Long before the Ohio State women’s volleyball team took the court against Kentucky in the NCAA tournament, coach Geoff Carlston stood at a crossroads.
He played college club volleyball at Minnesota, where he received a bachelor’s degree in speech communication. But it wasn’t until an injury to a finger while playing for the Golden Gophers that Carlston got interested in coaching.
“I tore ligaments in my finger and so while I was out, I got asked to coach,” Carlston said. “I was 19 and I was coaching an 18 and under team. And I just had a great time with it.”
But even at that point, Carlston still didn’t know he wanted to be a coach.
After going on a cross-country road trip for a year, Carlston returned to Minnesota to coach at Hopkins High School.
After a two-year run at Hopkins, he served another two years in the Peace Corps.
He had considered playing volleyball professionally, but couldn’t pass up the chance at one of his dreams.
“I had this opportunity and I had always wanted to go into the Peace Corps,” Carlston said.
And while he was volunteering, volleyball still found him.
“I got asked to coach the (men’s and women’s) national teams in Belize and that was awesome,” he said. “I got to travel all over the Middle East, working with both men’s and women’s teams.”
Carlston said that he has always loved traveling and that “the idea of doing good and going and serving in another country, I really wanted to go somewhere where I could throw myself at the country.”
While overseas, he said he also helped members in youth gangs and helped teach sign language.
With all the work that he had done at the time, Carlston had thought about teaching and getting his doctorate degree. But an opportunity to return to his alma mater was something he couldn’t turn down.
“I got a hold of Mike Hebert, who had just gotten offered the job at Minnesota and he was a Peace Corps guy back in the ‘60s,” he said. “And I said ‘hey I’m coming back and I’d love to volunteer or doing something with your program.’”
Carlston became a student assistant coach while he completed his master’s degree in social work at Minnesota. At the same time, he was the head coach of the Minnesota One Junior Olympics club.
After two years of being a student assistant coach, he got his first collegiate head coaching job at Concordia-St. Paul, where he stayed for three seasons. In that time, he learned how to be a successful coach with limited funds.
“When I took that job, they had never won a Division II match,” he said. “And I was making $17,500 a year. I was the intramural director and I had $4,000 to pay my assistants.
“But I loved it because we built that from scratch, like I had to do everything. I was the trainer, I was the marketer, I was everything, except I didn’t drive the bus.”
From there, he went on to Ohio University to coach the Bobcats from 2003-07, and would finish first in the Mid-American Conference in every season, with NCAA tournament appearances in all five of his years in charge. He also took the Bobcats to the sweet 16 in 2005.
After the 2007 season, he became the Buckeyes’ coach. In his tenure, the Buckeyes have made the postseason in five of seven seasons.
“I would never say I had a master plan, I just followed my bliss,” he said.
One thing that has allowed Carlston to be such a successful coach is his relationship with players.
“I want to connect with my players,” he said.
Carlston has multiple meetings with each of his players every season. He said that academics and family issues are things that he cares about, and the things that come up in those meetings.
“He does a really good job with allowing us to experience the little things in life,” senior setter Taylor Sherwin said. “Yeah, volleyball is the main focus, but he wants us to experience things. Like when we travel, going to do stuff, instead of being in the hotel all day.”
Sophomore middle blocker Taylor Sandbothe said she and Carlston are very similar.
“We’re both very super competitive and I think I connect with Geoff on a personal level, not only just having him as my coach, but he’s a friend,” Sandbothe said. “He cares about us outside of volleyball.”
Junior outside hitter Katie Mitchell, who is from The Woodlands, Texas, said Carlston is a big reason why she chose to attend OSU.
“I wouldn’t be up here, there’s quite a bit of a life change,” Mitchell said. “But it’s opened up doors of opportunity. Working in the athletic department with internships and things like that.”
With his 2014 Buckeyes back in the sweet 16 after upsetting Kentucky on Saturday, Carlston’s life could have been completely different.
“But coaching kept finding me,” he said.