STATE OF DENIAL; RAMS BLOCKING AT ELITE LEVEL

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Elite blocking has become a VCU trademark in recent years. The Rams (19-3) are currently ranked sixth nationally in blocking.

RICHMOND, Va. – Volleyball players say there’s a special emotion that comes from blocking an opposing hitter and halting the enemy’s offense with a demoralizing thud.

“You feel like you’re on top of the world. You feel strong,” says VCU freshman middle blocker Martina Samadan.

“I think that’s the most exciting way to get a point for me,” adds senior middle Jasmine Waters. “You just kind of feel like you shut down the other team.”

If that’s the case, it’s been a joyful season for the VCU Volleyball team. The 19-3 Rams lead the Atlantic 10 Conference and rank sixth nationally in blocks per set (3.13). They’ve outblocked their opponents 260-137 this year and have been outblocked in a match just two times. Samadan, a 6-foot-5 rookie from Croatia, ranks fourth in the country in blocks per set (1.64). With numbers like those, VCU should have smiles to spare.

VCU didn’t transform into the Great Wall of China overnight. It takes a lot of work to be this stingy.

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DESPITE VOW, LOW COULDN’T WALK AWAY FROM VOLLEYBALL

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Marisa Low had had her left knee surgically repaired twice in 11 months.

By her own admission, Marisa Low probably shouldn’t be here. Nobody would’ve blamed the senior from San Diego if she called it a career. The first grueling knee rehabilitation almost broke her. That was enough, Low said. She swore she’d quit volleyball before she relived that pain.

She lied.

Six months after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee for the second straight spring, Low jogged onto the court midway through a tense match with Virginia Sept. 7 and recorded two digs in a VCU victory.

“I went down to the end of the bench and asked her if she was ready,” recalls VCU Head Coach James Finley. “She said, ‘I guess we’ll find out.’”

While the dark, three inch brown scar is a conspicuous reminder of the toll she’s paid, the early returns say Low was ready. In 11 matches since returning to the lineup, the 5-foot-5 defensive specialist is averaging 2.41 digs per set, second most on the team. It’s a major feat that Low is playing at all, let alone at a high level.

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TRANSFERS’ CAREERS INTERSECT, STEER VCU IN NEW DIRECTION

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Jasmine Waters (front) and Anett Farkas (back) transferred to VCU in 2010 and are two of the driving forces behind VCU’s 13-2 record.

RICHMOND, Va. – The volleyball careers of Jasmine Waters and Anett Farkas have been similarly important to the revival taking place at VCU this year. Both transferred to the school three seasons ago and have become integral parts of a team that has chugged to a surprising 13-2 record.

Farkas, a 6-foot-1 outside hitter, is third on the team in kills and digs, and fourth in blocks. Waters, a 6-foot-4 middle blocker, is second in blocks and hitting percentage. Farkas was the MVP of the VCU/Third Degree Sportswear Invitational earlier this year, while Waters earned similar honors at the season-opening Active Ankle Challenge at Ball State.

Although their volleyball careers have serendipitously intersected to lift VCU, their journeys to this place and this period in program history contrast dramatically.

A native of Budapest, Hungary, Farkas started playing volleyball when she was eight years old and trained under Hungarian legend Kotsis Attilane, who led the country fourth place finishes at the 1976 and 1980 Olympic Games.

Farkas attended an English-speaking school in Budapest until the fifth grade. When tuition became too expensive, she moved to an Austrian-speaking school, where she stayed until graduation. Meanwhile, Farkas excelled at volleyball and earned a spot with Hungary’s Junior National Program.

A Landover, Md. native, Waters didn’t play organized sports until a classmate all but dragged her to volleyball practice during her junior year of high school. She played on the jayvee team that first year and moved up to varsity for her senior season.

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BATTLE-TESTED RAMS SET HISTORIC PACE

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After years of tough scheduling, the 2012 Rams have looked composed and experienced on the way to a 12-1 record, the best start in school history.

