When Iris Tolenada was in high school at Deer Valley in Antioch, California, she told her volleyball coach, Lou Panzella, there was only one school that she wanted to go to: San Francisco State University.
Panzella tried to convince her to keep her options open, but Tolenada had made up her mind.
“I used to talk to her about playing at the next level and she would say I want to play at San Francisco,” Panzella said. “I told her you can’t limit yourself. She said that’s where I want to go, that’s where she wants to play.”
Tolenada’s work ethic and desire to be the best got her to SF State not once, but twice, as she now returns to her alma mater as the assistant coach of the Women’s Volleyball team.
Tolenada didn’t always play volleyball –– she spent more time in cheer and left sports to her two older brothers and sister; that is, until she followed in her sister’s footsteps.
“I started off as a youth cheerleader, and she (sister Ingrid Tolenada) played basketball,” Tolenada said. “The next year I did both cheer and basketball. Then when she got into volleyball, I said, ‘Oh I guess I’ll try it.’”
Once she was in, Tolenada was hooked on volleyball. She played every year of high school, attended Stanford volleyball camps each summer and won awards each year, including league co-MVP her junior year and MVP her senior year, as well as all-league each year.
Panzella said Tolenada earned those awards because her work ethic was unmatched.
“She was volleyball 24/7,” Panzella said. “She worked really hard at it and she got really good at it and continued to grow at it both as a player and a coach. She worked really hard. She was talented. It’s a testament to her.”
Tolenada could have gotten into a number of colleges, but SF State is where she wanted to go and Panzella decided to give the coach a call.
Panzella reached out to then SF State coach Michelle Patton, and was told that the position of freshman setter was not a need for the team. Panzella tried to tell her more about Tolenada, but “Patton didn’t want to hear it,” he said.
That rejection didn’t shake Tolenada’s work ethic because it was ingrained in her by her parents.
“My strong work ethic comes from being around my family, especially my parents,” Tolenada said. “They’re hard-working people who came from the Philippines and had to overcome a lot of obstacles to live the American Dream, which is very inspiring to me.”
SF State head coach Matt Hoffman said she has a strong work ethic now, and he could see it when he first met Tolenada as a 16-year-old at Stanford camps, where her work ethic stood out.
That work ethic would not stop her from playing where she wanted to play, and a year after Patton told Panzella she wasn’t looking for a freshman setter, Tolenada had the opportunity to change Patton’s mind in a game at Carondelet High School.
“I saw her (Patton) before the game,” Panzella said. “She said, ‘I already told you I’m not really looking for a setter.’ At the end of the game, she came over and said ‘we need to talk about your setter.’”
Tolenada’s play changed Patton’s mind, and Patton said even though they had a of couple setters already, the work ethic she saw in that game changed things.
Tolenada immediately made an impact, leading the Gators to the playoffs as a freshman and continued to pile up awards. She won conference freshman of the year, placed second team all-conference and set a Gator record with 1,254 assists according to her SF State Gators 2012 profile.
Tolenada continued to win awards in her sophomore and junior years, but wouldn’t lead the Gators to the playoffs again until her senior year. That is when Patton said Tolenada’s leadership shined.
“By her senior year, it was her team to lead and I was able to push her in the areas she needed to be pushed to be the best and help the team win at a high level,” Patton said. “I don’t think we ever lost two matches in a row in conference that year and that was a sign of her leadership on that team.”
That leadership experience and her work ethic is what makes her a good coach according to Hoffman, but Tolenada also brings an experience of playing professionally overseas.
“I played in the Philippines,” Tolenada said. “Volleyball was different … It’s more emphasis on conditioning and defense. Coming from American training, it was different. They teach you how to be tough and the higher level you get, the tougher you’ve got to get.”
That training and toughness is something new Tolenada can bring to the Gators, Hoffman said, and the experience of playing not only in the Philippines, but also in Hong Kong and Qatar. Tolenada also played in Japan after her team won the conference championship in her second year.
While Tolenada was travelling the world, Hoffman was offered the job of assistant coach at SF State and remembered a conversation years earlier.
“Four years before I got this job, we had a conversation amongst the same group of people we had coached with,” Hoffman said. “She said if you ever need an assistant let me know, and I never forgot that conversation, and when I got this job, she’s the first one I called. She had one more year to play in the Philippines, but it worked out that she was able to get back here.”
Now she’s back to the only place she wanted go to college.
“I’ve been coaching for six years now and this is my second collegiate team I’ve coached,” she said. “It’s so different and great to see how athletics has improved and how it can still improve.”
Although she said it is bittersweet to see all the changes, she’s happy to see how it helps the girls now because it used to be her.
Now, Tolenada works together with Hoffman, who she’s known for her entire adult life, to help bring the Gators back to the place she once lead them to; the playoffs.