A love for baseball molded Adam Hughes into Maryland volleyball’s stat-loving coach
Coach Adam Hughes is a coffee fanatic, liking " pretty dark roasts with some more flavor." (Julia Nikhinson/The Diamondback)
A typical Halloween for Adam Hughes growing up involved dressing as New York Yankees slugger Don Mattingly. He collected baseball cards and paid close attention to players’ batting averages and home run totals.
One day, he hoped to even be featured on one of those baseball cards. He attended a camp at the Red Sox’s training facility in Boston, and had aspirations to play in college.
But that was before his sophomore year of high school, when his enthusiasm for playing the sport began to wane. And that was before he found himself suddenly hooked on a new sport, walking into volleyball tryouts as a novice and walking out — unbeknownst to him at the time — with a new lifelong passion.
By the time Hughes thought about college, it was with volleyball on his mind. He had made the varsity team in high school, and he and his father founded one of the first club volleyball teams in the State College, Pennsylvania, area. But Hughes made an unsuccessful attempt to walk on to the men’s team at Penn State, and he ended up as a practice player for the women’s squad.
From there, the path to coaching college women’s volleyball was paved. Still, despite finding his future in volleyball, Hughes’ love for baseball never left him. He’s the leader of Maryland volleyball, but he can’t help but consider where he’d be had he stuck with the diamond instead of switching to the court.
“It was a great opportunity to see how the best coaches in the country train players,” Hughes said. “Baseball has always been my pride and joy. I think I would’ve found my path to coaching no matter what, but I wonder if I would have coached baseball if I stuck with it.”
This October, when the New York Yankees made a run at the American League Pennant, Hughes would ask for the result of the Yankees game before fielding any volleyball questions during postgame press events.
Hughes’ Bronx Bombers obsession is nothing new for the 33-year-old head coach. While coming of age during the Yankees dynasty of the late-1990s, his admiration for the team turned into a lifetime of die-hard fandom.
“I’ve always been a Yankees fan,” Hughes said. “We were only able to watch Yankee games in State College, so it naturally fell into place.”
Hughes’ office, located on the second level of Xfinity Center, is chock-full of baseball memorabilia. Not all of it is Yankees-related; he has a souvenir bat from the 2012 volleyball final four in Louisville, Kentucky, which Hughes attended as a member of the Penn State staff. Louisville proved to be the perfect site for a baseball fan such as Hughes — the Nittany Lions got a tour of the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory before Oregon beat them in the national semifinal.
Another notable memento is a baseball, given to him by a childhood friend when he left Pennsylvania to coach club volleyball in California. The ball — one that the pair used to play catch with as kids — is signed by Hughes’ friend.
Whether it’s a bat or a ball, Hughes can always be found with a piece of sports equipment in his hand. And he’s made friends around the Maryland athletics office as a result.
“The new softball coach likes me now,” Hughes said, “because I always have a bat in my hand when he walks by.”
Hughes doesn’t always impose his love of baseball on the team, under the assumption that many of them don’t share his same level of fandom.
Outside hitter Rebekah Rath, one of Hughes’ first recruits as head coach, is a big fan of baseball, though. Baseball never came up during the recruiting process, yet Rath realized during the 2019 season that her coach liked the game just as much as her, and then some.
“I like baseball, and I watch a lot of baseball,” Rath said, “but I didn’t know he was really into it until I got here.”
Statistics transcend sports
When the State College native first started playing volleyball, he didn’t pay too much attention to analyzing statistics. But when it became his job as director of volleyball operations at Penn State, it came easily to him. Hughes never had a problem learning to interpret the numbers, partly due to the time he spent studying baseball statistics as a kid.
“I became the stat guy, and that’s when volleyball and baseball really merged for me,” Hughes said. “I realized there were a lot of numbers with volleyball, and I always loved the numbers with baseball.”
While the metrics for baseball players don’t directly correlate to the ones for volleyball players, some measures are similar.
In the same way that batting average and slugging percentage represent offensive success in baseball, hitting percentage and kill percentage represent attacking success in volleyball.
Hughes pays close attention to trends in baseball analytics and the organizational approach of some professional teams. Alongside his bat and ball is a copy of Astroball, the story of how the Houston Astros applied cutting-edge statistics to become 2017 World Series champions.
In preparation for the 2019 season, Hughes implemented one of the MLB’s newer ideas.
“Baseball organizations are trying to use a growth mindset to develop everyone in the organization,” Hughes said. “Everyone gets a plan laid out in front of them, and that’s one thing we tried to do this preseason.”
Hughes’ love for baseball and affinity for connecting its analytics to volleyball has been no secret to anyone he’s worked with.
Hughes worked on the same staff as former Maryland volleyball coach Steve Aird for six seasons, and as Aird and Hughes became friends coaching together, a lot of their time spent outside the gym became baseball-oriented.
“He’s always been a massive baseball fan and a good baseball player, too,” Aird said. “One year for his birthday, I took him to New Yankee Stadium for a game.”
Hughes often leans on baseball analogies to help explain volleyball. He often calls a soft serve an “off-speed serve,” comparing the style to an off-speed pitch. Hughes also connects the shifting of hitters to the defensive shifts in baseball.
So while Hughes found his future in volleyball rather than baseball, America’s pastime often finds its way back into his life.
There’s the statistics, looking for an edge based on matchups and history. There’s his Yankees fandom, postponing interview questions until he hears the final scoreline. And there’s the bat and ball in his office, a link to his first sport that stays with him in his new one.