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    January 18, 2023 Lynchburg, Va. RSS |

    Josh Knapp, who played a prominent role in Liberty University’s men’s volleyball team emergence as a national power over the past five seasons, is taking on a new challenge as head coach of the Flames’ indoor and beach volleyball teams this semester after Kaleb VanDePerre was named the women’s beach volleyball head coach at NCAA Division I University of North Alabama.

    Jess Nelson, who served as assistant coach under VanDePerre for the Lady Flames beach volleyball team over the past five seasons, has been promoted to head coach of that program.

    “I’m super excited to lead the team as head coach,” said Knapp, who graduated last May with a degree in interdisciplinary studies with emphases in business and sport management. “It is something I always wanted to do … and I was able to change my major in college to keep the doors open. The timing worked out great for me to take an assistant position this past fall and now the head coaching position, and I am very blessed to have this opportunity in front of me, which was set up very well from previous coaches in moving this team forward.”

    Originally recruited by former Flames Head Coach Bryan Rigg as a 6-foot, 8-inch left-handed setter off a Maryland travel volleyball team, Knapp was molded as a player and future coach by both Rigg and VanDePerre.

    “I was able to visit Liberty a few times (while in high school), and to practice with the team, and the way (Rigg) handled recruiting made a huge impact on the team,” Knapp said. “He brought in the first recruiting class my freshman year and laid a solid foundation for the program, building that team up before he was able to step away and focus on his family and career. Kaleb (VanDePerre) has been a huge part for my life and has taken a more personal role in shaping my character and coaching style. He pushed me to be more of a leader.”

    VanDePerre believes as his successor, Knapp will help the Flames continue to thrive on and off the courts.

    “He loves the program, and he is going to crush it,” VanDePerre said. “I let him coach a lot in the fall semester tournaments, and we planned practices together. I let him be the voice in games, which allowed me to look more at the stats. His knowledge of men’s volleyball and his experience is so high, and he knows what it’s taken to get the program where it is having lived it, so there is nothing more valuable.”

    Knapp said his travel volleyball coach, Steven Hollies, sparked his interest in coaching.

    “He really inspired me through the way he managed his players,” Knapp said. “Volleyball is such a huge passion of his, and he was able to push us to grow and teach us as young boys growing into men how to handle situations and be respectful moving forward. His personal investment in our lives is what made me want to be a coach.”

    Knapp, shown spiking against Virginia in a Jan. 22, 2022 match at the Liberty Arena, was a dominant right-side hitter for the Flames.

    While he realizes the enormity of the task at hand, Knapp has never backed away from a challenge, and plans to embrace it.

    “There’s some big roles to fill, especially looking back into our coaching history,” Knapp said. “The goal is to … be able to impact players and other schools through our program. That’s one of my favorite parts about coaching, not only helping players with their technical skills and growth on the court but getting to know a lot of young men in a really transitional time in their lives, especially having that experience in my life be fresh. The mentoring part of coaching is very personally rewarding for me.”

    In recent years, Knapp played with 11 of the current players on this season’s 24-man roster, including graduate outside hitter Cross Edwards and middle blocker Payton Smit, who returned to the team for the spring semester. Along with his assistant coaching experience from the fall, that familiarity should help smooth Knapp’s transition to the head coaching role.

    He introduced several coaching strategies to VanDePerre during the fall semester and has spent his first week and a half of practices working on those.

    “New systems will be in place this spring, which we started to change in the fall semester,” Knapp said. “I approached Kaleb on the practice set-up and systems we would be running, and he gave me a lot of freedom to implement them.”

    The Flames will host their first official match of the indoor season when ECVA South Division rival Virginia Tech visits Liberty Arena on Tuesday at 7 p.m., with future home dates against JMU on Feb. 7 and Virginia on Feb. 16 followed by the annual Midnight Mayhem matchup, set for March 4 at 11:59 p.m. against North Carolina State.

    “Those will be big games for us, and we’re excited to have great competition for all of our matches in Liberty Arena,” Knapp said. “Absolutely, our team is looking forward to having our student section at Liberty behind us starting off the semester, with each game and each tournament counting for our national rankings (which will be released before the Feb. 11 ECVA South tournament at JMU.) The goal is to build the guys up so we’re peaking at nationals.”

    Liberty’s full spring schedule includes a trip to Bloomington, Ill., for the Feb. 17-19 Hoosier-Illini Tournament as well as to the University of Maryland for the ECVA East Coast Championships from March 31-April 1. How the Flames’ Division I and II teams fare there (and based on their final NCVF national rankings) will determine how they are seeded for the April 13-15 NCVF National Championships in Kansas City, Mo.

    Jess Nelson succeeds Kaleb VanDePerre at the helm of the Lady Flames beach volleyball team.

    There is little overlap between the men’s indoor and beach volleyball seasons, but the women’s beach volleyball team will have a busy early spring under the direction of Nelson in her first season at the helm.

    Starting with a USA Volleyball tournament in Ohio on Feb. 25, the Lady Flames will play an action-packed schedule that includes matches against Spartanburg (S.C.) Methodist and Erskine (S.C.) College on March 2, UNC Wilmington on March 4, Catawba (N.C.) College on March 5, Eastern Kentucky on March 25, University of Tennessee Chattanooga on March 31 and April 1, Boise State University, University of California Davis, and Santa Clara University on April 7-8 in Davis, Calif., before hosting the University of Lynchburg on Senior Night on April 21.

    “I’m really excited about getting back at it this spring,” said Nelson, a former Lady Flames NCAA Division I indoor volleyball player from 2004-08 and who also played for Liberty’s NCAA DI women’s basketball team in 2008-09. “Thankfully, Kaleb did so much to help orchestrate and set up a spring schedule where we’re competing with some high-level programs. We’re in a great position to take what we did last year to the next level.”

    She is happy for VanDePerre to be pursuing his beach volleyball coaching dreams at the NCAA Division I ranks.

    “That speaks volumes to the quality of coaching our girls have received over the past several years and the work ethic he’s brought to developing a program,” Nelson said, as the team prepares to resume practices in February. “I am not going to try to fill Kaleb’s shoes. He is pretty irreplaceable. I am going to try to really refocus our team on our goals that we set out the school year with. There’s going to be some adjustments, and some recalibrating.”

    The team graduated Genessa Sirard in December, but still has a roster of 16 players, enough to form eight pairs for open tournaments or dual matches.

    “We have some great leadership on this team,” Nelson said. “That’s why I’m not worried. Those girls are ready to step up and embrace leadership roles and our goals. They’ve developed a really strong culture, but that’s got to be fought for each semester, so that’s going to be a big emphasis, continuing our team-building process.”

    She said playing at the NCAA DI level has been the vision for Liberty’s women’s beach program since the time she arrived on the scene in 2017.

    “We’ve been training in pursuit of competing with Division I programs regularly for the event that Liberty decides to go in that direction,” Nelson said. “It affects how the girls on the roster approach their job on the team, and how we try to cultivate that environment and compete at the highest level possible.”

    Nelson is actively pursuing higher educational goals of her own, working toward her Ed.S. in Higher Education Administration while also working for Liberty’s College of Applied Studies and Academic Success (CASAS) as a professional advisor to Club Sports student-athletes.

    By Ted Allen/Staff Writer

    Jess Nelson was a former NCAA Division I indoor volleyball and basketball player for the Lady Flames.