“Psychological warfare”: Over 14-year career, fired volleyball coaches “operated on a platform of fear”
BY Managing Sports Editor
AND , Assistant Sports Editor
Former Delaware volleyball players feared Wednesdays.
That’s when Bonnie Kenny, the former Delaware head coach, and Cindy Gregory, the former associate head coach, met with players for weekly meetings.
“We’d talk about it like, ‘Good luck, I’m praying for you to come out of it alive,’” Mackenzie Olsen, who quit the team in 2013 after two seasons, said. “If you were with Cindy, you were going to come out of that meeting crying.”
Kenny and Gregory were fired on Oct. 16 following a week-long suspension mid-season.
At the time of the firings, athletic director Chrissi Rawak and the Delaware athletic department did not comment on the situation. When approached by The Review in April, the department again declined to comment.
A seven-game losing streak preceded the suspension of the two coaches. Players, however, do not believe that this losing streak contributed to the suspension.
Olsen was one of 15 former players to share her experience playing under Kenny and Gregory with The Review. She was one of 34 players to leave the team for non-graduation reasons during Kenny and Gregory’s tenure at Delaware.
“I think the more further removed I am from that whole situation, it’s a laugh or cry situation,” Olsen said. “You’re going to laugh or you’re going to say, ‘what the hell?’ Still to this day, I can’t believe that I would even let myself stay there for two years, because it was just wrong. As a professional, that’s not how things should ever go and I can’t believe that things were ignored like that.”
After speaking with former players, The Review attempted to contact Kenny and Gregory in April. According to former Delaware players, the two women are in an intimate relationship.
Messages to the home they shared in Elkton, Md., according to public state records, were not returned. The Review learned that this property was recently sold. The coaches’ cell phone numbers, provided by former players, were out of service. Messages delivered to their university email addresses were not returned. Inquiries for comment directed toward properties under Kenny’s name in Rehoboth Beach, Del., Belchertown, Mass. and Meriden, Conn. were not returned.
After their firings, Director of Operations Brian Toron and Assistant Dana Griskowitz served as the team’s interim coaches. Under their leadership, the team won 10 of their final 14 matches, reaching the CAA championship for the first time since 2012.
“I was very angry for a very long time at this program and everything that happened and the way that we were all treated,” a senior on this year’s team said. “I really wanted to do something about it, there was a lot that we were all very angry about. And then Dana and Brian stepped up and it opened my eyes to see that volleyball was just a game, it wasn’t my life anymore… I do think that Chrissi [Rawak], our new athletic director, is very invested in players, whereas past athletic directors were more interested in money and status and so on.”
Kenny and Gregory were hired in 2002 by longtime Delaware athletic director Edgar Johnson. They had previously coached together at the University of Massachusetts from 1995 to 2001.
When UMass cut their women’s volleyball program in 2002, UMass athletic director Bob Marcum, a friend of Johnson, recommended the coaches. They were also endorsed by former Delaware head coach Barbara Viera, who had led the team since 1973.
“I thought that one, they were good coaches and two, they were good people,” Johnson said. “I was stunned. I was surprised,” he said in reference to the firings.
“Lack of Commitment”
In another 2012 meeting, Gregory told freshman Liz Brock that Brock “had made the biggest mistake of her life.”
Brock had just broke up with her high school boyfriend. Gregory told Brock that she had a psychic dream: Brock was going to marry him. Brock was then instructed to call, apologize to her ex-boyfriend and tell him that he needed to drive 10 hours to Delaware to make up.
“I kept telling her ‘no,’” Brock said. “I ended up leaving her office crying that day. She [Gregory] would manipulate me to cry, like as a control thing, and then once I was crying, she’d want to make up.”
The same year, Kenny held “transparent meetings” –– an attempt to eliminate cliques on the team. In one meeting, Kenny ordered Brock to stand in the middle of the room while Kenny divided the team into groups.
“She made some kind of comment like, ‘Liz, why don’t you just go stand in the middle of the room by yourself because you don’t really fit in anywhere,’” Brock said. “She was ostracizing me to make me feel like I had no friends. So I’m looking around the room and there’s groups of four, five, two and then here I am, by myself, the only one in the room who didn’t have a group of friends. She literally would try to pull me apart from even my best friends and didn’t want me to have any personal life at Delaware whatsoever, trying to get me to leave.”
Kenny succeeded. Brock, who said she dealt with kidney stones, ovarian cysts and staph infections from the stress induced by her volleyball experience, quit the team in the spring of 2014.
