By Mike Ashcraft
ATHENS, Ohio -- His eyes and train of thought remain locked on the laptop screen in front of him, his fingers darting across the keyboard at a frenetic pace as chaos ensues around him.
The action around him is a blur. Division I volleyball players are flying around the court in front of him at a pace that makes the sport one of the most exciting intercollegiate athletics has to offer. Coaches are yelling instructions. The players on the bench are cheering and yelling words of encouragement to their teammates.
Ohio volleyball head coach Deane Webb takes a timeout. The Bobcats trail by a point late in the second set of a critical Mid-American Conference match, and there are adjustments to be made if his team is going to take a 2-0 match lead. He turns to the young man with the laptop and asks if the numbers and data from the code he has inputted are backing up his gut feeling on what is going to have to change if his team is team is going to pull this one out.
The young man is not a a longtime assistant coach. Heck, he's never even played volleyball at the high school level. But, over the years filling the role of student manager, he has turned himself into an invaluable member of the Ohio volleyball program and an integral piece to the program's continued success.
Ty Cogdill grew up in Liberty, Mo., a suburb of Kansas City. The foundation for his future role as student manager of the Ohio volleyball team began there, and, like that role, it was one that evolved.
"I hated math," recalled Cogdill. "My mom told me I couldn't play sports unless I knew math because there's math involved in everything. As soon as that clicked, I became enamored with sports because there was something I could measure."
When it was time to attend college, Cogdill set his sights on Ohio University. He had aspirations of becoming a baseball general manager, and the university's sports administration program seemed like the place to plant the seeds for such a career. Eventually, he became a triple major in sports administration, finance and business anaytics. The kid who once had little interest in math or sports was now taking on a course load full of both.
In the fall of 2013, Cogdill's first semester at Ohio, he was tasked with a group project for his Intro To Sports Admin class: market the Baymont Inn & Suites Invitational, Ohio volleyball's annual home non-conference tournament. After putting in the work to promote the event, Cogdill decided to attend the team's match against then-No. 24-ranked North Carolina.
"I just fell in love with the team," said Cogdill. "They were a lot of fun to watch. They had a unique passion and energy that surrounded the atmosphere of the game. I decided to go to every game my freshman year. The games that I could stream, I streamed. I watched everything I could because I was in love with this team and their culture."
At the end of the year, Cogdill decided being a fan of the program simply wasn't enough. He had to get involved and be a part of that culture. He sent an email to then-head coach Ryan Theis expressing his desire to help the program out. He was also very honest about his level of knowledge about the sport of volleyball.
"I knew what every kid that's taken gym knows. I knew you had three contacts, that the ball could only hit the ground once, the order typically went bump, set, spike. That basically completed my knowledge," admitted Cogdill. "I had no idea they had certain plays or sets that they ran. I had never actually thought about it. I guess I just assumed that the setter set the ball and someone happened to be there. I didn't know there was any sort of organization there."
Theis responded to Cogdill's email with a willingness to meet with him about a future role with the program, but he was soon gone after accepting the head coaching gig at Marquette. Webb was tabbed as Ohio volleyball's new head coach a few weeks later, and Cogdill was back to square one, emailing the bench boss of the Bobcats asking if he could help out.
Webb offered Cogdill an opportunity to join the team as a student manager for the 2014 campaign, and Cogdill immediately made an impression with his work ethic by simply shagging balls during spring practice. The only difference was that Cogdill performed the task at a speed that Webb and his student-athletes had never seen before.
"When most people shag balls, you shag as many as you can but you don't keep up with the drill," explained Webb. "We have five or six ball carts, we have 150 balls, we're hitting them pretty fast at different angles. Balls are flying all over the gym. Ty is literally running around the gym. What we didn't know at the time but found out very quickly was that he was a pretty gifted cross country athlete. He could run for days. For whatever reason, he liked to shag balls in his socks. He had shoes, but he didn't wear them when he was shagging. He would run around, slide into it and pick it up, run to the next one, slide into it and pick it up. As a former tennis player, he reminded me of someone playing on clay, sliding and hitting the shot. We would get done with the drill, and there's no balls. They're all up. We'd literally get done with drills and there's no balls to pick up. That's a really good thing."
Webb and Cogdill quickly connected because of their love of numbers and their interest in mining data to find ways to win.
"I've always been a numbers guy," explained Webb. "I follow the numbers more than some coaches. A lot of coaches would say there's a science of coaching and there's an art of coaching, and you can't go too far one way or the other. Your best team may not be, statistically, your best six players to have on the court together. It might be your five best players and this one kid that you can't really figure out why but she's a glue kid who just makes everything work. At the same time, you can't just say, 'These people just love to play together and they're so energetic and they're so happy and they're all hitting for a really low number.' That doesn't work, either. In our sport, hitting percentage is that stat that most closely correlates to winning. You can look across almost every conference almost every year, and you can put the teams in order of hitting percentage, top to bottom, and that's going to be your conference ranking, specifically if you take their net hitting percentage, which is their hitting percentage minus their opponents' hitting percentage. For us, that's a number that really matters. I've tried to pattern after that for a lot of years."
