After more than three decades at the pinnacle of collegiate volleyball, Greg Giovanazzi has called it quits. Luckily, the celebrated coach saved his best for last.
Giovanazzi has coached at every level, from community college to the U.S. National Team, but he says his most enjoyable experience may have come this past year, when he coached the Comets, an 18-and-under girls club team in Columbia.
"It was the complete lack of attitude [that made the Comets special]," Giovanazzi said. "The whole selfish aspect that's sometimes unavoidable in sports, there just wasn't any of that on this team."
Giovanazzi has become very familiar with the dynamics of team sports, having been around volleyball his entire life. A Venice, Calif., native, Giovanazzi's career got off to an auspicious start when he helped lead UCLA to a national championship in 1976. Three years later, after finishing his playing career with the Bruins, Giovanazzi spent several years alternating between assistant coaching at his alma mater and playing professionally in Italy.
In 1990, Giovanazzi was named the top assistant for the U.S. Wom.en's National Team, and he traveled with the squad to Barcelona for the 1992 Summer Olympics, where the United States finished third. Following the Olympics, Giovanazzi returned stateside to begin his first of seven seasons coaching at Michigan. Severe migraines forced Giovanazzi to resign from Michigan and move his family to Baltimore in hopes of better medical care. Since then Giovanazzi has served short stints as a volunteer coach at UMBC, Loyola and Johns Hopkins.
For the past six years Giovanazzi has served as the volunteer coach of the Comets. While club teams usually progress through the age ranks together, several girls left the squad after the 2010 season, and Giovanazzi was charged with the task of adding four girls during winter tryouts. Uncertain what would come of the team, Giovanazzi and his returning players were pleasantly surprised when a few of the new girls expressed their excitement for the upcoming season.
"Right after tryouts a couple of the girls spoke up," said outside hitter Liz Brown, one of the four returning players. "They said, 'I'm so happy to be here,' and that was definitely reassuring. … We always have to deal with changes, that's just a part of life, and this was definitely was a change for the better."
After finishing third at the season-opening MLK Kick Off, the Comets breezed through the rest of the year as the top-ranked team in the Chesapeake Region. Giovanazzi's squad finished the year with a third-place finish at the ASICS NorthEast Qualifier in Baltimore.
"I wasn't used to having six completely new players," Brown said. "But it worked out for the best because the girls that came in for the club team were complete sweethearts, and they were just there because they loved the game and it showed."
The squad could have competed at the Regional Championships for a coveted berth in the Junior Olympics, but that would have meant a commitment through June, and faced with the prospect of missing Prom, Senior Week, Graduation, and other year-end festivities, the Comets collectively decided to forgo the opportunity to play in the Regional Championships. Instead, they continued practicing as a team through May and early June.
Looking back, outside hitter Megan Rosburg said the team's selfless approach made it unique.
"We were all very competitive, we didn't have an attitude," Rosburg said. "We just put each other first, no matter what [Giovanazzi] wanted us to do. Instead of talking about how you need to be a great teammate, we actually did it. That's what made the difference this year."
Rosburg, the Gatorade Maryland Volleyball Player of the Year who is headed to American, is one of eight college-bound seniors on the Comets. The others are Brown (William & Mary), Casey Giovanazzi (North Florida), Adam Aja (Hofstra), Alexis Skinner (Howard), Tinuke Ibitola (Kent State), Krystal Mlemchukwu (UMBC) and Caroline Casey (Rhode Island).
Penn State coach Russ Rose, a five-time national champion and a friend of Giovanazzi's since their years in the Big Ten, said Giovanazzi's passion for volleyball made him an outstanding teacher. Indeed, last year it was Rose who helped coax Giovanazzi into one final season at the helm of the Comets.
"I don't think he enjoyed the recruiting aspect that maybe took place in big-time college athletics, but he loves the game of volleyball," Rose said. "The fact that he loves the game is why he's a special talent when he has a chance to work with young people."
Giovanazzi, 53, says the Comets are the last team he will coach. Suffering from the slurred speech and occasional loss of feeling that accompany post-concussion syndrome, Giovanazzi is committed to spending time watching his daughter, Casey, at North Florida.
While Giovanazzi's years teaching volleyball may be over, he doesn't have to worry about being forgotten anytime soon.
"It's hard to describe in words," Brown said when asked about what Giovanazzi meant to her. "He's been like a volleyball parent. … He taught me everything I know about volleyball. Everything I do is because of him. It transferred off the court in terms of discipline, teamwork, integrity — it's a lot bigger than volleyball. It's transferred over to how I view life."