Three years prior, freshman Alyssa Walton broke her wrist in an Aug. 27 match against Stanford. She wore a cast for two months. As she recovered, the coaches designed separate workouts for her as she could not participate in normal volleyball activities.
According to Walton, one day Gregory asked her to do a conditioning exercise, running 300 meters all-out. She said the team had not done this exercise since before preseason. In the locker room after practice, when Walton ran slower than instructed to, Kenny ordered her to meet with Gregory.
“Obviously I knew they were pissed at me, because she was acting mad about my time,” Walton said. “So I walk in and they sit me down and Cindy is yelling at me — she’s right next to me, really close to my face — and Bonnie is just in her head coach chair behind the desk, just watching this all happen. I’m being yelled at, and Cindy’s like, ‘You’re the most disappointment we’ve ever had in a scholarship athlete.’”
Walton went home for winter break and followed a team-issued program of weight and conditioning exercises. Working with her dad for the winter months, she “really committed” herself, knowing that she would be tested when she returned.
One of the first days she was back, the team participated in another running drill. Walton felt like she outperformed expectations.
“So everything was good, I felt great, whatever, and I didn’t have any inkling in my head that my coaches were mad at me,” Walton said.
When she returned to her dorm room after practice, Walton received an email from Kenny.
The subject line read “Lack of Commitment.” In the email, which was obtained by The Review, Kenny said “I cannot imagine your lack of strength and fitness being a DI player. You have so many clubs and beaches to play volleyball on and your choices to not play for over six weeks and not stay in shape and lift is not the type of student athlete we want in our program. Either make your mind up to be a DI s/a (on the court and in the classroom) or you need to go somewhere else.”
This was Walton’s breaking point.
“I was so done feeling like, depressed. I have never had such a low point in my life, being there,” Walton said. “And I’m like, finally, I work my ass off over winter, my wrist was healed and then they say I didn’t work hard, that I didn’t look like I worked out a single day over winter break. Like, are you f—ing kidding me, this is a joke.”
Walton’s father put her on a plane back home to California the next day. She was done.
Two days after Walton left, Mackenzie Olsen joined the team after graduating high school a semester early.
While playing as the starting setter in fall 2012, Olsen said she was diagnosed with a concussion. She said she never received a baseline concussion test and believed she returned to play too soon, causing the symptoms to persist.
Olsen said the coaches doubted the validity of her injury and accused her of lying.
“I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t read, I ended up not being able to go to class,” Olsen said. “They thought I had a chemical imbalance in my brain, which, you’re not a doctor so you can’t say that about a kid.”
Olsen was the first of four players to leave the team in a four-month span.
Lexie Duch was recruited in what turned out to be Kenny’s second-to-last recruiting class in 2015. After one season, she transferred to St. Cloud University in Minnesota.
“Whenever I was meeting with Bonnie and Cindy, it would make me nervous
for days,” Duch said. “You walk into the room and I just felt like I was two inches tall.”
When she met with her new coach at St. Cloud, she was shaking, terrified.
“He asked why I was so nervous and I just said that every time I had to meet with my Delaware coach, it was always something bad,” Duch said. “I just feel like whenever I met with Coach Kenny or Cindy [Gregory]… that any opinion I had was irrelevant if it didn’t match theirs.”
According to former players, these one-on-one Wednesday meetings, like those described by Duch, Brock and Olsen, stopped as the result of an NCAA investigation in 2014.
Details of the meetings had been relayed to Joe Shirley, Delaware’s senior associate athletic director for facilities, operations and capital projects. The athletic director at the time was Eric Ziady, who resigned Dec. 31, 2015.
Olsen left the team after finals in Dec. 2013. Kali Funk, a freshman on the team that season, approached Shirley after Olsen left.
“I just said, ‘listen Joe [Shirley], this is what has been going on, these are the facts. You’ve already lost one player, I know there’s a couple more, me included, that are talking about leaving after this spring. Unless things change we will walk away and you’re going to lose your starting lineup and your starting program,’” Funk said.
According to Brock and other players, Shirley then set up a phone call between the NCAA and Brock where she shared her experiences in the university’s program.
Brock and Funk said that as a result of a subsequent investigation by the NCAA, the athletic department barred any physical contact between players and coaches. The coaches were also not allowed to hold individual meetings with players.
That wasn’t enough for Funk –– she left in the spring of 2014. Brock left shortly after.
“I thought to myself, ‘I will not understand if they do not get fired,’ because what I told [the NCAA], I thought they would legally have to fire them from those accounts of what happened to me,” Brock said. “But they didn’t, so when they didn’t fire them at the end of sophomore year in that spring, I went to him [Shirley] and I told him ‘I told you, it was me or them. They’re still here, I would like to let you know that I’m quitting tomorrow,’” Brock said.
