Tuesday, February 18, 2014

NCAA | Washington volleyball alums take root 3,000 miles away

Sanja Tomasevic hired by Keno Gandara at Miami

August, 2005 was a stressful time for Sanja Tomasevic. Although her University of Washington team had reached the 2004 Final Four, the senior All-American was coming off a season interrupted by a broken hand. Now, she was being asked to move from outside hitter on the left to opposite hitter on the right.

Sanja Tomasevic
In the Huskies’ gym to help manage the transition was a new assistant coach, Keno Gandara. Because right-side hitters usually face the opponent’s best attacker, Gandara was charged with making Tomasevic a better blocker.

Gandara, now the head coach at Miami, was immediately impressed. “Her skill and volleyball IQ were amazing,” Gandara tells Volleyblog Seattle. “Her drive was amazing.”

But Tomasevic—hired yesterday by Gandara to be one of Miami’s two assistant coaches—remembers it a bit differently: Gandara put her through a blocking wringer. “I had nightmares,” she says, “of Keno saying, ‘get your hands over the net, Sanja! Get your hands over the net!’”

Tomasevic would go on to repeat as an AVCA All-American, while helping lead Washington to its first NCAA Volleyball National Championship. Along the way, she became a feared blocker. “It was all Keno,” she says.

In turn, however, Gandara says Tomasevic helped make him a better coach. “I had to be prepared to coach her,” he says. “It really made me learn the system and the mechanics we were trying to teach at Washington my first year. I had to know it better than she did—she had been there three years. So, it helped me as a coach to prepare to coach her. She understood the game, and always wanted to know why we were doing things a certain way. Very demanding of herself. Very patient with the process. All these things I learned from her.”

After graduation, Tomasevic played professionally in Europe, earning more championships and plenty of acclaim. But after years of living out of suitcases, she was ready for a change. “You’re 30 years old and you don’t have a gym membership because you’re moving so much. You get tired of not owning a car. Or not having a piece of furniture that belongs to you. You get paid to play a sport you really like, but you miss every single Christmas with your family. You miss birthdays and weddings.”

Two years ago, she was hired by UT-San Antonio, where the other assistant coach was Pat Stangle, Gandara’s predecessor at Washington. Gandara kept tabs on her, wondering whether she could make the often difficult transition from star player to quality coach.

“I think that Sanja understands that coaching is about the players and not about what she’s done and who she is as a player,” Gandara says. “She wants to help these kids figure out things as quickly as possible. She knows how to be tough when we have to be tough, and support them throughout the process.”

“I always wanted to be the best as a player,” says Tomasevic. “As a coach, it doesn’t stop. You always want to try and push and go out and be your best. Keno is the same way. He wants to work hard.

“He’s pretty much everything I want in a head coach.”


  • The Miami job opened when Alex Dunphy returned to Malibu to be on Troy Tanner’s staff at Pepperdine. Tomasevic’s good friend and former Washington teammate, Stevie Mussie, was hired just last week by Russ Rose as an assistant at Penn State. See: Coaches with Washingtonconnections move up the coaching ladder

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