Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2007 | They switched coaches last year and went on to enjoy maybe their best season in program history.

They changed coaches again this year and have kept rolling along without missing a beat as October dawns.

Maybe the Chargers can learn something from the University of San Diego women’s volleyball team about how to adjust to new coaches and feed off last year’s success.

USD coach Jennifer Petrie has the Toreros’ ranked No. 14 in the nation — their 26th straight week in the national Top 25 — after returning as the head coach.

A year ago she handed the keys to assistant coach Brent Hilliard while she took the fall semester off for family leave to be with her newborn son, Charlie; young daughter, Jane; and husband, Mark.

Hilliard, with the title of interim head coach, guided the Toreros to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen. USD advanced to the NCAA by winning the West Coast Conference title and he was named the WCC Coach of the Year.

Then Hilliard handed the keys back to Petrie for the 2007 season, with USD athletic director Ky Snyder giving him the title of associate head coach.

We should all be so lucky to have colleagues such as Petrie and Hilliard working in the cubicle next to us and a boss that rewards teamwork with a promotion.

“Brent and I have worked together for six years, and I think that has helped with continuity,” Petrie said. “The team responded to Brent last year and they’re used to having me around. The transition has worked seamlessly.”

Last year’s Sweet Sixteen trip was the second in program history. Petrie, a Mt. Carmel High alumnus that played at William and Mary, was WCC Coach of the Year in 2004 when the Toreros were ranked a then-program record high of No. 11 in the nation en route to the Sweet Sixteen. It’s one of six NCAA tournament trips for the Toreros in her first seven seasons as head coach.

This year Petrie’s team is 11-4 overall and 1-0 in the WCC. The Toreros play a home match at 8 p.m. Thursday against Santa Clara that will be televised by ESPNU.

Despite losing two-time All-American Kristen Carlson from the 2006 team, the Toreros set a goal of topping last year’s success. Petrie says they have two All-American candidates in 6-foot-4 senior middle hitter Laurel Abrahamson and 6-2 sophomore outside hitter Amy DeGroot.

“You always want to build on the previous season, and we encourage our players to set goals that are higher than last season,” Petrie said. “They’re determined and they’ve worked hard.”

Another successful coaching switch at USD this year is taking place with the football program. New head coach Ron Caragher has the Toreros 5-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation among non-scholarship schools in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA).

Caragher, a former Kentucky assistant, is an advocate of the West Coast offense that former coach Jim Harbaugh used before he took the Stanford job. Caragher also retained defensive coordinator Dave Adolph and his extensive NFL experience.

I’m not one of those voices saying the Chargers (1-3) should have expected a slow start from switching coaches, replacing Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 season and AFC West title with Norv Turner. It’s not a given that switching coaches interrupts a team’s success.

With any coaching change, what determines the ease or difficulty is how well the coach and players match personalities. Sometimes it happens overnight and sometimes it takes a transition period.

The Padres also switched coaches this year after Bruce Bochy won a second straight National League West title, replacing him with Bud Black. The expectation was that the Bochy and Black were so much alike in personality, the players would adapt quickly.

Black had the Padres in contention for a third straight post-season appearance all year until it came down to a playoff game with the Colorado Rockies Monday night for the wild-card berth.

It might not have come down to the wild-card playoff game if outfielder Milton Bradley wasn’t injured for the final week of the season. Bradley’s mustard-and-brown bat likely wouldn’t have left as many runners on base as the Padres did Saturday and Sunday. Winning either one of those games would have clinched the wild-card berth.

In fact, the Padres wouldn’t have won the 89 games they did to force a playoff with Colorado without the addition of Bradley’s bat at midseason.

With the Chargers, Turner and Schottenheimer have different personalities, but the expectation was that the continuity on the both sides of the ball would ease the transition.

The offense is the same one Turner installed as offensive coordinator in 2001 before he moved on and new defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell had coached the same 3-4 that former DC Wade Phillips left behind.

At San Diego State, second-year football coach Chuck Long tried to have a smooth transition replacing fired coach Tom Craft. He kept four Craft assistants, including Craft’s closest confidant, Thom Kaumeyer, in addition to Craft’s son, Kevin, at quarterback.

But in the end, too many of Craft’s olders players didn’t match with Long’s style. Kevin Craft transferred out and Kaumeyer left for a job at Tulane.

One year later, Long has his imprint on his team. The Chargers have to hope their transition from Schottenheimer to Turner doesn’t take a year to smooth out the bumps.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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