Shirley declined to comment on the matter. Ziady could not be reached for comment.
Katie Hank, a four-year player in the program from 2010-2013, never felt attacked by the coaches.
“The people that left, I don’t know, weren’t willing to work hard,” Hank said. “I feel like some of the people that left probably left because they felt like they were being attacked by Coach [Kenny] and Cindy [Gregory] but I don’t think Coach and Cindy ever, I don’t know, tried to attack them.”
According to another four-year member of the team, who wished to remain anonymous, the coaches chose an aggressive way to “weed out” those that did not buy into the program.
“I think that happens in other programs and it happens in professional sports,” she said. “They really have a high expectation for our team to be good on the court, and in the classroom, and if you weren’t 100 percent in with what Delaware volleyball was doing, they didn’t want you.”
“I’m going to fix it for you”
Before Ziady, Bernard Muir held the position of athletic director. Muir left Delaware for Stanford University on July 27, 2012. Samantha Huge, the deputy director of athletics and recreation services, served as interim athletic director from that point until Ziady took office a few months later.
Soon after Huge began her tenure as interim athletic director, she met with Karina Evans and another player who wished to remain anonymous. Evans, who had knee surgery as a sophomore in 2011, battled through the injury the following season –– her knee was drained six times, but Kenny continued to play her.
“Samantha [Huge], we told her, we cried to her for months, told her everything that was going on,” Evans said. “She told us that she was a safe space, that we could go talk to her. We let her know everything they were saying to us, half of us were in therapy, we’d cry and tell her and she would say ‘I’m going to fix it for you.’”
Evans said Huge did not keep these concerns confidential, sharing them with Kenny and Gregory.
Huge, who began her tenure as athletic director of the College of William & Mary May 1, declined to comment.
Evans intended to leave the team in the fall of 2012 after doctors voiced concerns for her long-term physical health. She expected to remain on scholarship the following year; the NCAA mandates that a school can only remove a scholarship from a player if that player “becomes ineligible,” “commits fraud,” engages in “misconduct” or “quits the team for personal reasons.”
Evans argued she quit due to an injury out of her control, but the coaches contended it was for personal reasons –– or as Evans put it, “they said I had a ‘psychotic breakdown.’”
To resolve the issue, a hearing was set up with Evans, the unnamed player, Huge, Kenny, Gregory and members of the athletic department.
“We were not supposed to have Bonnie and Cindy in our meeting, it was supposed to be a personal meeting between the board members and the AD where we plead our case and could bring witnesses and we had to draw up a whole case about why we deserved our scholarship,” Evans said. “We went up there and it wasn’t like that — it was like we were on trial.”
“We…had to defend our case as to why, and Bonnie and Cindy were asking us questions on the other side of the table, and we basically had to read our statement as to why we disliked them so much with them sitting in front of us,” Evans said.
Twenty-four hours later, Evans said she had to sign a paper saying she quit on her own volition.
Evans said the coaches used “psychological warfare,” in an attempt to break down the players. “They said nasty, horrible things.”
Jocelyn Greenwald was a member of Kenny’s first recruiting class at Delaware in 2003. She left after just one season with the team — one of four (of six) players in that class to do so.
“They said and did things that routinely made me and others uncomfortable, but you felt more uncomfortable expressing your discomfort,” Greenwald said.
Greenwald left the program after one season and transferred to Rutgers University, where she played three years and became captain.
“Now, in my early 30s, I realized that while I wouldn’t say they took away my full passion of the sport, I think a piece of my competitive spirit died under their administration,” Greenwald said.
Since the time of Greenwald’s departure, former players said they sent letters to Johnson, Muir and Ziady expressing their concerns with the program. Five months into her tenure as athletic director, Rawak pulled the plug for reasons still unknown.
“She did something that people were scared to do for a long time,” Evans said. “Bonnie and Cindy are some scary people.”
Rawak hired Sara Matthews as the new head coach of the program in January –– one of seven coaching changes that she will make in her first year.
Since their firings, Kenny and Gregory have not been seen or heard from publicly and have yet to be hired elsewhere.
“I think that there was just this theme of secrecy, and stemming from secrecy comes control, so they were able to really control every situation because nothing was talked out in the open,” an anonymous player said. “That just breeds fear. Right, so they kind of operated on a platform of fear with their team and that’s why they were able to control. I feared them, I really did, so that’s why they were able to control.”
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