Photo Illustration by Soren Frantz

Nine first-year players and just eight combined sophomores, juniors and seniors — that’s the roster for your 2020-21 Keene State College women’s volleyball team.

For the first time since 2014, more than half of the players on the KSC volleyball team went into this season having never played in a college volleyball match, which could make this coming KSC volleyball season as unique and as unpredictable as any we have witnessed before. Of the nine first-year players, there are three liberos (Reagan Fleming, Kelsey Harper and Jillian Diamond), two setters (Josephine Sarno and Kacie Blanchet), two middle blockers (Sara Murphy and Veronica Kroha) and two right-sided hitters (Ainsley Hegg and Cassidy Samuelson), giving the team plenty of depth in all areas of their roster.

While it may seem like a disadvantage having a team full of first-year players, history shows that having a young team hasn’t stopped KSC volleyball from succeeding before. Numbers-wise, this year’s roster almost perfectly mirrors the 2014 KSC volleyball team, which consisted of nine first-years and eight combined sophomores, juniors and seniors as well. That team ended their season with an overall record of 20 wins and 16 losses, making it all the way to the semi-finals of the Little East Conference Tournament as the number three seed.

And so far this year, through two intrasquad scrimmages, it’s looking like this new set of first-year players are forces to be reckoned with as well. Through the two scrimmages so far, at least one first-year player is near the top of each of the volleyball team’s three major statistical categories (kills, digs and assists). Samuelson has 20 kills, the fourth most on the team, and one of the highest hitting percentages on the team, while Kroha isn’t too far behind her with 14 kills. Hegg has 41 digs, the second most on the team, and Fleming and Harper are right behind her with 39 and 37, respectively. Lastly, Blanchet leads the team’s three setters in assists with 67, while Sarno has 32.

“I’m very, very impressed with the way we were playing in both of our scrimmages,” said Sarno, one of the two first-year setters. “Yes, it’s not on the record and stats don’t really matter, but we took those scrimmages very, very seriously. Some of us had a bad day maybe or something got into our heads, but that’s expected, and I think we all played to the best of our ability and it was a lot of fun.”

When choosing where to go to college, volleyball programs were a deciding factor for each of the nine first-year players, and they all had plenty of different paths that led them to Keene State. The first-years came to Keene State from many different parts of the northeastern United States, with two coming from Massachusetts, two from Connecticut, two from New York, two from Michigan and only one originally from New Hampshire. However, while they’re all from different areas for the most part, a few of the first-years said that Bob Weiner, the head coach of the Keene State volleyball team, found them on the same recruiting website, and invited them to come visit KSC’s campus. Then, the minute each of them came to Keene State to visit, they knew it was the college for them.

“I was on the Next College Student Athlete (NCSA) page for colleges to look at me, and there were a bunch of college coaches emailing me because of my club team, they always came to watch me,” said Cassidy Samuelson, one of the right sided hitters. “I went to so many visits with other schools, I met with other coaches, but they weren’t the right fit. Then I went to Keene State to visit and right when I stepped foot on campus I felt at home right away. Everyone here is so welcoming, the community’s great, I feel so safe in it. When I met with coach he was super nice and outgoing, and that’s what I like because I’m a very shy person until people get to know me. He showed me around campus, I met with all the team and I just loved it here. That’s when I knew this was the right school for me.”

“I also went through NCSA,” said Kelsey Harper, a first-year libero. “Ainsley [Hegg] and I are both from Michigan, I’m from the Flint area. So for a while I was just looking at schools that were in my region, like in Ohio, Indiana, or schools that are actually in Michigan. Before I went to Keene State I was going to commit to Oberlin College in Ohio. But one day I got an email from Coach Weiner and he was like, ‘Hey, I just saw your NCSA page, I really like you, I want you to come visit.’ So two weeks later I flew out. I’ve always wanted to be away from Michigan just because it’s always what I’ve known and my community is very sheltered, nobody really went out of my hometown, so I wanted to get my own experience. So the fact that it was so far away and that the community is very welcoming was great. Coach Weiner is a very outgoing guy, he’s a talker and I love to talk, we worked out really well together. The program was super good as far as I could tell when I visited. I flew home and committed the day I got home, I knew it was the place for me.”

“I was also on the NCSA website and one day I was checking it, going through my emails before a tournament and I got the craziest email from this random coach all the way out in New Hampshire,” Hegg said, referring to Weiner. “Most of them are very professional like, ‘Hi, nice to meet you, let me introduce myself,’ and this one started off like, ‘If I can send you a message in a bottle, or a pigeon, or if I could throw a brick all the way to you, let me know if you get this email.’ I thought it was so crazy and weird, but it was something I totally felt like I could fit into. We got to talking after a while and I was thinking there was no way I was ever going to make it halfway across the country. But suddenly he was like, ‘Why don’t you just come visit, check it out, if you hate it don’t come here, if you love it come here.’ So eventually I was able to convince my parents. We dropped everything, we came out here, we toured and hung out. I really loved the community and environment and I met a ton of people on my overnight and I thought that coach [Weiner] was great, he was very welcoming, all the girls on the team were very welcoming.”

