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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COME TOGETHER; RAMS AIM TO CHALLENGE A-10 AGAIN WITH OLD AND NEW

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Year One of Jody Rogers’ tenure as VCU Volleyball coach was wildly successful, as the Rams finished 26-8 and reached the Atlantic 10 Conference title match. But that’s not to say the Rams are satisfied. VCU is still chasing its first conference crown and NCAA bid since 2005, and this year, the Rams will do it behind five returning starters and eight freshmen.

SUITE-NESS; UPGRADES PROGRESS AT SIEGEL CENTER

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Earlier this year, VCU announced it would add two suites in the south corners of the Stuart C. Siegel Center as part of an overall effort to enhance the arena. It’ll be a busy couple of months for “The Stu”. In addition to the suites, a new, centerhung scoreboard and sounds system will be installed, and the court will be repainted to reflect VCU’s (and the A-10’s) new branding marks.

DESPITE IMPAIRMENT, IBEH’S CAREER COMES INTO FOCUS

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ibeh-uzoamaka-smile

VCU sophomore Uzoamaka Ibeh is legally blind in her left eye, but that hasn’t stopped her from becoming one of the breakout stars of the Rams’ 24-5 season.

RICHMOND, Va. – In English, the Nigerian name Uzoamaka translates to something along the lines of, the good road, or the road is beautiful. It’s fitting, since Uzoamaka Ibeh’s road to this time and place has been an undeniably a good one.

But Ibeh’s path has also been distinct, and to her, the road looks a lot different than to most, both literally and figuratively. Not only has the VCU redshirt sophomore and Colonia, N.J. native defied the odds, the way she views the world has taught her to be dismissive of those odds.

She sees the world differently not only because she chooses to, but because she has to. Ibeh is legally blind in her left eye.

If the idea of someone playing a fast-paced Division I sport like volleyball, in which uncommon hand-eye coordination is essential, shocks you, it’s okay, Ibeh gets that reaction a lot. But it’s her matter-of-fact approach to her disability that’s probably most notable.

“Sports, with my vision, it never stopped me,” says Ibeh, who will turn 21 on Nov. 11. “I just kept it to myself, honestly.”

When Ibeh was seven years old, she says a teacher recommended she see an optometrist. During the exam, the doctor asked her to cover her right eye and read a chart of letters on the wall. Not only could Ibeh not read the chart, she couldn’t see the wall or anything else. The optometrist tried to correct the problem by placing different sets of prescription lenses in front of Ibeh’s left eye. It didn’t matter. Ibeh saw nothing.

“And I was like, ‘isn’t that normal,’” she recalled. “He asked if had always been like this, and I said, ‘yeah.’ He said, ‘that’s not normal.’

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CAZARES IS OPENING ACT IN VCU WIN

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Freshman Rebekah Cazares is averaging 1.83 digs per set for VCU this season.

Freshman Rebekah Cazares is averaging 1.83 digs per set for VCU this season.

RICHMOND, Va. – Rebekah Cazares can do more than dig a few volleyballs. She can also sing a few bars.

On Tuesday, Cazares, a freshman defensive specialist on the VCU Volleyball team, surprised coaches, teammates and fans when she stepped to the microphone to sing the National Anthem prior to the Rams’ match with William & Mary. After belting out a few notes, Cazares recorded eight digs to help the Rams belt the Tribe 3-1.

“I sing all the time around [my teammates],” but I don’t know if they knew I could actually sing.”

It wasn’t a fluke. Cazares is a trained singer who took voice lessons and also participated in musicals, as well as choir, in high school. In choir, she regularly sang in state competitions. Last year, her high school received several ‘1’ scores – the highest possible – at States. She was also in a production of the musical “Little Shop of Horrors”. A special education major, she’s considering minoring in music.

A few weeks ago, Cazares, a soprano, approached VCU’s marketing staff about singing the National Anthem at one of the Rams’ matches. She was originally scheduled to perform on Nov. 3, when VCU meets Rhode Island. But Tuesday, when the scheduled anthem singer backed out, Cazares stepped into the role and won a round of applause, not to mention some praise on Twitter.

Despite her experience, Cazares admits she had some butterflies.

“Yeah, my voice was a little shaky,” she says. “It’s always a little nerve-racking at first.”

Cazares’ parents, Michael and Catherine, are VCU alums who met while singing in a choir and were in attendance, along with Becca’s 94-year-old grandmother, at Tuesday’s match.

“No one knew I was going to do that last night. It was kind of last minute,” she says. “[My grandma] was happy. My parents, too. They were surprised. Their faces were funny.”

If you’re interested in an encore performance, have no fear. Cazares is still scheduled to perform the National Anthem at VCU’s Nov. 3 match. She says some people were suggesting on Twitter that she sing at a men’s basketball game, but she says that’s a little premature.

“I was like, whoa, that’s a lot of people. Maybe,” Cazares said.

VCURamNation.com captured Cazares in action and has the video (Cazares’ anthem begins at the 3:34 mark).

cazares-sings-screenshot2

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.

