One of the winningest coaches in Division III women’s volleyball was almost a soccer coach.Before he became the coach of the women’s volleyball team at Eastern, Mark Birtwistle was a senior from Messiah completing an internship under then athletic director Wayne Rasmussen. Rasmussen also coached the men’s soccer squad, and Birtwistle often helped out with the team.
Naturally, when Rasmussen approached him about a job at Eastern, he assumed it would be as the assistant soccer coach. He was surprised when Rasmussen asked him instead to take the helm of a women’s volleyball program that was just in its infancy. “[Rasmussen] saw it was a passion of mine to coach, even though I had no idea how to coach volleyball,” said Birtwistle.
It would seem to be an understatement to say that Birtwistle has succeeded in building the program up. Three Coach of the Year selections, 16 conference championships, 14 NCAA tournament appearances and a Final Four appearance say all that needs to be said. On September 5th, he added 600 wins to that resume, becoming the 24th coach in Division III history to reach the milestone. Not bad for a guy with only two years of club volleyball experience when he took over.
The milestone victory came in a three set thumping of unranked Mary Washington. For Birtwistle, the milestone was not even on his mind during the game. Coming one match after the Eagles had picked up their first loss of the season to 19th ranked Christopher Newport, the coach’s focus was strictly on winning the match. “I didn’t really think about it [the 600 wins] out there,” he said, “when you’re in the match you’re kind of in the moment and enjoying helping the girls win the match in front of us.”
“It was really special to give coach his 600th win,” said senior middle hitter and co-captain Katrina Pisch. “[Lauren] Sproles and I were freshmen when we saw him get his 500th win and to be able to win 100 plus games in that amount of time is really cool.”
Birtwistle certainly hasn’t been made complacent by his achievement though. National competition still remains a huge priority for the program. “I don’t think it’s about wins necessarily,” said Birtwistle. “I want to create a nationally competitive team. I think if we train the right way and have authentic relationships on this team then we have created a process and a system that can win and compete nationally.”
The Eagles have been on a winning streak since their historic victory, and as of this writing, are ranked 11th nationally. A team that each year can be expected to challenge the best teams in the country credits so much of that success to the former soccer intern turned first-time volleyball coach turned 6oo game winner. Pisch sums it up this way: “We wouldn’t be where we are today without him at the helm.”