Data Volley is a statistical software program that allows volleyball programs around the world to combine data with video to quickly mine for information that can help them be successful. Before Data Volley, coaches would call players into their offices to watch film. It was a tedious process that required a lot of fastforwarding and rewinding. With Data Volley, coaches can easily pull up an individual player's serves or attacks or blocks from every match at the blink of an eye. The program can even goes as in-depth as pulling up 'clutch moments' from matches, allowing coaches and players to break down performances from the 20-point mark on in sets. Data Volley also provides teams with video of their opponents for scouting.
Webb tasked Cogdill with learning how to code matches using Data Volley heading into the 2014 season. Cogdill diligently worked during the spring to learn the Data Volley program.
"You think you know how to do it, but you've got to just jump out there and do it in a match," said Webb. "He really thought he had it. That spring, we went and played at Ohio State. He started the match, he had all the players, he had everything right, and he was feeling really good. I didn't want to bother him during the match, so I didn't ask for any information. Just letting him code. You code every contact. You code who passes the ball, the level of the pass, you code whoever sets it, where the ball was set to, which player attacks it, where that attack goes to, was it a kill or not, who digs it, and then the coding continues. Lots and lots of codes per rally. After the match, I asked him, 'Ty how'd it go?' And, he said, 'I got the serves.' That's all he got the entire match, just whoever served the ball. I just remember his face. He's such a loyal person. He was just like, 'I'm sorry, and this is way harder than I thought.' He was kind of overwhelmed. But, he worked so hard and by the next fall he was ready to go."
Cogdill finally got his opportunity to code a regular season match on Sept. 19, 2014, when the Bobcats swept Green Bay, 3-0, at the Wildcat Challenge in Evanston, Ill. To this day, Cogdill cites that match as his proudest personal moment during his time at Ohio. It was a moment that changed him from a student manager to an extension of the coaching staff.
"My role truly was to work as hard as I could and do whatever I could do," said Cogdill. "That sort of evolved as I started learning more about the program that we use. It sort of evolved from being the do-it-all guy to doing more of the stats work. I started coding more of practice and helping Deane do some of the stats that we use for decisions. That evolved into me getting to sit in on coaches meetings, which was incredible. I didn't really have a say, but I would just sit in and listen to the coaches talk about their scouting report, about what decisions they were making. Basically, through the work that I had done, Deane started to trust me enough to let me in on those meetings and trusted me with that secret information."
Soon, the kid with limited knowledge of the sport of volleyball was a trusted confidant of the seasoned Division I head coach.
"Every year, he's taken more and more on," said Webb. "We don't even look at him as a manager. We look at him as a member of our staff who contributes to our decisions that we're going to make, both getting prepared for a match and during matches. He'll bring up things. 'Look, I'm noticing this.' He'll have data to back it up. He'll pull out things that are statistical anomalies. Something's off here, what's the deal? That kind of shoots us in the right direction as a staff. Now, we can help to fix that. Maybe it's a rotation that we're just having a really difficult time with. Maybe it's the opposing team and they're not necessarily doing well overall but they have this one attack that they're just killing us on. Little things like that where sometimes as a coach you have that information but you're not having somebody else looking for it for you. He's truly gone from somebody who doesn't know volleyball to being a hard working manager to truly being a technical advisor. By the end of his career, he's just doing things that far exceed what most student managers would ever be doing and probably exceed what many video and technical coordinators are probably doing. He's just a very, very gifted, super intelligent guy."
Over Cogdill's four years of involvement with the program, the Bobcats have won 81 matches. Ohio went 16-0 in MAC play in 2014, won the league tournament and earned an NCAA Championship berth in '15 and advanced to the MAC tournament semifinals each of the last two years. Although the players and coaches are deservedly praised for that success, the student-athletes realize the value of having someone like Cogdill around to assist them.
"Starting in scouting, he's so quick and efficient and honesty knows what Deane's thinking before he says it," said redshirt senior middle blocker Katie Nelson. "That just helps us because there's no delay, there's no technical difficulties. When there is, he's super quick at fixing them. Stats wise, on the bench, for instance, in the middle of a game, I'll ask him what a girl is hitting, and he'll tell me exactly where her shot is, where she's getting her most kills at. That's something that helps you excel as a player when you have someone feeding you that much knowledge. We couldn't do what we do without Ty. I think that just goes back to him and Deane's great numbers relationship. Our game plan comes from Ty being able to do his job effectively. We always say Ty is our behind-the-scenes guy, but he means so much more to us that you could ever even quantify."
