Jen Flynn Oldenburg and Emily Londot were on a path to reunite in the Ohio State women’s volleyball program, but they didn’t know that on Sept. 14, 2019.
Londot, now an incoming freshman opposite hitter for Ohio State, had been committed to the Buckeyes for nearly three years. Oldenburg was still associate director of the Pittsburgh Elite Volleyball Association, with no idea she’d be tabbed as Ohio State’s next head coach four months later.
But neither were concerned with that on Sept. 14, because on that day, they defeated Italy in a five-set battle for the 2019 U18 women’s volleyball world title in Cairo — the first in U.S. history.
Londot was in the backline during the match’s last volley. Once the final point was registered, she and her teammates embraced one another joyfully on the ground.
“Everyone was in tears. But obviously happy tears,” Londot said. “It was an amazing feeling, knowing that we accomplished the big goal that we set at the beginning.”
The two women, connected by that moment in Cairo, took distinctive paths to arrive on the 2020 Ohio State women’s volleyball team, but both will be integral to the future of a program in transition.
Oldenburg, a Pittsburgh native, accumulated decades of volleyball experience prior to her role as an assistant coach for the American youth squad.
The former All-Big Ten athlete played for Ohio State from 1996 to ’99, and ranks No. 7 with 3,213 career assists and No. 12 with 1,138 career digs.
Following her days as a player, Oldenburg spent nine seasons as an assistant coach for Illinois, where she was part of four consecutive Sweet 16 teams from 2008 to ’11, with an NCAA tournament runner-up finish in 2011.
The year before that run in 2007, however, is when Oldenburg said she learned the most about coaching. The Fighting Illini missed the tournament by one or two games after going 1-9 in five-set matches. With the young team Illinois had at the time, the frustrating season could have sent the program up or down, Oldenburg said.
“Coaching philosophies come out of the times that maybe you’re not at your best, and how do you make adjustments in order to take the next steps to get better?” Oldenburg said.
She has spent the past six years as associate director of the Pittsburgh Elite Volleyball Association, a high-level volleyball club with teams for ages 10-18.
Londot hails from Utica, Ohio, which is home to just 2,241 residents, according to the most recent U.S. census estimates.
She played for Utica High School, where her mother is the head coach. Londot was the only player from Ohio to be named a first-team All-American by the American Volleyball Coaches Association in 2019.
With Columbus just an hour away, Londot said location played a factor in her decision to attend Ohio State — a commitment she made during her freshman year of high school.
“Perfect distance to be able to be home, and the team, the school is amazing,” Londot said. “My dad went there, lots of my family went there. So it just felt like home.”
Their two roads converged in July in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at tryouts for the 2019 U18 national team. Londot was among 24 players invited to the 10-day camp, but only 12 would make the trip to Cairo.
A position on staff opened up for Oldenburg after Kelly Surrency, originally an assistant coach for the squad, learned she was pregnant and would be too far along to travel, Oldenburg said. Oldenburg found out she’d been hired while hiking in New Hampshire with her family and arrived at the camp with only a few days remaining.
Londot made the U18 team that took home a continental championship in Honduras in 2018, but that provided no guarantee she’d make the cut in 2019, she said.
At the conclusion of the camp, all 24 invited athletes gathered in a room while head coach Jim Stone — a former Ohio State head coach — read off the names of the 12 players who made the team. Londot was among them.
“It’s so nerve-wracking,” Londot said. “I was sitting there sweating because I wanted to be on the team so bad. Names go by and you don’t even hear anybody else’s name. You’re just listening for your own.”
Londot proved crucial to U.S. success. She finished No. 2 on the squad in kills with 62 and did so with a team-leading 36.26 attack percentage. Sixteen of her kills came in the gold-medal match.
Oldenburg said the 6-foot-3 attacker got better with every contest.
“The biggest thing that impressed me was her ability to hit out of the back row,” Oldenburg said. “She was just as effective from the backcourt as she was the front court. And she was a pretty big force in the front court.”
Londot said she loved working with Oldenburg in Egypt, and the coach offered a calming on-court presence and a pre-match ritual of “girls’ talk” that provided a breath of fresh air for the team.
The two parted ways following the championship run, but not for long.
Just less than three months after the tournament concluded, Ohio State announced that Geoff Carlston would no longer be the head women’s volleyball coach after serving 12 years in the role.
Oldenburg applied but said she wasn’t the clear-cut favorite to win the job in the beginning. Her message to Ohio State deputy athletic director Janine Oman, who handled the hiring process, was that she would prove she was the right candidate if she got the opportunity to come on campus for an interview.
She received that opportunity. Thirty minutes into Oldenburg’s drive back to Pittsburgh following the interview, Oman called and offered her the position.
“I accepted on the spot, and after I hung up I think I shouted out loud and cheered in my car, and then called my husband and shared the news,” Oldenburg said. “I was overwhelmed but super excited.”
Londot was at a high school basketball game when she received her own phone call from Oman, letting her know that Oldenburg would be her new head coach.
“She was like, ‘Didn’t you play for her?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, I’m super excited that she’s my coach now,’” Londot said. “I was super stoked.”
For the team, Ohio State junior outside hitter Mia Grunze said the squad’s uncertainty during the transition was difficult, but Oldenburg’s personality and knowledge of the game were instant hits with the players.
“My favorite thing about her now is her sarcasm. She is hilarious. Literally in practice she’ll crack jokes,” Grunze said. “But she also knows how to turn it off and be serious. And also how she can relate to all of us. She’s been in our spot, so that’s awesome as well.”
Oldenburg said it is possible that Londot will contribute right away, but she doesn’t make guarantees about playing time.
Londot will “definitely have an impact” with her shot power and ability to play above the net, the coach said, whether she’s a starter or challenging someone who is. Her experience winning at an international level is another big advantage.
Londot’s long-term potential is much higher, Oldenburg said. Londot accomplished what she did in Egypt with only about a year of experience at opposite hitter following a switch from middle blocker.
“We take care of the things we need to take care of and make the tournament, make a run, I think by the end of her career she can be an All-American,” Oldenburg said.
Londot said everyone will be on the same playing field this season as the program moves into a new era with a new staff. Oldenburg called that assessment “dead on.”
“I can’t script every play — that’s not how I coach anyway,” Oldenburg said. “But we teach them and talk about volleyball IQ and get them smarter, but also more aggressive and not worried about mistakes. I think that’s gonna lay the groundwork for not only this season, but the future of Buckeye volleyball.”