Aug. 13, 2014
By STEVE COTTON
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Once again, the preseason Conference USA poll is providing the Marshall volleyball team with some added drive.
Underestimating Coach Mitch Jacobs’ Thundering Herd has become a league habit.
“The coaches picked us eighth last year and we finished fourth,” said Jacobs, on the eve of his 13th season as the Marshall mentor. “They know our talent and they picked us eighth again this year. “I guess last year we got lucky. Two years ago they picked us 11th, and I guess we were lucky then, too, when we ended up seventh.”
Defending champion UTSA was predicted to repeat, followed by Western Kentucky, Rice and North Texas. Southern Miss, UAB and Middle Tennessee State also topped Marshall in the 13-team poll.
Perhaps opposing C-USA coaches are focused more on what Jacobs’ Herd lost – a significant trio in middle blocker Sacha Byous-McConnell, libero Dorothy Rahal and outside hitter Laura Der – than what Marshall returns. Byous-McConnell and Der both received all-conference recognition in 2013.
Jacobs prefers to focus on what he has coming back, including superlative leadership from senior setter Sammie Bane, a preseason all-league player herself.
“Sammie’s a rock who strives for perfection all the time,” Jacobs said. “She’s always on point, and in her entire life, not just volleyball. Nobody can ever say to her, ‘Don’t tell me to do that, because you’re doing something else.’
“There’s nothing hypocritical about her and there’s no compromise in her. It’s very black or white; you’re either doing it right or you’re not. When she gets on someone it’s because she wants them to be great and for the team to be great.”
Bane’s leadership stood out so much from the very beginning that the Marshall staff made the highly unusual move of making her the team captain midway through her freshman season, at a point that the Herd’s record was 2-14. Marshall won eight of its last 15 matches that year.
“We had two tough, tough years and had kids doing their own thing,” Jacobs said. “We were really struggling.
“But we recognized that we had this freshman who already knew what it meant and how to lead, and we made the unusual decision to make her the team captain in the middle of her freshman year. Things turned around from that very day and we’ve been well over a .500 team since.”
Bane can be counted on as the team’s rock, but she’ll need help.
“Others have to step in and back Sammie,” Jacobs said. “Last year was a leadership utopia for her because she was the captain, as a junior, with a strong group of seniors who completely backed her, making sure everyone stayed in line.
“They’re gone, and Sammie is the only senior this year, so now we need to see that support and leadership from people who have only had to follow up until now. I don’t care how old these next leaders are, if they’re juniors or sophomores, but we need for some of them to emerge.”
Despite having Bane and the three seniors in 2013, the rest of the Marshall roster was extremely young and the team counted heavily on freshmen and sophomores. This year, there’s more overall experience than a year ago and Jacobs is looking at a different style fall camp, which began last Friday.
“Of course, we’re going to be doing a lot of skill work, like we always do, because we pride ourselves on being fundamentally sound,” Jacobs said. “But this year we’ll be focusing more on our block because it can become a big strength for us due our size.
“We’ll be able to focus more on game action in camp this year whereas last year we knew we had to play so many freshman that we spent even more time than normal getting them caught up with skill development.
“We have freshmen who can play this year, but we could also put a lineup out there with no freshmen on the floor if we want to. If the freshmen show that they can play quickly, great.”
The team’s style of play has also undergone a makeover.
“Last year we were dynamic offensively but at times we struggled on defense and when we got beat it was because we were outscored,” Jacobs said. “Despite the fact that we’re going to have some ball control issues at times – Dorothy Rahal was the best passer of serves I’ve ever coached – we should definitely be better defensively. We’ll be bigger and more athletic on the block.
“We’re going to be a different makeup, but we can be as good, or even better than last year. For instance, Ashley Arnold, even if she can’t give us one-third offensively what Sacha was able to do, can score for us defensively like nobody else has. That still gets the job done, just in another way.”
The Marshall season opens August 29-30 with Virginia, Eastern Michigan and Illinois-Chicago coming to Huntington for the Thunder Invitational. Tournaments at Central Michigan, Southern Illinois and Virginia Tech, as well as matches at Eastern Kentucky and against Morehead State also will prepare Jacobs’ team for its September 23 C-USA opener at Charlotte.
“Conference USA is going to be tough,” the Herd coach said. “Last year we improved from the No. 19 RPI conference out of 31 leagues to No. 11, and we can keep moving up. A few years ago we were No. 7 and I think we’re headed back that way.
“There are always losses, but UTSA, for instance, lost the best player in the conference – maybe the best point scorer in America – but has replaced her with a 6-foot-4 player from Serbia who’s supposed to be something special.
“You have Charlotte, picked in the bottom two in the league, but they have a new coach from Turkey and all of a sudden there are two Turkish players on the roster, including the junior national player of the year.
“Each of the last two years we finished four spots higher than we were picked in the preseason. Fourth would be good, but we want better.”
Veteran play-by-play broadcaster Steve Cotton – a nine-time West Virginia Sportscaster of the Year -- is in his 21st season on the Thundering Herd/IMG Sports Network. This story first appeared in this week’s issue of the Herd Insider.