RAM REFUSED TO ‘TAKE A KNEE’ ON SOCCER CAREER

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VCU senior Mario Herrera Meraz has endured four knee surgeries to continue his soccer career.

VCU senior Mario Herrera Meraz has endured four knee surgeries to continue his soccer career.

RICHMOND, Va. – The network of scars on Mario Herrera Meraz’s left knee weave a tapestry of pain and doubt, and bear evidence of a gauntlet of trials. He muses as he leads me on a tour through the tangled mess of scar tissue.

Herrera Meraz’s kneecap is surrounded by skin marked by surgeon’s knives. There are four large scars roughly the size of postage stamps that form a perimeter around the knee, as well as several small dot marks, evidence of the torn meniscus he suffered when he was 16 that kicked off a “Groundhog’s Day”-like series of injuries that threatened his soccer career. The final scalpel stroke, a narrow, four-inch highway down the center of the knee, is from his most recent brush with injury. He had a screw inserted the last time, and with direct contact, the area can go numb for a few moments.

From 2006-2012, the VCU senior endured four major surgeries on the knee, three to repair a torn ACL. It would be unbelievable if it weren’t true. If not for a cacophony of shredded soft tissue, it’s entirely possible Herrera Meraz would be playing professionally by now, as well as a member of Mexico’s national team.

Despite adversity, Herrera Meraz breezes into the room unfailingly polite and buoyant. Eight years since his first visit to the operating room, the wiry, 5-foot-8 midfielder can still find a smile while recalling a vicious cycle of success, injury, disbelief, recovery and self-doubt.

His torn ACL in the 2012 Atlantic 10 Championship Match and the collective toll of four surgeries, hung like a black cloud over his 2013 season. His confidence shattered, Herrera Meraz was a shadow of himself as he wandered through the season like a man in the wilderness.

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TOP-SHELF FISHER, REDDIC IN ITALY

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A couple of weekend videos worthy of sharing. The first comes from VCU Men’s Soccer’s win over Northeastern on Friday, in which Devon Fisher buries a perfectly placed shot from 35 yards out. This goal is pretty awesome.

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Today’s second video, and congrats to those Internet sleuths monitoring Italian basketball airspace, is Juvonte Reddic’s introductory presser with Victoria Libertas. Most of this 38 minute video is in Italian, but it does include Reddic, who presumably does not speak Italian, responding to questions in English.

EVERYBODY IN THE POOL, SUMMER’S GONE

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Summer’s gone. I’m not concerned with the technical definition of the season. We’ve all been conditioned to mentally terminate the summer once school resumes. I still do that today because when fall sports kick back online every August, it’s go time in the office. That day is today. We got a little preview last week with women’s soccer’s early start at Virginia Tech and Marshall, but Friday and Saturday, field hockey, volleyball and men’s soccer will also begin their 2014 campaigns.

Our first order of business today is to present our next fall sports preview, field hockey. Although this sport willfully chooses to water artificial grass, we still love them. The Rams were 10-10 a year ago under former player and first-year Coach Laura Baker. This year’s squad is channeling its inner Queen Latifah, with more than a little conversation given to unity.

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VCU Volleyball is in Fort Collins, Colorado this weekend, where all they’ll do is play a road match against the No. 18 team in the country (Colorado State), then two other teams that are receiving votes (Marquette and UC Santa Barbara). This year’s roster features more freshmen (8) than upperclassmen combined (7), so the kids will get an idea about the top end of Division I volleyball pretty quickly. Second-year Coach Jody Rogers, who punts excuses into the rafters for fun, doesn’t sound concerned.

“Age is just a number, and I always tell them that. I don’t want to have an excuse, everybody else sees a young team, I don’t care. They’re ready. I want them to be ready.”

The Rams were 26-8 last year in Rogers’ first season.

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TROPHY CHASING TAKES ON GREATER IMPORTANCE FOR VCU SOCCER IN ’14

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In four seasons under the guidance of Coach Dave Giffard, the VCU Men’s Soccer program has transformed from an also-ran into a juggernaut. For all the progress made, there are a couple of levels of success that have been elusive. Following an 11-8-2 mark in 2013, the Rams aim to take the next step as a program.