RICHMOND, Va. – August and September haven’t always been friends to VCU Volleyball. In recent years, the Rams have been pinned with some ungainly non-conference records during those months.

But after years of bruising gauntlets during the early weeks of the season, VCU is reaping the benefits. On Sunday, the Rams completed a sweep of the field at the West Point Challenge to improve to 12-1 for the first time in school history. VCU has played four non-conference tournaments this season and won each one. On Friday, Sept. 21, the Rams will begin Atlantic 10 Conference play at Duquesne. They hope their gaudy record is evidence that VCU is ready to chase down its first league championship and NCAA bid since 2005.

“I’m absolutely thrilled,” said Head Coach James Finley, 138-111 in eight seasons with VCU. “It’s so exciting to start like this. I think it allows the girls to have a great level of confidence going into conference.”

Finley firmly believes in challenging non-conference schedules, even if the payoff is years down the road. In 2010, the Rams played six ranked teams. Four core members of this year’s team were either freshmen or sophomores on that squad, which VCU limped to a 2-14 record before winning 11 of its last 17.

Last season’s schedule was similarly tough and included matches with Purdue, Baylor, Xavier, Michigan State and others. The Rams were 4-11 at one point, but won eight of nine down the stretch to reach the Colonial Athletic Association Championship match.

If there was a turning point for VCU, that was it. The Rams are 18-4 since Oct. 22 of last season.

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THE WRAP: SEPT. 11 – EVERYBODY’S A WINNER AT O’SHEA’S!

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R.I.P. O’Shea’s.

I had a flashback this weekend, as VCU teams were barreling through their schedules and piling up victories.

It was the summer of 2003, and I was in Las Vegas for my college roommate’s bachelor party. By 4 a.m. of the first night (because Vegas deserves a minimum of two nights, even if it kills you) we five remaining souls, including four of us who had flown cross-country that morning, found ourselves at the gritty Las Vegas Strip outpost O’Shea’s, an Irish-themed casino whose dingy carpets and worn felt underscored years of neglect.

In recent years, O’Shea’s adopted a debauched college frat-house approach, complete with loud music, cheap brew and scores of beer pong tables, a strategy that, while kitschy, earned the place a rowdy reputation and passionate following that regularly packed the house. [Note: O’Shea’s closed this summer to make way for a new, glitzy property.]

This was not that O’Shea’s.

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CAA CHAMPIONSHIP VOLLEYBALL NOTES

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Right now my rooMmate, Director of Operations Dave Oglesby, is ironing the same crusty shirt he wore the last two days. Why? Because we won when he wore it. I’m not a big breakfast person, but I decided to eat with the team this morning since breakfast was scheduled for a reasonable 10:15 a.m. Assistant Coach Nathan Baker ribbed me a little for showing up. Why? Because we won the last two days when I didn’t eat breakfast. Head Coach James Finley directed the bus driver to stop by a local Italian restaurant for gelato last night, despite the fact that he is particular about what his team eats in season. Why? Because the team ate gelato the previous night, and then beat Northeastern Saturday.

Superstition has taken hold of the VCU Volleyball team if for no other reason than, they’ll take and edge wherever they can find one. The Rams will meet host and top-seeded Delaware today at 5 p.m. in the CAA Championship Match. VCU will be seeking its first title since 2005. Delaware is the defending champion and has won three of the last four titles.

I took a minute to compile some quick hitters related to tonight’s match, just some fun facts that are easily consumable.

