starting her career at Liberty. "You definitely have to develop your sand legs, but my body doesn't hurt as much because it's not as hard on your joints."
While the Flames' men's beach squad already features five members of the indoor team, Willis plans to recruit a couple seniors from Liberty's indoor women's lineup after their season concludes in November, as well as a couple former Lady Flames players still enrolled at Liberty. She will hold tryouts in mid-November and indoor practices throughout the winter before transitioning to the sand on Liberty's new beach volleyball courts in the spring.