By: Jon SanterSports Editor
For the past three seasons, Aylene Ilkson could be found on the bench during women’s volleyball games, dressed in khakis, a dri-fit long-sleeved T-shirt, and her bright, multi-colored, latest version, Nike Air Max’s.
On Tuesday night, Ilkson was sporting a different look – straightened black hair, blue and white zig-zag lined blouse, sleek black dress pants and heels.
Even when Ilkson was a player at Springfield College between the 2005-08 seasons, the outside hitter from Baldwin, N.Y. could be found bouncing around the locker room, singing her heart out and more than likely in the athletic training room rehabilitating her lower body.
Always carrying a smile on her face off the court and a focused scowl on it, Ilkson was a two-time All-Conference and All New England in her four year career at Springfield. Starting all four seasons for the Pride, the then Movement and Sports Studies major was a dominant athlete who is eighth all time in school history for kills (836) and 9th for total points (981.0). In her senior season, Ilkson earned All-America honors from the American Volleyball Coaches Association.
On Tuesday night, Ilkson returned to Blake Arena, and although she had left Springfield just a few months ago, her visit wasn’t for the Pride. She was dressed up because she was a head coach, but not for Springfield, but instead, Coast Guard Academy.
Hired in late-April, Ilkson got right to work, contacting recruits, setting up practice plans and handling emails from hundreds of applicants attempting to make the Bears’ starting roster.
“I’m really excited to have the opportunity to work with these elite athletes that also serve their country,” said Ilkson in an interview with Coast Guard Academy Athletics upon being hired. “It’s a privilege to work for the Coast Guard Academy, and I’m excited to build upon the regional and national success that this program has achieved.”
Because Coast Guard is in the same conference as Springfield, it is apparent that Ilkson will be a frequent returner to her old stomping grounds. Although she knows that Springfield is a talented team, her competitive nature gives her confidence that she can be successful.
“I recruited every single player on the Springfield team, including one of their assistant coaches, so I think I definitely have an edge and I know a lot of their tendencies,” stated Ilkson. “I told my players in our week of preparation that if there is one coach in the NEWMAC that can beat Springfield, it’s going to be me.”
Although coaching for a league opponent, the players on Springfield understand what Ilkson has given to their program, and how lucky the Bears are to have her.
“It’s so fun to watch you coach,” said junior setter Whitney Miller of her former coach after the game. “I was like, ‘Wow, if those girls understand Aylene, they’d love her.’”
“I definitely had a lot of thoughts in my head before the game, but once I got out there I had to put it away and get ready to play on our court,” added senior outside hitter Tessa Smolinski. “She [Ilkson] might know what I am doing or what I am capable of, but I am going to show her something different.”
Although Ilkson only coached under and built a special bond with Springfield head coach Moira Long for two seasons, the two acted as professional as possible after the game, merely sharing a quick handshake and quickly hustling to their respective huddles to address their players.
“Its fine, I don’t pay attention to the fact that it’s her over there. I just want to win. No matter who is over there, Coast Guard is Coast Guard and lets just beat them,” said Long.
However, for Ilkson, it is a little odd coaching against her former mentor.
“Coming into the game, I thought I would have been looking at what is happening on the opposite side of the net a lot more, but I felt so focused on what was happening on the Coast Guard side,” said Ilkson. “The only time I realized it was her over there was when she took a timeout or if something was going wrong for them.”
Interestingly enough, the coaching connection between Coast Guard and Springfield goes much deeper than Ilkson and Long.
Coast Guard Academy’s assistant coach, Mark Thomas, helped coach the Pride during the same time as Ilkson.
From 1997-2006, the head coach of the Bears was Patty Giannattasio. Giannattasio currently stands as the all-time winningest volleyball coach at Coast Guard Academy with a 211-99 record. Her daughter, Molly Giannattasio, is a junior setter for Springfield and was coached by Ilkson for her first three seasons in maroon and white.
There is no question Springfield College women’s volleyball is an outstanding team this season. Posting a 9-0 record to begin 2013, the Pride have created a buzz around campus. Although Ilkson is now the fearless leader of the Coast Guard Academy Bears, she still has had a major role in the success that will come to the Pride in the future.