CAA CHAMPIONSHIP VOLLEYBALL NOTES

  • Rams have won three previous conference titles: Sun Belt 1984, 1985; CAA 2005
  • VCU will be playing in its fourth CAA Championship Match. Also reached title game in 2005 (def. Towson 3-2), 2006 (lost to Hofstra, 3-0) and 2009 (lost to George Mason, 3-2).
  • Rams have reached the championship match as the No. 1 (2009), No. 4 (2005) and No. 6 (2006, 2011) seed.
  • Since the CAA began seeding the championship in 1988, a No. 6 seed has never won the title. VCU is the third No. 6 seed to reach the final, joining James Madison in 1989 and VCU in 2006. Both of those teams lost 3-0 in the championship match.
  • Delaware has won three of last four CAA Tournament Championships (2007, 2008, 2010). Blue Hens also lost the 2004 championship match to Towson.
  • If VCU wins, they’ll have beaten the top three seeds to do so.
  • VCU’s lone NCAA berth came via 2005’s auto bid. The Sun Belt did not have an auto bid when the Rams captured 1984 and 1985 titles.
  • VCU has won nine CAA Tournament matches since joining the league in 1995. Eight of those have come since James Finley took over as coach in 2005.
  • Finley is 8-4 in CAA Tournament matches, 1-2 in championship.
  • Delaware leads the all-time series between the two schools 22-14. Finley is 5-9 against Delaware, including 0-2 in CAA Tournament. Blue Hens have won four straight in the series.
  • VCU and Delaware met once this season, Oct. 15 in Richmond. Blue Hens won, 3-1.
  • Delaware eliminated VCU from 2010 CAA Tournament in semifinals (3-1).
  • No. 1 seeds have won 14 CAA Championships.
  • The lowest seed to win a CAA Championship was VCU as a No. 4 in 2005.
  • Four players remain from 2009 squad that reached championship match: Kristin Boyd, Courtney Hott, Marisa Low and Jessica Ojukwu (hurt and redshirted that season).

VOLLEYBALL CHASING CAA TITLE

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I know a lot of  fans will be in Charleston this weekend, but there’s a VCU team chasing a CAA title in Newark, Del. and I plan to be there. The VCU Volleyball Team, seeded sixth, will take on No. 3 Towson Friday at 4 p.m. in the CAA Tournament Quarterfinals. A win earns the Rams a date with Northeastern Saturday in the semifinals.

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FRIDAY WRITES FINAL CHAPTER OF VOLLEYBALL CAREER

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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.’”

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DRIVING FORCE

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The Rams expect redshirt junior Kristin Boyd to be a top offensive threat this season.

It was time for a new challenge, James Finley decided. His most recent volleyball project, Kristin Boyd, was playing with the Rams in a spring tournament in North Carolina a couple of years back, and he needed to throw her a curveball.

Boyd’s progress from a raw collection of athletic ability to an actual volleyball player had been a gradual, continual process. But real change takes place outside one’s comfort zone. Familiarity breeds complacency and stagnation.

So Finley told Boyd it was time to jump serve, which requires advanced coordination and timing, neither of which were her strengths. But she did as she was asked. Boyd tossed the ball into the air, measured her jump, swung her powerful right arm and sent a SCUD missile directly at the up-referee, positioned next to the right post.

“She almost knocked the ref off the stand,” Finley chuckled. “She hit him so hard.”

There many of these anecdotes that can be woven together to chronicle Boyd’s three-plus year volleyball indoctrination. They also juxtapose the reality of this season: that the redshirt junior has weathered years of frustration to become VCU’s most dangerous player.  A rare blend of strength, quickness and leaping ability, Boyd will be the Rams’ big gun, their No. 1 offensive option.

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

Boyd grew up mostly in Vermont before moving to Wilmington, N.C. prior to high school. She dabbled in a number of athletic pursuits over the years, including track, softball, skiing, ballet and jazz tap dance. It’s easy to see why. Her 6-2 frame is built on a foundation of long, muscular legs, topped off by a pair of chiseled arms. Her skill set transcends disciplines.

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THOUGHTFUL THURSDAY: JAMES FINLEY

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I’ve been meaning to include these on the blog, especially with fall sports right around the corner. Anyway, next week is going to be Joey Rodriguez, so you’ve got that going for you, which is nice.

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