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Janelle Sykes (left) prepares to sign a professional volleyball contract with Azeryol Baku earlier this month.

Janelle Sykes (left) prepares to sign a professional volleyball contract with Azeryol Baku earlier this month.

RICHMOND, Va. – The early days of Janelle Sykes’ foray into serious volleyball didn’t exactly foretell a bright future.

The Clifton, Virginia native largely muddled through three years of volleyball at Trinity Christian School, and when she finally found her way into the development-friendly club program at NVVA in Sterling, Virginia, she didn’t come bounding out of the blocks.

On the first day of practice with NVVA’s 17-1s club, the 6-foot-3 Sykes dislocated her thumb blocking a ball during a scrimmage, in large part, she says, due to poor fundamentals. She didn’t get near the game floor again for weeks as she worked almost exclusively on footwork.

Today, five years removed from her underwhelming club debut, Sykes can call herself a professional volleyball player. Two weeks ago, the 2015 VCU graduate signed a one-year contract (with an mutual second-year option) with Azeryol Baku of Azerbaijan’s Super League.

Azerbaijan, which is located on the Caspian Sea, east of Turkey, isn’t widely known in the United States, and even Sykes admitted she had to locate the country on a map, but the country’s Super League is well-regarded in Europe. Sykes will depart later this summer.

“Right now I’m pretty excited,” Sykes, a middle blocker, said. “I’m sure as it gets closer, I’ll be more anxious about it.”

Sykes’ transformation from an awkward gym-class plodder to a professional volleyball player in five years is remarkable. She was a walk-on during her first two years at VCU. This season, she was named First Team All-Atlantic 10 and First Team All-State. She ranks sixth in school history in blocks (345).



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Before you watch this video, let me make one thing clear: While I did attempt to play volleyball, I did not attempt to wear the volleyball uniform. Nobody needs that at lunchtime.

Now that I’ve had time to reflect, I’m pretty salty that my bar league volleyball career, circa 2001, did not adequately prepare me for Tuesday’s VCU Volleyball practice, nor did it warm me that my rotator cuff would be barking 24 hours later.

Come out and see real volleyball players (actual good ones) on Friday when the Rams host Dayton at 7 p.m. at the Siegel Center. Dayton, I assume, did not ask its SID to suit up. You’ll have to show up Friday to find out. I’ll be safely out of harms way, keeping stats and making Twitter jokes.


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Senior setter Cecilia Aragao has returned from a torn ACL to lead VCU this season.

Senior setter Cecilia Aragao has returned from a torn ACL to lead VCU this season.

RICHMOND, Va. – There is little evidence left of the torn ACL that derailed VCU Volleyball setter Cecilia Aragao’s junior season, other than the big, bulky, black knee brace, that is.

While the brace is hard to miss, Aragao doesn’t look much different from the player that was midway through one of the best seasons by a VCU setter before it came undone in an instant. That’s good news for VCU, which needs Aragao’s smooth playmaking skills more than ever this season.

Aragao, a senior and four-year starter from Recife, Brazil has reestablished herself as one of the best setters in the Atlantic 10 and perhaps the East Coast with her play during the first half of this season.

It’s not just Aragao’s ability to direct Rogers’ quick-set offense that places her among the best at her position. It’s that Aragao can impact nearly every facet of the match. While she’s compiled more than 3,500 assists during her career, Aragao is the first VCU setter to record more than 300 blocks. She’s also booked more than 300 kills and 800 digs.

Behind Aragao, one of just two seniors on this year’s squad, the Rams (10-9, 3-2 A-10) have won eight of 10 matches and find themselves in a position to contend for an A-10 title. But it wasn’t long ago that she wondered if she’d be able to command an offense again.

On Oct. 2, 2013, Aragao suffered her season-ending ACL tear in a match against Hampton. While she was giving chase to a loose ball, Aragao rolled her ankle and then her knee. In 12 years of competitive volleyball, she’d says she’d never suffered a major injury. She knew immediately this time was different.



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The new Siegel Center scoreboard is up, and it’s glorious. Fans can have their first chance to see it up close Friday or Sunday at the VCU Volleyball team’s matches (the Rams are also home next weekend). You can also drop by the Black and Gold Game – VCU’s intrasquad men’s basketball scrimmage – on Oct. 26.


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Yesterday, we dropped by the Siegel Center to check on the installation of the new centerhung scoreboard and the sound system. Things are progressing nicely. Check it out.


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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.


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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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.


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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.


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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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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).


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