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.
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.
But it wasn’t until Hoggard High School Coach Ron Strickland noticed her that she was persuaded to try volleyball. On her first day of practice, she touched the rim of a basketball hoop from a standing leap. That’s all Strickland needed to see. However, in her first match, Boyd broke her ankle and missed the rest of the season.
Boyd would eventually excel in her final two years, largely on the strength of her undeniable talent, until Finley and VCU Assistant Coach Nathan Baker discovered her. Baker, then the head coach at Division II Tusculum, was working a camp at Mississippi State when Boyd caught his eye.
“He called me the first night of camp and said, ‘oh my god, there’s a kid here you would love,’” Finley recalled. “Because he knows I like raw kids. I went down and watched her play in a tournament for her club team and I knew instantly. I probably had watched her play one minute of the match.”
Finley believes, wholeheartedly, that he can make VCU matter on a national level, just not through conventional means. Rather than go head-to-head with top 25 schools for top 25 talent, which he knows is an uphill battle, Finley and his staff decided a few years ago that they’d find the best athletes they could and develop them. That paradigm produced All-CAA players Ivana Rich and Kelsie Clegg and Finley believes it can do the same for Boyd. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be bumps along the road less traveled. Often, it’s potholes and six-car pileups.
“We knew she could jump high and reach over the net to block,” Finley said. “But she would just jump in a place and the ball would be four feet from where she was jumping at. She would crush one out of every 10 balls and the other nine you had no idea where they were going.”
Boyd knew the plan from day one. She would redshirt her first season in 2008 while she learned the game. She could practice and travel with the team, but would not play in games. Despite that knowledge, she felt a distance between herself and the rest of the team.
Athletes, by and large, are fierce competitors. Most want to see a return on their investment of sweat equity in the form of victories. Sideline time is like floating in limbo. You see your teammates battling for wins, but you can’t, and that’s tough on some players. It didn’t help that Boyd was also struggling in practice. The speed and technical aspects of Division I volleyball were overwhelming her. She was being swallowed by it.
“She’s told me that there were times when she just wanted to go home because she didn’t feel like she belonged,” Finley recalled.
“I just felt like I wasn’t really a part of the team. I was just there,” Boyd said. “I was just a body on the court. I didn’t help the team at all. I was a drill killer. It was just really hard for me. It was stressful for me because I wanted to be really good.”
In 2009, she made her VCU debut, averaging 1.80 kills while hitting .109, a nondescript percentage for an outside hitter. Even though she was playing now, Boyd was still struggling. She was still floating through, almost a spectator of her own career. She was easily discouraged. Her confidence was waning and her attitude had soured.
“I was very not focused,” Boyd said. “I struggled with paying attention to direction. I got into trouble a lot. I wasn’t a good volleyball player. I was athletic. I could hit the ball hard, but in terms of trying to place the ball or pass the ball, I couldn’t do that stuff.”
At the end of the season, she met with the coaching staff, who laid out her faults in no uncertain terms. It was an honest exchange that initially left Boyd hurt and angry, but also served as a wake-up call. She confided in Rich, whose learning curve mirrored Boyd’s, her mother and Baker. Over time, she began to take ownership of her mistakes.
Finley jokes that Boyd has no filter when she speaks. But now, she was finally having a blunt conversation with herself. She knew she needed to change. She began working harder in practice and the weight room. Midway through last season, all that painful honesty began to bear fruit.
In the final 16 matches of last season, Boyd was VCU’s best offensive player, averaging 2.70 kills per set while hitting .234, fine marks for an outside hitter.
“I was nonchalant about a lot of things and I realized I wasn’t going to get anywhere doing that,” Boyd said. “It wasn’t good enough for me to be mediocre anymore. I wanted to be the best. I wanted to show people that I could do it. I didn’t want people to give up on me. I didn’t want people to think they were wasting their time.”
Finley knows he’s not wasting his time. He sees the second half of last season as just the tip of the iceberg. After two and a half years of repetitions in practice, Boyd was finally looking like a fluid volleyball player.
“There’s two things that happened,” Finley said. “One is court vision. That started happening for Kristin and that’s what it does, it just happens. And then she’s able to make decisions. Before she was just swinging but didn’t know where the ball was going to go, didn’t have a purpose. And with that, it creates the second thing, which is confidence.”
THE BUS DRIVER
Boyd’s transformation came on so rapidly that she was elected captain by her teammates prior to this season. Not only will they look to her to tomahawk the ball with staggering force, they’ll be looking for Boyd for leadership and to show them how to win.
It’s a position she’s taking to heart. During the offseason, Baker introduced Boyd to The Energy Bus, by Jon Gordon. The book uses a set of rules to stress positive thinking in all aspects of life. The University of California cited the book as one of the major reasons it reached the NCAA Championship last season.
Boyd laid out the premise of the book and its 10 rules to the team, which quickly adopted them. As team captain, Boyd functions as the driver of the bus. She decides whether or not her teammates are bringing enough positive energy in practice and games to “get on the bus.” Finley and several players have already commented on a noticeable change during preseason practices.
“This helps because it helps us stay on each other. It’s not a one person thing and I think that’s really crucial with our team this year,” Boyd said. “It’s not individually-based and we’re coming together more as a team.”
Boyd hopes that as driver of the Energy Bus, she’ll be able to steer the Rams to their first CAA title since 2005. The Rams placed third in the CAA a year ago and fell to eventual champ Delaware in the league semifinals.
As important as attitude, energy and perspective will be to the championship hopes of this year’s team, so too will be the play of Boyd. As an outside hitter, Boyd will be asked to simply score as often as possible. While her underdeveloped passing skills allowed her to only play three rotations in past years, Finley says he expects Boyd to play all six rotations this season.
There will be no shortage of opportunities. VCU ranked sixth in the league in hitting percentage last season (.198), a mark that will have to improve in order to contend. That amounts to additional pressure on Boyd to produce efficiently, but after three season of gradual growth, she’s is ready to step out.
“It’s one thing for somebody to say that you’re gifted and that you have a lot of potential, but if you don’t see it and you don’t believe it, then, it means nothing,” Boyd said. “I think that took me a while to realize.”