Rams v-ball team enters tourney as third seed
Ask anyone on the Shepherd volleyball team if they thought the 2017 season would go as it has and they’ll likely say no – in a good way.
That includes third-year head coach Alex Hoekstra, who has watched his squad of mostly underclassmen exceed expectations after being picked in the preseason poll to finish ninth in the Mountain East Conference.
Three months after that not-so-positive preseason prediction, the Rams (23-6) head into Thursday’s conference tournament as the third seed after finishing in a tie for second during the regular season with Charleston and behind leader Wheeling Jesuit.
“Last year, we were 12-20, so to tell you I thought we’d be 23-6, I think I’d be lying to you,” Hoekstra said. “I knew we had a lot of good, young talent coming back, and I wanted to take it one game at a time. I structured our schedule to kind of have a slow, easy way into our season. We had some good wins out there against West Chester, Fairmont and Urbana, but as far as expectations go, we were kind of thinking we’d be around .500.”
Several things have contributed to Shepherd’s success this season, beginning with team chemistry, something that was mostly absent during the 2016 campaign.
“It’s our team chemistry. We’re so much closer this year, like we just flow on the court and we’re comfortable next to each other. We don’t get mad at each other like we did last year,” sophomore Cambriea Hill said. “Overall, the team chemistry is better.”
“I think, overall this year, the whole vibe is different,” junior Becca Kern said. “Last year, I think there were some people that maybe weren’t as committed as what we have this year. Everybody has the same goal, and that’s to have a successful season and to just make everybody on the team better.”
Hoekstra believes a smaller team has contributed to better chemistry, and he’s seen that bond between his players grow over the season.
“I think it really speaks to their personalities and their type of leadership that they’re selfless and they want each other to do as well as themselves. They celebrate harder for someone else than they do for their own success,” Hoekstra said. “Also, I think they’re comfortable on the court because we’re putting them in a position where they’re only asked to do something they’re good at.
“Chemistry-wise, they’re friends on and off the court and accepting a role allows that chemistry to be smoother. Not being super excited about your role kind can sometimes cause friction, but we have 10 girls and nine girls play, and our 10th player played a big part for us when we had injuries. It’s all 10 of them working together.”
Another key is the development of the Rams’ young players, including Hill, who played the entire season after missing a good portion of last year with an injury. She’s developed into one of the conference’s top players.
“My freshman year, I was out the majority of the season because I was injured, so coming back from that definitely made me want to work harder because I had so much lost time. So I was like, ‘OK, I need to pick it up this season,”‘ said Hill, the team’s leader in kills with 349. “My team helped me through that a lot.”
Then there’s Kern, who dealt with an injury in the spring and summer but is back contributing in a number of ways, including in the serving game where she’s among the team’s leaders in aces.
“This year’s been pretty different,” said Kern, a Musselman graduate. “I had an injury – we found about it in the spring – so I was out most of spring season and then the rest of the summer season and I couldn’t do too much because of that.
“Coming in, I didn’t have a role for the first few weeks, at least. I was just trying to hurry up and get everything better. I’m happy with I’m doing because what I’m doing, I’m still helping out the team, but it’s just a little bit different from last year.”
Hoekstra also points to recruiting as a determining factor in how he has been able to set up this year’s team. Players are in positions they should be, not in positions because they have to be.
“We’ve been able to recruit girls that fit a specific role, and everyone buying into a role has been important. In the past, we’ve kind of had to move people around, basically, ‘We need you to play here because we don’t have anyone else that can play here,’ instead of, ‘This is what your strength is,”‘ he said. “We’re starting to get a team that’s full of the girls that I recruited, and a lot of times they fit that strength and vision that I think they can play in. Coach (Faisal) Hallaj and I have really tried to – and with this small group, it’s a lot easier – break it down and have more positional, smaller-group type of sessions, and I think they’ve learned a lot from that.”
The Rams’ focus is now on the conference tournament, and Shepherd is set up nicely.
“Being 23-6, we are no longer the underdog. We were picked to finish ninth in the conference at the beginning of the year and we’re actually tied for second, so last year, we might have been an underdog or earlier this year, we might have been an underdog, but now everyone has us circled as a team to beat,” Hoekstra said. “We like where we are in the conference seeding. We always play Fairmont and Urbana pretty tough, now they’re on the other side of the bracket with Wheeling.
“We have West Liberty and Charleston on our side, and we like that matchup. We like our road to the conference finals, and that’s our goal, to make it to the conference finals. We beat West Liberty in three this year, and Charleston’s a team we lost to, but it’s someone everybody wants to play again.”
Shepherd, which finished with six straight wins to end the regular season, opens conference tournament play at noon Thursday against West Liberty.
The semifinals are today and championship on Saturday.