SPEED KILLS; KRISKOVA PILES UP POINTS

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Playing in VCU's new, faster-paced offense, sophomore Romana Kriskova has thrived.

Playing in VCU’s new, faster-paced offense, sophomore Romana Kriskova has thrived.

RICHMOND, Va. – VCU Volleyball Coach Jody Rogers talks fast and runs her offense even faster. But in short order, she’s winning players over with both.

Count sophomore outside hitter Romana Kriskova among the converts. The athletic, 6-foot-3 Kriskova is averaging 4.86 kills per set this season, which ranks seventh nationally, and is hitting .284. At this pace, Kriskova is mounting a serious challenge to Ludmila Francescatto’s school records of 4.46 kills per set and 549 total kills, set in 2006. Behind its offensive hammer, VCU is off to a 10-4 start as Atlantic 10 Conference play looms.

Kriskova was already a good player. She averaged 2.39 kills per set and was named to the A-10’s All-Rookie Team as a freshman, but this year, she’s been on another level.

The Rams’ new offensive direction appears to be serving Kriskova well, but the Bratislava, Slovakia native’s breakout season hasn’t come without trepidation. Kriskova changed positions this summer, from right side hitter to outside hitter, and is playing in a system unlike any other in her volleyball career. Kriskova had been accustomed to offenses popular in Europe and much of NCAA volleyball that use high-arching sets.

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THE YEAR IN VCU ATHLETICS, FROM A TO Z

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Wrong A-B-C...whatever, close enough.

Wrong A-B-C…whatever, close enough.

June marks the conclusion of the college athletics calendar, and July’s arrival effectively signals the beginning of the 2013-14 season, at least for those of us in the biz, anyway. It all makes this week a good time to reflect back on the year that was in VCU Athletics.

A – is for Atlantic 10 Conference, in which, according to our slogan, the Rams were ‘all-in’. We were also all-in for another season of “Arrested Development” and Pop Tart ice cream sandwiches, so we’re having a good year. VCU competed in the A-10 for the first time in 2012-13, a move that has elevated the program’s national profile. The Rams’ first A-10 title came via the women’s tennis squad, followed by a men’s tennis crown days later. Meanwhile, several other sports (men’s basketball, women’s soccer, men’s soccer) reached the league’s championship final.

B – is for the Ball family, one of the driving forces behind the VCU Golf program. They’re like the Kennedy’s of VCU Golf, but with a better short game. Matt Ball may have just completed his 14th season with the Rams, but this one was surely different than the others. That’s because 40 percent of his starting lineup was occupied by sons Adam and Matt Jr. Son Adam, a freshman, led the Rams in scoring average (73.53) this year, while Matt Jr., a junior, placed seventh at the A-10 Championship and was named to the league’s All-Academic Team.

C – is for Courtney Conrad, the alliteratively named star of the women’s soccer team. Conrad led the Rams with 11 goals, including five game-winners, and received All-Mid-Atlantic by the NSCAA.

D – is for Daniels, Troy. If you are a fan of basketball players who score three points at a time (and the signed, obscure Mark Price picture in my dining room proves I am), then you would’ve enjoyed Daniels’ 2012-13 season. In 36 games, Daniels bombed a school-record 124 three-pointers, including games of 11, nine and eight.

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NEW CHALLENGE SPARKS ROGERS

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rogers-seated-1RICHMOND, Va. – Jody Rogers doesn’t have to be here, sloughing through paperwork and compliance meetings with her assistants, Kyleigh Gerlach and Chad Gatzlaff. She didn’t have to spend the spring zigzagging the country, feet pounding the pavement of an unending recruiting trail.

Her University of Indianapolis program stood among the Division II volleyball elite. The Greyhounds were coming off a dream season, a 31-win campaign that included the school’s first Final Four appearance. Her next two recruiting classes were already locked in. The incoming class, she says, was her best ever.

So what is she doing in Richmond on a Monday afternoon, combing over recruiting boards and evaluating the state of the VCU program?

At UIndy, she was an institution of 400-plus wins and 16 years of success. Last year she was two wins away from a national title. Now she’s at square one. VCU isn’t a rebuilding project by any means – it was 25-6 last year – but the Rams have also won one conference title in 28 years. Rogers is used to, and demands, more.

“People were very surprised, but excited for me when I took the job, to be honest with you,” Rogers says. “Because I had such a good situation at UIndy, and people thought that I was going to retire there. Certain opportunities arose, and I felt that at this time, it was a great move for me professionally and personally.”

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Decanting Rogers’ motivations for leaving Indianapolis and jumping at the chance to take over the VCU program probably requires a walk down the streets of her hometown of Newton, Mass.

Rogers and her sister Wendy, 13 months her senior, grew up in a three-story (three-decka, by her parlance) house in Newton, a charming Boston suburb on the city’s western outskirts. Although Newton is relatively affluent, Rogers and her family were anything but well off. They lived on the first floor of a house owned by their grandmother, who took up shop on the second story. The third floor was rented to tenants.

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