Published September 01. 2013 4:00AM
New London - Aylene Ilkson was hired to coach the Coast Guard Academy volleyball team in late April, but had never met one of her soon-to-be captains, Samantha Marmolejo, or any of her six freshmen until practice began two weeks ago.
There were also no scheduled preseason scrimmages for the Bears, who played a pickup game with a few officers they assembled.
Coast Guard then opened with a pair of losses in the Bear Invitational at Merriman Gym, falling to Eastern Connecticut State on Friday and Stevens Institute of Technology on Saturday morning before facing Colby Sawyer.
"Given all those things, I wasn't expecting miracles right away," Ilkson said. "Eastern was really the first time we were playing all together. (Friday night) we certainly needed to work out some major kinks."
There might not have been miracles, but Ilkson liked what she saw perhaps even better: resilience.
Ilkson, a former assistant coach at Coast Guard conference rival Springfield College, earned her first career victory as a head coach as the Bears topped Colby Sawyer 3-1, with a confidence that only seemed to grow as the Bears gained momentum.
Coast Guard lost the first game 25-23 before battling back to win 25-19, 25-21 and 25-16, reeling off 10 straight points to win the fourth game after trailing 16-15.
Senior co-captain Kelsey DePorto had a match-high 21 kills, Marmolejo added 24 digs, sophomore setter Maggie Hine a career-high 40 assists and freshman Miranda Brumbaugh served four aces in what was her first career match.
"We have a different strategy, I'd say," said DePorto, a three-time first team all-conference pick, of the coaching change. "(Ilkson's) personality brings us up a lot of the time. A lot of us do it for pride, but we do more fun drills with incentives at the end.
"It's quite a joy."
Ilkson graduated from Springfield in 2009, earning honorable mention All-America honors as a senior, having led the Pride to a 32-5 record and a berth in the NCAA Division III tournament.
She served as Springfield's top assistant the last three seasons, during which time the Pride went 81-12, and she came to Coast Guard with the full endorsement of Springfield coach Moira Long.
"I don't relish the date we have to play them," Long said in a statement the day Ilkson was hired. "She knows so much about our team and about me. I wish we could have kept her here."
Since arriving at Coast Guard, Ilkson has strived to understand the military obligations of her players and the demands of coaching at an academy. She's had help with that part from former Coast Guard coach Patty Giannattasio, whose daughter Molly plays at Springfield.
"I'm like her (Coast Guard) sponsor kid," Ilkson said with a laugh of Giannattasio. "We do have a great relationship."
Ilkson said she's adopted several of her mentors' coaching styles, but didn't want to come to the Coast Guard Academy with a "super intense, super over-the-top" style.
"I think here volleyball's not your first priority. They're coming here and giving me two hours of their very busy day," Ilkson said. "I want them to be able to relax, with a relaxed intensity. I think when they're having fun is when they play their best."
She said the mettle her team showed Saturday will help moving forward. The team plays five matches in two days next week at the Brandeis Inviational.
"I think it was important to get this win. Stevens should have been a win. It's a good sign of our resilience," said Ilkson, originally from Baldwin, N.Y.
"We've only known each other for two weeks. The freshmen I had only spoken to on the phone and I didn't know anything about their athletic ability. They're still learning my system and I'm learning their personalities."