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Attorneys close to completing Idaho volleyball interviews as former players reflect on coach's abuse allegations

Feb. 14—Shannon Webb inadvertently helped recruit two players into her personal "nightmare" of alleged verbal and physical abuse from Idaho women's volleyball coach Chris Gonzalez.

Webb played for two teams at American University, based in Washington, D.C., that made it to the NCAA Tournament. Then in 2018, the school brought in Gonzalez as an assistant coach.

"Volleyball was the best part of my day," said Webb, 26, who works as a physician's assistant in Pocatello, Idaho. "I was all in."

But the new coach changed everything.

"When Gonzalez was there, I was crying every day after practice. I was depressed. I couldn't focus in class. I shut myself in the library to avoid teammates," she said. "It was a pretty miserable season."

Webb was one of at least 37 current and former players interviewed by a Texas-based law firm, Thompson & Horton, LLP. The university recently informed current players that the firm, which is investigating player allegations against Gonzalez, expects to wrap up those interviews soon.

Idaho spokeswoman Jodi Walker said school officials are not sure how long it will take the attorneys to submit their report to school President C. Scott Green.

"It sounds like they are close to being done with more than 80 hours of interviews," Walker said. "We anticipate it will take quite a bit of time to put all that together. In the meantime, we continue to support those students through the resources we've made available."

While the university is paying private attorneys to investigate allegations into his interactions, Gonzalez is still coaching offseason practices. Only five players are continuing to work out from a roster that had 18 at the end of the 2023 season, which produced a 1-27 record.

Several players, including Senior Emma Patterson of Boise, have opted out of practice even though the university has made a case manager available to attend practices and offered mental health counseling.

"My professors have all been supportive," Patterson said. "Once they find out I'm on the volleyball team, normally we have a short discussion where they express their concern and sympathy for what is going on. And from other peers and classmates, probably the best way to describe it is has been outrage on our behalf."

The university launched the investigation more than a year after players and former Gonzalez-coached athletes alerted athletic director Terry Gawlik to allegations of verbal and physical abuse, which were first documented by a series of stories published in the Orange County Register, a Southern California newspaper.

In a letter to Gawlik dated Nov. 30, 2022, former volleyball player Chelsey R. Mason, who played under Gonzalez at the University of Iowa in the early 2000s, implored the university to listen to allegations from the players.

Mason suffered a broken rib in 2004 during intense practices under Gonzalez that she described in the letter as "dangerous."

"Complaints levied against Christopher Gonzalez should not be dismissed as pouting or tempestuous outbursts thrown by teenagers and young adults, or overbearing, dissatisfied parents," Mason wrote. "These are evidence of unprofessional, abusive, manipulative practice that have spanned Gonzalez's career. These are cries for help."

Reached by phone on Monday, Mason declined to comment further on the record but said her letter expressed her concern.

Patterson, the current Idaho player, said in a previous interview that she and team captains met with Gawlik on Oct. 30 to express their concerns about fear of retaliation and abusive treatment.

Gawlik, according to Patterson, replied with a question: "Is that it?"

The athletic director has met only one other time with players since, when she encouraged them to meet with attorneys from Thompson & Horton. It's the same law firm that defended Baylor University last year in a civil suit filed by 15 survivors of sexual assault who alleged that Baylor "permitted a campus rife with sexual assault" for years. The school and the students reached a settlement.

Patterson, whose mother and grandmother attended Idaho, said she expected more support from school officials.

"I think throughout this entire thing, more open communication from the administration side would have been very welcome and helpful," she said. "It does feel that we are working against the administration instead of with them, as it should be."

Tangled Webb

As a former volleyball player, Webb said it's taken years to get over the eight months she spent under Gonzalez at American University in 2018.

In 2019, Webb transferred to Southern Utah and again found a nurturing environment to play. During a recruiting visit that year, she encouraged recruits Madison Wilson, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Marissa Drenge, of Boerne, Texas, to play under coach Lorelle Hoyer.

Those players then followed Hoyer when she accepted an assistant coaching job at Idaho under former coach Debbie Buchanan. Drenge and Wilson were on scholarship when Gonzalez took over the program in 2022.

"I felt pretty guilty, having brought some of these girls into my nightmare, unintentionally," Webb said.

Drenge and Wilson left Idaho after the 2022 season.

Patterson, the current player, said the only players practicing are international players. She said Gonzalez is continuing to recruit international athletes to the program even as the investigation continues.

"Coaches and players have reached out to me asking how they should get in touch because (Gonzalez) has ignored calls and emails from" coaches and domestic players, Patterson said.

Webb, who like Mason wrote a letter to Idaho officials and spoke with attorneys investigating the case, said Gonzalez is known for seeking out players from overseas.

" "He feels like he can control international players better. There is a lot more risk for them. They have to be on scholarship. If you have to be on scholarship, you have to listen to your coach," Webb said.

Efforts to reach Gonzalez on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Webb said it is difficult to talk about her time under the coach who made her feel like a "worthless human being."

"I'll be honest, it affects me a lot even to this day," she said. "I've learned to channel it into positive things."