Ever humble, Cogdill is quick to express his thankfulness to Webb and his team for the opportunity they provided him with.
"It means so much. I really can't explain how much it means to me on a personal level that he trusts me like that, but also on a professional level," expressed Cogdill. "When I go to a job interview, I can actually say I was part of a good Division I program and the coach trusted me in my work enough to listen to some of my ideas. Even on a personal level, just the fact that he has seen where I was and where I am now that he trusts my track record enough and my trend line enough to say that the experience that I'm getting is moving me in the right direction and he's continuing to move me in that way. It's incredible to have a boss that wants to help you both professionally and personally while also benefitting the team."
The Ohio volleyball program will hold its annual banquet on Sunday (Jan. 21) evening at the John Calhoun Baker University Center. It will mark a final opportunity for the Bobcats' 2017 squad to gather and reflect on their season and honor the contributions of not only departing redshirt senior middle block Ali Lake, but also Cogdill, whose tenure as a student manager has come to an end. The Bobcats are eager to thank him for what he has meant to him, both as a member of the program and as a friend.
"Ty will always bring a smile to the gym. That's one thing I'll always cherish about him as a person," emphasized Nelson. "Besides that he's always willing to help totally beyond what is asked of him. One time, I had a paper due, and I really needed his help. I sent him a quick text about what the paper was about, and he gave me a list of six sources, great scholarly journals, and a brief summary of each. He's always willing to give help. That's Ty's thing. Another really cool thing about him is he really cares about you and your family and each individual person. He'll ask him how my dad's doing or ask (senior outside hitter) Jaime (Kosiorek) about her new dog. He's so much more than our team manager. He really is a friend to us."
Cogdill knew the opportunity he was going to have to learn about working in athletics when he joined Webb's program in 2014. He didn't realize at the time the relationships he was going to form duirng his journey and how much he would cherish them.
"That was really unexpected on my part. When I came into the job, everyone told me, 'You'll just have 15 other sisters.' I didn't think that was going to happen," said Cogdill. "I got here, and I was just as shy and timid around them as I was around Deane. Over time, I've just sort of started to come out of my shell and be more of myself. It's been really cool to see how one of them and I would contact, and then, over time, more of them connected with me. It's just a really cool experience to have this many friends that are kind of all at your workplace. I go to work every day and just hang out with some of my closest friends. That has just been a really unique opportunity. It makes me want to come to work every day. It's more fun when you work with your friends every day."
Cogdill's love and appreciation for the Ohio volleyball program made him want to ensure the Bobcats would be in good hands from a manager standpoint when he departed. That's why he spent the 2017 season training Cooper Hays to be his Data Volley successor next year.
"It's great because I literally heard it every day," said Webb of Cogdill taking the initiative to pay it forward by training Hays. "Ty sits one seat behind me on the bus, and I'm hearing him telling Cooper, 'OK, when you saw this, what did you see?' It's not just code; it's evaluating. You're evaluating the level of the pass. Was that a level zero or was that a one, two, three or four pass? You have to learn what that is first. When you're brand new, you have no idea. But, he's taken time to really mentor him, and I think that's something we'll greatly see the benefits of this fall when Ty is gone and Cooper is the one doing it. Ty has set the bar so high Cooper knows, 'This is what I want to achieve.'"
Cogdill's love of numbers and volleyball has put him in a position to pursure an exciting career in sports analytics.
"Part of the thing that drove me to sports was that it's sort just this untapped field in terms of data," explained Cogdill. "There is an abundance of data available, and there are very few people actually trying to see what it means and trying to gather conclusions or even ask more questions from the data that they have available. Volleyball is incredibly untapped, and so, if it were a realistic possibility, I would love to work with volleyball. There's such a great potential to be sort of the first one in a movement or to start the movement. That's not to say that I will, but that's very much a possibility, and that is just a really enticing career opportunity."
After starting out loving volleyball but knowing little about the nuances of it, Cogdill now has an appreciation for the sport on a deeper level.
"It's made me realize how much more fun volleyball is," said Cogdill of his experience with the Bobcats. "I loved the sport, obviously. Not enough to know it, but I loved it. The more I got to know about it, the more I realized just how thought out every step of the game is. That is just something that really resonated with me, that there's a plan for everything and that even when things don't go according to plan, you have contingency plans. That sort of made me realize that exists in all sports. It's just given me a whole new perspective when I watch sports that I don't normally watch. There's something going on that, even if I don't see it, there's a deeper level. What some people call 4D chess. Basically, this concept that there's a game going on within the game. Even if you don't see it, it just makes the sport that much more interesting to me."