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When he was five years old, Bakeer Ganesharatnam packed his bags, ready to move 4,000 miles from his home in Sri Lanka to Stuttgart, Germany. As with most college programs in the West, Ganesharatnam grew up taking compulsory physical education classes. He loved basketball, football, fencing and table tennis, but volleyball caught his eye. He noticed the need for teamwork and selflessness and how every player on the pitch touched the ball.
“You have to make sure it’s a good team as a whole and not just a good player,” Ganesharatnam said.
In June, Syracuse University announced that Ganesharatnam would be the seventh head coach in volleyball program history. Orange are currently rebuilding after losing nine players last year, but Ganesharatnam are ready for the challenge.
“Our goal is to build a new team with a solid base, culturally but also from a competitive point of view so that we can move forward,” Ganesharatnam said. “Our goal is to compete at the highest level in this conference.”
The Sri Lankan Civil War forced the brutal emigration of the Ganesharatnam family. But in 1990, Ganesharatnam landed a playing spot for VFL Sindelfingen, a local volleyball club in Stuttgart. Over the next decade Sindelfingen won several regional and national championships.
At the end of his school career, Ganesharatnam wished to seek a new challenge “somewhere different”. At the time, his family was living in New York. After persistent persuasion, Ganesharatnam was finally drawn to what his cousin called the “greatest place in the world”.
Ganesharatnam enrolled at St. John’s University in New York for his freshman year. Initially, he viewed his move to the United States as a trial period to see if he liked it. But one day, while playing volleyball in a local recreational league, an assistant coach from St. John’s approached Ganesharatnam, asking if he had ever competed at a high level before. The coach shared Ganasharatnam’s talent with Karl Pierre, then coach of the Queens College volleyball team.
“He was amazing,” Pierre said. “He was engaged, ready to listen and learn, and had a good temper; you couldn’t have asked for a better player.
Ganesharatnam’s skill and shrewdness were evident from the very beginning of his relationship with Peter. After a few training sessions, he received a full scholarship for the remaining three years of eligibility, prompting him to leave St. John’s. Ganesharatnam made an immediate impact at Queens, leading the frontline as a central blocker.
“He came in, sweet and hardworking,” former assistant athletic director Merlin Thompson said. “When someone is this driven, you can’t help but get attached to them.”
The game in Europe was slow and technical, but it was blazing, powerful and fast in America. Ganesharatnam gradually adapted to the new style, helping the Knights win two conference championships while pursuing a potential career in politics.
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After graduating from Queens, Ganesharatnam worked for a few volleyball camps to earn some extra money. His affection for the job grew, and he accepted an assistant coaching position at Cedar Valley College.
At the time, Ganesharatnam did not think coaching would become his profession. So, after a brief stint in Grand Prairie, Texas, he decided to return to school in West Virginia, where he accepted a graduate assistant position to help defray the costs of his education. After a semester with the Mountaineers, he changed his major to athletic trainer education and athletic management.
Despite the pivot of concentration, Ganesharatnam was still deeply interested in political science. He was grateful for the way Germany accepted immigrant families as his own and was intrigued by the openness with which its citizens spoke about political issues and policies. Yet his devotion to volleyball eventually took center stage.
“I love coaching because it requires constant building,” Ganesharatnam said. “It’s multifaceted. It’s not just a nine to five. It’s multidimensional.
After earning his master’s degree in West Virginia, Ganesharatnam remained a full-time scout and assistant coach for three more seasons before being offered the head coaching position at Temple. The Owls had an abysmal season the year before Ganesharatnam arrived in 2011, finishing with a 1-14 record in the Atlantic 10 conference and a 4-25 record overall. Ganesharatnam was commissioned to rebuild the program.
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Akiko Hatakeyama, one of Ganesharatnam’s longtime assistant coaches at Temple, said it took time to create a successful culture.
“We have always been underdogs. People always underestimated us for some reason, so we had to work harder than everyone every day,” Hatakeyama said.
Now working as an assistant coach for the Nevada volleyball team, Hatakeyama remembered the habits and values Ganesharatnam instilled in Temple.
“He never forced the players to do anything,” Hatakeyama said. “He brought the philosophy of being structured and disciplined, which I really respected.”
Ganesharatnam took Temple to the 2020-21 American Athletic Conference Tournament Championship, earning AAC Co-Coach of the Year honors in the process. But, in addition to his accolades, Pierre and Thompson were impressed with Ganesharatnam’s behavior off the pitch.
“The way he treats others stands out,” Pierre said. “Ask any of his colleagues or teammates, and they would all say the same thing.”
Published September 5, 2022 at 1:08 am
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