By Matt Le Cren
Special to Illprepvb.com
Even though she played for legendary coach St. Francis coach Peg Kopec in high school, Erin Virtue didn’t think about coaching until her senior year at Illinois.
The star setter was injured that year, and the unaccustomed view from the bench gave her a new perspective on the game.
“Volleyball has been such a passion of mine for so long,” Virtue said. “Growing up in an area where I had a really good club and a really good high school, I was able to fuel that flame early in my career as an athlete.
“I always wanted to play or be involved in the sport as long as possible, but I didn’t really know what that meant when I was in college,” she added. “Then when I was injured, that really started to make me think about how to help my team but not be on the court. It started to fuel the passion of coaching.”
But first, Virtue recovered from her injury and trained with U.S women’s national team after graduating from Illinois in 2005. She mined her coaches for information and advice, and decided to coach at the Division I level.
Virtue coached for 12 years as an assistant at Loyola, Cincinnati, Michigan and Northwestern. U.S. women’s national team head coach Karch Kiraly offered Virtue a job with USA Volleyball in 2016, starting with the head coaching role of the girls’ youth national team that captured the silver medal at the 2016 NORCECA Women’s U18 Continental Championship.
Virtue left Northwestern in 2018 as her role at USA Volleyball expanded. She is now associate head coach under Kiraly and will be on the bench at the Tokyo Olympics this summer.
“Erin has done strong work coaching and supporting USA programs over the long haul, but she’s much more than that,” Kiraly said. “She’s dedicated to helping the people around her be the best version of themselves, and doing so with integrity and skill. Since that’s a prime aspiration here, that makes Erin a great fit, and makes us excited to see where our work together can lead.”
Ultimately, Virtue wants that work to lead to an Olympic gold medal, which would be a first for the U.S. women.
“We’ve had silver and bronze but no gold yet, so we’re really hungry and trying to continue to grow in all ways possible to make sure we’re putting ourselves in position to succeed,” Virtue said. “The big goal of our whole organization is to have sustained excellence at the Olympic level.”
As part of that effort, Virtue has coached in USA Volleyball’s High Performance program, mentoring athletes in the U16, U18 and U20 age groups. She recently became senior manager of that program.
“My role has grown there and we’re really excited about it,” Virtue said. “I’m really looking forward to the impact we can have on the youth and junior age groups.
“It’s really important for us to focus on the different ways we work through identification in those age groups,” she added. “But the primary goal is we’re doing the best we can to develop athletes at young ages, so that when they go through the college ranks and into the professional careers and national team, they’re prepared.”
Few people are as prepared as Virtue, according to Hurlburt Athletics owner Alex Hurlburt, who has coached with Virtue at Northwestern and in the national program.
“None of her success was any accident,” Hurlburt said. “I’ve gotten to work with so many people that each provide something different, and a lot of things that I learned from Erin were things I also learned from other coaches, but I just saw in a different way.
“She just prepared for everything,” he added. “She knew things tactically, but also things that weren’t volleyball-related, like scheduling. She was always completely on top of things.”
That’s why Hurlburt thinks Virtue’s dual responsibilities with the national team and the development program won’t burden her.
“I don’t get to see behind the scenes like I did at Northwestern, but the finished product is so well thought through and well-presented, just so organized,” Hurlburt said. “That’s what she does. That’s why I’m not surprised at all that she’s been so incredibly successful at Michigan and Northwestern and with the national team.”
Virtue is now based in California, but her parents, Pat and Carol, still live in her native St. Charles. Hurlburt said Virtue’s ability to work with players of different ages and abilities makes her stand out in the coaching world. That’s something that has its roots in her childhood.
Virtue played volleyball, basketball and soccer at St. Francis, which also is the alma mater of her sisters Shannon and Katie and brothers Pat and Dan. Katie was the starting setter on the Spartans’ 1997 Class A state championship team and later starred at Ohio State. Pat and Dan played football.
“At St. Francis, it was awesome to see me and my siblings really try to thrive in ways that were outside of the classroom,” Virtue said. “I think that was one of the best things about being in a small school. Everyone was able to celebrate the successes of those extra-curriculars.
“The pride of that was embedded in the whole school, the whole campus,” she added. “Support from friends at games and things like that are memories that I will hold onto forever.”
As a senior, Virtue guided the Spartans to second place at the 2000 IHSA Class A state finals. Kopec, who won a record 1,238 games and 12 state titles during her 41-year career, was a mentor to Virtue, but not the only one.
“All the coaches who I played for there were incredible,” Virtue said. “They were really good people and really motivated. We were able to learn from (Kopec) more than just the skills. The culture of the program was something she really stressed.”
Now Virtue is part of a similar culture of excellence with the national team.
“I’m making a home out here in California,” Virtue said. “It’s definitely a dream come true.”
By Matt Le Cren