FALL RAM REPORT NOW ONLINE

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Folks, the Fall 2013 edition of The Ram Report is now available online. Check out profiles on Men’s Soccer goalie Andrew Wells, Women’s Soccer Coach Lindsey Vanderspiegel, former first round draft pick Justin Orenduff and Field Hockey’s Nicole Barry, who had an interesting summer internship, plus a bunch of other good stuff. Click the cover below to read it all.

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THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS EVER THIS WEEK (OCT. 1)

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Happy Shak-tober, VCU fans. This month is good for many things, among them (in no particular order): foliage, NBA training camps, candy corn, postseason baseball, marzen, candy corn, Atlantic 10 Conference races and, finally, candy corn. How does VCU Athletics fit into all of this? I’m glad you asked, even if you didn’t.

RAMS IN CAMP
NBA training camps are underway, which means three former Rams are in action, each with a different task in front of them.

Troy Daniels is in Asheville, N.C. with the Charlotte “soon to be Hornets” Bobcats. Troy earned a camp invite after playing on the Bobcats’ summer league squad in Las Vegas. Now would be a good time to remind Michael Jordan that Charlotte was 27th in the NBA in 3-point shooting last year, and Troy Daniels (feel free to use the Around The Horns-approved #TreyD3 hashtag) hits threes in his sleep. If he was a dinosaur, Daniels would be a triceratops. If he was a TV station, he’d be ESPN3. If he was a stadium, he’d be Three Rivers.

Trust us, Daniels was born for this. We recently slowed down some film of Daniels shooting at training camp and captured his expression right at the moment he’s about to catch and shoot. Check it out:

Three, coming right up.

Three, coming right up.

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THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS EVER THIS WEEK

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BASKETBALL BEGINS
Today, in accordance with new rules, VCU men’s hoops opens practice. The Rams will have 42 days in which to practice a maximum of 30 times. Set your 42-day countdown clocks. In the meantime, Coach Shaka Smart is talkin’ ’bout practice.

In that vein, if you can’t get excited by Shaka Smart Mud Face, then I can’t help you. Smart is literally willing to wade through the muck for his players. How can you not love a coach like that? Only Pat Kennedy’s sport coat is more willing to get down and dirty in the name college hoops.

Future marketing opportunity: "Tide, it wreaks havoc on tough stains."

Future marketing opportunity: “Tide, it wreaks havoc on tough stains.”

VOLLEYBALL, FROM THE FRYING PAN, INTO THE FLYERS
The 10-4 VCU Volleyball team kicks off Atlantic 10 play Friday at four-time defending league champion Dayton at 7 p.m. So much for easing into conference play. The Flyers were the coaches’ preseason pick again this year, but VCU has shown it’s not intimidated by a step up in competition. The Rams nearly upset No. 19 Kentucky and just-barely-unranked Wisconsin, and toppled Tennessee this season. The Rams have played an exciting brand of volleyball under first-year Head Coach Jody Rogers. Follow live scoring and audio at VCUAthletics.com.

SISTER, SISTER
VCU Field Hockey hosts Siena at 4 p.m. at Cary Street Field. Come for the fresh air and the smell of fresh cut turf, stay for the heartwarming sister reunion. VCU freshman defender Sydney Weise will share the field with older sister Callie, a junior midfielder for the Saints. The Weise’s hail from Freehold, N.J.

THE FURY IS RIGHT, ON SCHEDULE
The VCU Women’s Basketball team, which has adopted the slogan “Fear the Fury” this season, will travel to Ohio State for a second straight season, it revealed with Thursday’s schedule release. The Rams, who return A-10 leading scorer Robyn Parks and welcome a stacked recruiting class, will open at Youngstown State on Nov. 9 and also meet Richmond and Old Dominion as part of a competitive slate.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK
In case you missed it, former Ram Jason Johnson scored this fancy futbol goal earlier this week for the Houston Dynamo.

THE BIG BOUNCE; RAMS REBOUND WITH APLOMB

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A season-opening loss to UAB has helped spur the Rams into the top 10.

A season-opening loss to UAB has helped spur the Rams into the top 10.

