‘A four-year process’: Hannah Varel steps into new role with Transy women’s basketball

Hannah Varel was always supposed to be Juli Fulks’ replacement as the next head coach of Transylvania women’s basketball.

Since her arrival in Lexington ahead of the 2020-21 season after two years as an assistant coach at Hanover College, Varel and Fulks — who was named the head coach at Division I Marshall last week — had been preparing the young assistant for her first head coaching opportunity. And, because of that, the newly minted leader of the Pioneers feels both comfortable and confident entering her next chapter.

Even though the process, which Varel called “a very quick” one, only technically began with the signing of the contract, it really started years ago.

“We had always talked about the end of the season, what my plans are and what my goals are,” Varel said. “And I think, through her mentorship, she has always given me the confidence that I could take over this program if she were to leave. So this wasn’t, I had 12 hours to decide the rest of my life. This was a four-year process of her really pouring into me and giving me a ton of confidence in taking this role.”

A fast-rising assistant in one of the winningest college basketball programs over the past four seasons, Varel helped guide the Pioneers to an overall record of 105-8, including a 2023 national championship and a 64-game winning streak that stretched from Nov. 18, 2022, to March 14, 2024. She was a 2023 WBCA 30 Under 30 honoree, and, following her first season as associate head coach this year, was named the 2024 WBCA DIII Assistant Coach of the Year.

It was such an easy decision to elevate Varel that Dr. Holly Sheilley, Transylvania’s vice president of athletics, didn’t even open the coaching search to anybody else.

“Juli Fulks did a lot of things really well,” Dr. Shielley said. “But the one thing that some people don’t talk about, but I will, is that she knew, to be successful, you’ve got to put successful people and good people, strong people around you. And she did that with Hannah. And so it was really an easy decision for us because Hannah has done such a phenomenal job here. So we are excited to welcome her.”

Varel, who made the decision to pivot careers after a few years as an assurance senior associate with PricewaterhouseCoopers in St. Louis, said that choice also provided a sense of comfort in accepting her new role as the eighth head coach in program history.

“I think going through that process of changing from something that was very comfortable and static to me will help me navigate this change,” Varel said. “And help me navigate that change with our players. But yeah, I just feel incredibly grateful that I get to follow my dream and passion every day, and hopefully allow my student athletes to see that following your dreams is a reality; it’s something you can do.”

Though the returning Pioneers are enduring plenty of change ahead of next season, including the graduation of key players such as leading scorer Dasia Thornton and team leaders Laken Ball, Kennedi Stacy and Sydney Wright, Varel said there’s a benefit in the consistency of her remaining on staff.

“The biggest thing when I learned Coach Fulks was taking this job was making this transition as seamless as possible for our group of women,” Varel said. “To us, that was the biggest thing that we were worried about was making them feel confident in the next person that was taking over. So I think having those relationships with them will be critical to this program moving forward.”

Part of that means the continuation of Transylvania’s effective analytics-focused approach to coaching, which Varel admits took her a bit of time to embrace — “I have fully bought into the numbers and analytics, and I think winning a national championship, going to three Elite Eights, two Final Fours, has fully proven that the math works.”

Just as she’s “fully bought in” to the process, Varel said the team has, too.

“I feel very lucky that I’m coming into a program where we know that what we do works,” Varel said. “And Coach Fulks and I were very aligned on the methods and the systems that we ran. We were the best defensive team in the country out of any division, and I fell in love with that process. There were many times where, if we gave up 50 (points), it felt really tough.”

As with every new era, there will, of course, be changes made within the program to reflect Varel’s vision. She says one of those will happen in the team’s offensive identity, to better utilize the new-look roster.

“I think this group will have a little bit different offensive style, different strengths,” Varel said. “I think we’re just gonna work through that process in the fall. Our plan is to take the team to Canada for our fall break trip and I think having those extra days of practice of work through kind of the new systems and the new people that we have will really help us. I’m excited about the group that we have returning.”

Next season, Transylvania returns starting point guard Sadie Wurth and impact reserves Sierra Kemelgor and Emilie Teall.

The Pioneers are also expecting a freshman class that includes North Laurel center Chloe McKnight, as well as 5-foot-10 guard Mackenzie Lombardi of Portsmouth High School (New Hampshire), 5-foot-10 forward Nicole Mears of Franklin County High School (Indiana) and 6-foot forward/center Lola Allen of Castle High School (Indiana).

Hannah Varel is ready for a new chapter as the head coach of Transylvania women’s basketball.
Hannah Varel is ready for a new chapter as the head coach of Transylvania women’s basketball.
This season, Varel was named the 2024 Division III Assistant Coach of the Year by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.
This season, Varel was named the 2024 Division III Assistant Coach of the Year by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.

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