Ready to Play
The key to Petrie’s success lies beyond the court
by Ryan T. Blystone
Head coach Jennifer Petrie has led the women’s volleyball team to a number of memorable seasons. One of her goals is to make sure players leave USD as better people.
photo by Matt Kincaid

ennifer Petrie has a coaching résumé brimming with success. Her USD volleyball triumphs are on prominent display in her office: Hanging on the walls and perched on most available surfaces are plaques, photos and other tokens of glory representing West Coast Conference titles, coaching accolades and NCAA postseason appearances.

While the display evokes many fond memories, it also serves as the answer to any questions Petrie may have had when she was elevated from assistant to head coach, replacing Sue Snyder after the 1998 season.

“I don’t know if anyone is really ready for the first year as a head coach,” Petrie says. “I was eager and excited. I felt I’d been exposed to enough different coaching styles and enough different backgrounds as an assistant in different places that I was ready. But these were pretty big shoes for me to fill. I didn’t want to be the one to bring down the empire.”

The Toreros put that fear to rest quickly, compiling a 23-6 record and reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament. Her head coaching career record is 192-74 overall, and Petrie has built upon the foundation set by USD’s only other volleyball coaches, Snyder and John Martin.

“Working with Jen has been a great experience,” associate head coach Brent Hilliard says. “Coming in to coach with her — when playing volleyball was most of my background in the sport, for the first time at the Division I level — well, I can’t imagine being in a better situation.”

Petrie’s best season was 2004. The team went 14-0 in conference play and reached the Sweet 16 in the postseason, earning a No. 11 national ranking by the American Volleyball Coaches Association, a school record. Players Devon Forster, Jackie Bernardin, Lindsey Sherburne and Kristen Hurst received special recognition, and Petrie was named WCC Coach of the Year for the first time.

Another of the program’s memorable seasons took place in 2006 — without Petrie. She took a six-month leave to be with her family, following the birth of her second child, son Charles. Hilliard, serving as interim head coach, directed the team to another WCC title, another Sweet 16 appearance and he was named WCC Coach of the Year.

“I missed (coaching) a lot, but I could not have taken that time off without having Brent in place,” Petrie says.

In 2007, Hilliard returned as an assistant, Petrie resumed head coach duties and the team continued its winning ways. The program entered 2009 as a three-time defending WCC champion with a streak of eight consecutive NCAA postseason tournament appearances.

“Consistency is a rarity in athletics these days,” Hilliard says. “We’ve been coaches together for an eight-year period, and we’ve been on the same page. Knowing what the expectations are makes a difference.”

A club and college coach, respectively, aided in Petrie’s coaching development. A Mt. Carmel High School graduate, Petrie played club volleyball for current University of Nebraska coach John Cook, a 1979 USD alumnus. “He was a very good technical and goal-oriented coach; he taught me a lot about discipline and setting really high goals.”

At the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., Petrie played for Debbie Hill, who retired in 2007 after 30 years and more than 500 wins. “Debbie was more nurturing. She made sure the team’s chemistry was good and everyone was on the same page.”

Petrie compliments both Cook and Hill for contributing to her coaching style. She says her ideal player comes from Cook: one that “really hates to lose; a true competitor.” Conversely, from Hill she got a different goal: “When my players leave USD after four years, I want them to still love playing the sport as much as when they arrived.”

She says several alumni have followed her advice and continue to play; some are now coaches. Many of her players believe Petrie’s best trait is how she handles life.

“Jen’s a great role model,” says senior outside hitter Amy Mahinalani DeGroot. “Outside of volleyball, she has a great family and she balances her life really well. I think it’s very important for the players to see that volleyball isn’t everything. Jen takes good care of us. She’s a wonderful person to have in our lives on and off the court.”

That’s the kind of validation that makes Petrie know she’s on the right track. “I’m fair and I’m approachable. The girls feel comfortable discussing volleyball and school and more. There’s so much change that happens when the girls come here at 17 and leave at 21. I want to be sure they leave not just as better volleyball players, but as better people.”