QUINCY -- An email from a volleyball referee during the fall gave Gavin Mueller validation that he was moving the Quincy University men's volleyball team in the direction he wanted.
Players on the team volunteer time with game management duties during women's volleyball games, and that was noticed by referees during the season.
"(The referee) said it's a different group we've got here, and they're enjoyable to work with," said Mueller, the first-year coach for the Hawks. "They've got smiles on their faces and taking ownership in what they're doing now."
That's been the strategy since Mueller was named the Hawks' coach in May, replacing Hadley Foster, who was fired Feb. 27 during his 11th season with QU.
"We're looking at it as a way to reinvent ourselves," senior libero Simon Bruckner said. "We're working on a new culture and new identity for ourselves. Teams have discounted us and said, ‘Oh, it's Quincy, we don't have to try.' We're trying to create a culture that we're competitors within ourselves and with in the conference."
QU struggled to a 3-12 start under Foster. Former women's volleyball coach Bob Crank took over on an interim basis. The Hawks went 4-10 under Crank, who's now an assistant at Southeast Missouri State University, and finished 7-22.
Mueller was promoted from graduate assistant to head coach in May. He graduated from QU in 2014 after playing for the Hawks.
"It's a chance to start something new," Bruckner said. "(Mueller) was here before, and he knew where the program was at. He knows what it'll take to get from point A to point B."
Getting there means improving the chemistry, and doing that means building camaraderie away from the volleyball court.
Most of the Hawks spend time at teammates' houses off campus, where they'll play video games, cards and enjoy each other's company. Mueller also had a team cookout where they played cornhole and Frisbee.
"It's helped a lot," senior setter Thane Fanfulik said. "It helps us blow steam off and make jokes. It has brought us a lot closer especially because on road trips we'll all be in a room playing games and having a good time."
They hope that means better results on the court when the Hawks open their season Saturday against Culver-Stockton College at Pepsi Arena.
QU must make up for the graduation of hitter Jarrod Kelso, who racked up more than 1,000 career kills. Outside hitter David Siebum transferred to Ball State University after recording 281 kills a year ago.
Senior outside hitter Anthony Winter returns as the leader in kills after recording 170 last season, and sophomore hitter Omari Wheeler had 110 kills.
"We'll use everybody, really," Mueller said. "It's not just one person who can step up to fill Kelso's void. We just have to have the whole team step up."
Fanfulik returns after dishing out 694 assists last season.
The goal is to have a better showing in the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association after picking up just six victories in league play the last two years.
"I'd like to finish middle of the pack in the conference," Fanfulik said. "Maybe a little higher."