Although the talent in this group of first-year players is evident, each of them still have struggles that they’re dealing with in their first year of collegiate volleyball, whether they are physical, mental, emotional or performance-related problems. As they work through their first season, Weiner has been helping the first-year players with their issues, and a lot of them are getting better.

“Back at home, I came from a high school that was a horrible volleyball program,” Samuelson said. “We haven’t won a game in 17 years. My coaches were only there for the money, they didn’t know anything about volleyball, I was practically the coach of my high school team, it was horrible. So when I got to Keene and coach [Weiner] looked at my footing, he told me that I had the wrong footwork when I’m taking my approach for when I hit, which I never knew because that’s what I got taught in high school. It’s been hard for me because I’ve been doing the wrong thing for like five years. It’s hard for me to change that when I’ve been doing it my whole life. That’s been difficult, and they’ve been on me about it too, they’re like, ‘Watch your feet, watch your feet.’ I’m the type of person to get in my head, and when I get in my head I shut down. So when I hear that, I automatically shut down and it’s tough for me. It’s been a hard challenge for me and I hope to fix it soon enough, but it’s going to take time.”

“My junior year, I suffered an ACL injury and I was out for nine months,” Harper said. “When I came back my senior year of high school season, I didn’t play whatsoever. I had a really bad coach, my confidence has really just taken a beating. Then I ended up going into my club season my senior year, which obviously got cut short [due to COVID-19], but I was also re-learning how to bring my confidence back up and my coach was never there. So it was a very hard way for me to improve the way I was thinking of myself, because there was no one there to assist me. When I got to Keene, in the first couple of practices I felt myself getting frustrated, and when I get frustrated I tend to shut down and internalize a lot of my feelings. So I talked to coach [Weiner] in his office, and I told him, ‘I haven’t felt comfortable playing volleyball in like two years. And as much as I love it, and I really, really do, I don’t enjoy it because I feel like I don’t do well.’ So he said, ‘Okay, that’s really helpful for me to know.’ Ever since then, he’s really, really helping me out on building my confidence back up and making sure that I’m doing things to the best of my ability and I’m not becoming burnt out.”

“Right before I came I was super excited, but then, out of nowhere, I fell and they thought I had a seizure,” Hegg said. “Originally, I wasn’t sure if I was going to tell coach [Weiner], I didn’t want him to be freaked out about having this girl from halfway across the country come play and all of a sudden start having seizures and stuff. But we had a Zoom and I talked to him about it. I told him, ‘I don’t want anything to change, I still want to come, I still want to do my thing.’ He told me, ‘As long as you’re okay, I’m all for it.’ He was on the same side as me and really understanding about it. It definitely made me feel more comfortable having that conversation with him because he was very much open to figuring it out as we go.”

“In high school club [volleyball] I was an outside hitter, and I was probably the shortest on the team, but I could get away with it in high school because not everyone did the extra training and not everyone was fully committed, it was more like a hobby,” said Jillian Diamond, who now plays libero on the KSC volleyball team. “But now everyone’s obviously serious if you’re playing at the college level, so it’s harder to play. We have other insanely good outside hitters, like Ali McLoughlin, she’s literally All Conference First Team. So I haven’t been able to play that position much, which obviously I can’t blame, I get that completely, I wouldn’t play me either there. So I’ve been having to work more back row and try to strengthen my skills back there, so it’s been a change and I’m adjusting.”

Now, as the nine first-year players await the start of their first season of volleyball at Keene State College, they all have very similar goals in their mind as to what they want to accomplish in their four years with the team.

“I think my overall goal as we grow older and continue in our next four years is to make everybody feel welcomed and know that they have a spot on the team,” Harper said. “I want to make sure that we’re together and having a good time. Even though we are playing at the college level, we just want to make sure that everybody is enjoying their time at Keene State and not dreading going to practice or dreading having a game.”

“I think the overall thing is to make sure everyone feels like a part of the team and make sure they’re never dreading coming to practice or a game,” Diamond said as well. “I’m excited this team is so put together, even just playing each other is such intense competition. I’m excited to have good records and good seasons and not going into a game thinking, ‘Eh, we’ll probably lose.’”

“My goal is to keep us all unified, but also on the court is to make sure everybody’s happy and lift them up, motivate people on the court no matter where I am, on the court or off the court,” said Sarno. “Even during practices, keep motivating everybody and make sure that they’re not like digging themselves into a hole. If I do notice that somebody’s getting in their head, just pat them on the shoulder. I always want to be there for people and make sure they know I’m an open person and that they can talk to me.”

Furthermore, Sarno not only wants the current first-years on the Keene State volleyball team to be welcoming to other new players in the future, but she also believes that she and her fellow first-year players will be even bigger forces to be reckoned with on the court when they are all seniors.

“I think a benefit of having such a large freshman class is that if we all stick in it and if we all stay, then by our senior year we’re going to be a very, very strong team,” Sarno said. “I’m guessing most of us would be starting in our senior year and dominating compared to other teams. We’re going to have a very, very strong team our senior year.”

 

Matt Holderman can be contacted:

at mholderman@kscequinox.com

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