Tennessee transfer Amanda Friday leads VCU in digs per set this season.

Amanda Friday had James Finley worried. Sure, Finley loved her dedication, but there are limits to these types of things.

It’s about 430 miles from Knoxville, Tenn. to Richmond, roughly a seven-hour drive. That didn’t seem to bother Friday, who for weeks, finished summer school classes at the University of Tennessee every Thursday in Knoxville before heading to Richmond, usually by car, alone. Friday played volleyball at Tennessee for three years, and was going to be the new kid on the block at VCU. She wanted to integrate into the team as quickly as possible.

The Rams couldn’t hold organized practices over the summer, but Friday came anyway. She wanted to hang out with her new teammates, play some pickup beach volleyball and work out with Strength and Conditioning Coach Tim Kontos. Finally, Finley had to express his concern to Friday’s mother, Reina.

“I talked to her mom about it,” said Finley, in his seventh season with VCU. “I told her I appreciate this, and it’s great to have somebody this dedicated, but we need to be realistic, and she said, ‘Well, you can tell her not to because I sure can’t.’”

So, Friday’s late-night travels continued. As uncomfortable as it may have made Finley at the time, the Rams’ coach is likely happy with the end result. Friday has meshed into the fabric of the 2011 VCU Volleyball team. Straightforward and confident, Friday has been a stabilizing force on this year’s squad. The 5-7 senior libero has also delivered on the court, averaging a team-best 3.27 digs per set.

DISASTER MEETS SERENDIPITY

You could argue that junior Marisa Low was VCU’s best returning player this season. The 5-5 libero was a Colonial Athletic Association All-Rookie Team pick in 2009 and was the anchor of the Rams’ back line.

So, when the Carlsbad, Calif. tore an ACL during spring volleyball season, Finley had plenty of reason to be concerned. The Rams would have four other defensive specialist/liberos on the roster, but none with more than a year of college experience.

Meanwhile, at Tennessee, Friday was eyeing the end of her volleyball career. After graduating from UT in three years with a degree in psychology, the Springfield, Va. native was faced with a

tough decision. She could have stayed at Tennessee for grad school, but Tennessee Director of Mental Training Dr. Joe Whitney recommended against it. Whitney, who earned his Ph.D. at the school, told Friday that Tennessee preferred that its psychology Ph.D. candidates to receive some experience elsewhere.

“I actually thought I was just kind of done with volleyball,” Friday said. “It was a difficult choice on my part, but I knew I probably wouldn’t be playing volleyball later on in life. I had to make that long-term decision rather than what is right in front of me.”

In June, Finley and Assistant Coach Nathan Baker were in Atlanta for a club tournament when they ran into Tom Lowrey, Friday’s club coach with Virginia Elite. Finley and Baker jokingly asked where they could find an experience libero this late in the game. But the conversation quickly got serious. Lowrey called Friday asked if she still wanted to play another year.

At VCU, Friday could spend a year in the school’s Center for Sport Leadership while she applied to the Ph.D. program, which requires a one-year waiting period. Additionally, Friday would gain a perspective that could lead to new career opportunities.

“At first I wanted to be a sports psychologist,” Friday said. “When I heard about the Sport Leadership program, I sort of saw my options opening up because if you want to be a coach or even a sport administrator, you need a psychology aspect to be able to communicate with different people.”

VCU is 5-7 this season in matches in which Friday has played and 2-5 when she hasn't.

Eventually, Friday hopes to blend the skills she’s acquired from both schools and open a team-building facility.

“That’s my passion, finding the chemistry on a team and building on it,” she said.

Friday’s Knoxville-to-Richmond jaunts were pretty much about the same thing. She was showing the ultimate commitment and building the trust of her teammates. Tennessee was a top-25 program and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season, but that experience wouldn’t mean anything if Friday disrupted VCU’s chemistry for even a second, or if her teammates didn’t have faith in her.

“I learned a lot at Tennessee. It taught me a lot about the game, so I feel like I can really help the girls with learning the game,” Friday said. “As far as the team, the first month or so I just kind of sat back and just watched how the team functioned. I’m up for helping the team in any way possible.”

“Friday holds herself accountable first, so the girls allow her to hold them accountable,” Finley said. “That’s something that’s really important to our team. That’s taught some of the girls on our team that for you to grow and get better, you have to be honest with yourself.”

BAD TO GOOD TO WORSE

Amanda Friday suffered her first concussion in high school. She was diving for a ball at summer camp when another player fell on top of her and accidentally elbowed her in the back of the head. Friday said she blacked out for “a good two minutes.” The injury kept her off the volleyball court for a month.

Concussions can cause headaches, blurred vision, sensitivity to light and memory loss, to name a few symptoms. Once someone suffers their first concussion, they’re more susceptible to future ones. Multiple concussions can lead to permanent damage, so, each successive occurrence is viewed with increased scrutiny.

During preseason practice in August, Friday went to the floor for a ball and it nearly derailed her VCU career before it started. Although her head did not make contact with the floor, the impact caused a whiplash effect. Shortly thereafter, she was diagnosed with her fourth concussion.

Given her history of concussions, Friday was facing the real possibility that her career could be over. For James Finley, it appeared his luck had gone from bad to good, back to bad again.

“At first, it was almost too good to be true that the whole thing came together and then to have her get hurt, you’re like, ‘ah, great,’” he said.

“WE CAN GET THERE”

Although the worst was feared, Friday returned to practice after about two and a half weeks, including the first six matches of the season. Since, she’s provided a steady hand at arguably VCU’s position of the greatest need. But it isn’t just her effort on the floor that has been a difference-maker.

Friday’s three seasons playing in SEC, not to mention her overall level of maturity, have helped to calm a relatively young team. Although she is willing to let captains Kristin Boyd and Courtney Hott call the shots, Friday does have a valuable perspective on the game.

“I really wanted to help this team understand and kind of see that they have the potential to be as good as Tennessee or top 25, top 30,” Friday said. “It really just takes the discipline.”

Two weeks ago, Low, the player Friday was brought in to replace, returned to the lineup a month ahead of schedule. Low’s return gives the Rams two skilled, experienced back-row players just weeks after VCU was facing the prospect of having none. Combined with a dynamic, emerging outside hitter in Boyd and a career year from Hott, the Black and Gold is starting to showcase the talent Friday believes is as good as just about anywhere.

“Without any doubt, she absolutely believes this team has the skill and the right athletes and the ability to be at that level, where they can compete there,” Finley said. “There’s a huge confidence that she brings to the team because she exudes it, not in herself, but in the whole team. She understands if you do this, this and this, we can get there.”

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