RICHMOND, Va. – While the 4-0 score is somewhat misleading, there’s no doubt VCU’s season-opening loss to UAB at Sports Backers Stadium on Aug. 30 was a bit of a gut punch to a team with high expectations.

But since that ego-bruising debut, the Rams (3-1-1) have been splendid. VCU followed with a draw with No. 9 New Mexico, then went on the road to topple a 13th-ranked Maryland squad, seventh-ranked Akron and Niagara, an NCAA Tournament team a year ago. This week, the Rams rocketed up the NSCAA Top 25 Poll to No. 8, the school’s highest since 2004.

In some ways, the Rams say, that disappointing loss to a solid UAB team, like a bucket of cold water to the face, was a wake-up call.

“I think that game was the best thing that happened to us this season,” says forward Devon Fisher. “It was a big eye-opener for our defense.”

Although the Rams outshot UAB 12-8 and had 15 corners to the Blazers’ two, VCU couldn’t crack the scoreboard and couldn’t get enough stops defensively. What followed was a week’s worth of defensive drills and instruction that appears to have shored up the Rams’ early deficiencies. The Rams have allowed just three goals in the last four games and posted back-to-back 1-0 shutouts last weekend at Akron and against Niagara.

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FRIEND AND FOE; FORMER ROOMMATES SQUARE OFF FRIDAY

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VCU Coach Dave Giffard will face his friend and former roomate, Jared Embick, Friday.

VCU Coach Dave Giffard will face his friend and former roomate, Jared Embick, Friday.

RICHMOND, Va. – Jared Embick has come a long way from being the guy sleeping on Dave Giffard’s couch.

On Friday, Giffard will find out just how far when he squares off against Embick, his friend and former roommate when 19th-ranked VCU (2-1) meets seventh-ranked Akron (3-1) in the University of Akron Tournament at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Rams will also play Niagara on Sunday to cap the weekend tournament.

Giffard was already a year into his stint as an assistant under Caleb Porter at Akron in 2007 when Embick was added to the staff. Embick says he didn’t have much time to look for an apartment, so he asked Giffard if he could crash on his couch for a few weeks until he found his own place. Nearly a year later, Embick was still on the couch.

“We just worked all the time, so we would just come home, take a ride over to dinner, come back, go to sleep and do it again the next day,” Giffard says of the arrangement. “You know, we had a few barbeques in between.”

The following spring, Embick graduated from the couch when he and Giffard moved into a two-bedroom apartment. They’d stay there until Giffard was named VCU coach following the 2009 season.

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RAMS AIM HIGH WITH LOADED 2013 SLATE

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Fourth-year VCU Coach Dave Giffard calls the Rams' 2013 schedule 'the best in the country'.

Fourth-year VCU Coach Dave Giffard calls the Rams’ 2013 schedule ‘the best in the country’.

RICHMOND, Va. – VCU Coach David Giffard isn’t pulling any punches when it comes to scheduling – or when it comes to evaluating the Rams’ 2013 schedule.

“It’s the best schedule in the country, for sure,” he says definitively.

It would be tough to argue against the fourth-year Rams’ coach. Tell him it’s not the best schedule when VCU lines up against one of 11 NCAA Tournament teams from last year. That’s nearly one quarter of the entire field. Tell Giffard he’s taking it easy when one of the eight national seeds VCU is scheduled to play comes calling. The teams on VCU’s schedule have won eight of the last 10 National Championships, so go ahead, construct your argument and convince Giffard that there’s another school with this much heft on its docket. Did we mention that defending National Champion Indiana is coming to Sports Backers Stadium on Oct. 18? Well, there’s that too.

The Rams also host New Mexico (Sept. 6), a national seed last year, national seed and defending Atlantic 10 Champion Saint Louis (Oct. 6), not to mention UAB, Old Dominion and Coastal Carolina, who were all in the NCAA Tournament last fall. VCU will also travel to Giffard’s old stomping grounds at the University of Akron (Sept. 13). The Zips were ranked seventh in the country last year. But don’t let that overshadow trips to Virginia, Wake Forest or Maryland. And that’s without even mentioning the A-10 schedule.

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