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BOGACZYK: Lemons, Conley Bring AAU Success to Herd

Lemons (left) and Conley
Aug. 14, 2015

By JACK BOGACZYK
HERDZONE.COM COLUMNIST
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. --
Doc Holliday has Florida. Dan D'Antoni has been heading to eastern Europe. Matt Daniel bird-dogs for talent in-state and the Tri-State. John Mercer's prospecting has a United Nations feel.

But among Marshall coaches, it's Mitch Jacobs who might have the most built-in recruiting territory. Jacobs, the veteran Thundering Herd volleyball coach, lands players from his own program.

Huh?

Jacobs also operates the River Cities Thunder Volleyball Club, which back in June made a splash in the AAU Nationals in Orlando, Fla. In the 18-and-under Club bracket, the Thunder went 10-2 and advanced farther in the bracket than any West Virginia team in history.

A third-place AAU Nationals finish helped Thunder teammates Shelby Conley and Kassidy Lemons to AAU All-America status.

Guess who make up half of the Herd's 2015 recruiting class?

Conley, from Paintsville, Ky., and Lemons, of Prichard, W.Va., feel like they had a leg up in joining the Herd for preseason workouts this week.

Why not? Besides Jacobs, MU assistant coaches Taylor Strickland and Matt Jackson also coach in the River Cities Thunder program.

"Finishing the way we did in Nationals was a pleasant surprise," Lemons said. "We really stepped up our game, played more together than we ever had before."

Conley figured "maybe it came down people really thinking this is going to be our last tournament together."

While Lemons and Conley say their run to a Nationals third-place finish surprised them, they say the competition played -- plus the added familiarity with Jacobs and his Herd program -- only helps them now.

"Playing at such a high level definitely makes the transition to this level easier," said the 5-foot-11 Conley, who also starred at Johnson Central High School. "Division I college volleyball ... if I just went from high school volleyball to here, there'd be a huge gap. Most people would think it's impossible. You could do it, but it would just be a lot harder.

 

 

"The practices and conditioning we do -- in club volleyball and here -- are somewhat similar, but college is still another step above. Knowing the coaches, it helps a lot, too. You know what things to say, when to shut up, when to nod and say `OK,' when to do this, when to do that."

"And you feel like you're not going in blind. You know some of the players. It's not like, `I wonder what she's going to be like, or what she's going to be like or how she's going to act?' You have a feel for that."

The 5-7 Lemons was an outside hitter and two-time Class AAA All-State pick at Spring Valley High School. She's making the transition to defensive specialist with the Herd.

"The experience of playing for our club team and then coming here, it just makes you more comfortable," Lemons said. "Some of our other freshmen coming in have talked about being nervous and I say I'm kind of already used to it. So, it's nice to have that confidence; you don't have to worry about messing up, you just play.

"A lot of the drills are the same from club to here, too. Well, they are, but it's another level; and they're more difficult. It's the same basic drills, but something's added, like a faster pace. There was one we ran the other day and it was a lot the same ... It's hard to explain, but it's like another level up, definitely more uptempo."

The arrival of Lemons and Conley in the Herd program follows that of River Cities alumni Cassie Weaver and Taylor Riedel, both MU juniors, and senior Lauren Legge. Jacobs' daughter, Jayden, also was on the third-place AAU Nationals club and is a freshman setter at Concord University.

Jacobs personally coached the U18 Thunder team. The roster included players from Cabell and Putnam counties, plus Conley, from eastern Kentucky.

"Kassidy started with us when she was 13, Shelby when she was 14," Jacobs said. "They were on the same team for three years and then Kassidy's basketball got in the way a little bit and she took off her junior year, but came back. Volleyball was always her first love.

"Kassidy was an outside hitter for (River Cities), very dynamic, just a little undersized, but she's super-fast, all-everything. We are looking at Kassidy as a defensive specialist, but an offensive threat out of the back row. She has great ball control skills and one of the reasons she is so great in that role is she has a cannon of a jump serve. We didn't face anybody throughout the junior club season that hits a harder jump serve than she does. That's huge for us here.

"Shelby is a pin hitter, played quite a bit of middle when she was young but we moved her to right or left side. She's bigger and jumps really well. She has to develop, but we're looking her on the left side, hoping she develops into that left-side attacker. She can play right side, too, really any of the three net spots."

So, what does it mean to his Herd program to have his Thunder club team go as deep as it did in AAU Nationals?

"Since we got here (to Marshall) in 2002 and started the club -- we played in the spring of 2003 -- we've been trying to create a volleyball culture and it's been a long time coming," said Jacobs, who is 421-287 in 22 seasons as a collegiate coach. "When you're coming in, you realize right away volleyball is at the end of the line when parents are thinking, `Hey, my daughter's athletic; what can she do?' But that's not really the case anymore.

"I think what really started things was the first breakthrough kid was Lauren Legge. We've had other kids from the area come in and play, but Lauren was the first real breakthrough from our club, growing up in our club, playing here, and she's our top returning scorer.

"Since Lauren, it's gotten even more beautiful, but still when you recruit them, you don't know how many are going to help us. But since Lauren, we've had Taylor Riedel, Cassie Weaver; we've got Kassidy and Shelby just coming in. They're all part of the plan to help us win Conference USA."

Jacobs continues to recruit his own club, which has five travel teams (ages 14-18) plus a Sunday league in which all of the teams are coached by current Herd players.

The Herd opens the 2015 season Aug. 28-29 at the Morehead State Invitational, and plays its first home match Sept. 1 against Eastern Kentucky at the Henderson Center. As Jacobs' team prepares, Conley and Lemons have learned there's a difference from just a few months ago.

"You definitely have to change the way you think about playing on the court," Conley said. "From high school and even club, you know pretty much where people are going to play and where they'll be. Here, you have to think about tempo and all kinds of formations before you actually start playing." Lemons has noticed that Marshall practices are louder, too.

"In club ball, we would just have a kind of `telepathy thing; we wouldn't talk to one another as much," Lemons said. "Where now with Marshall, you have to constantly talk the entire time and that's more difficult for me because I'm not a very loud person.

"I'm thinking things, have them in my head, and don't say it. Now, you have to talk the entire time or it's going to be chaos. There's also a higher level of blocking, reading the block, things you don't see in club."

They've gone from AAU All-Americans to division I rookies, and Lemons and Conley agree on something else, too.

"I'm just trying to earn their respect," Lemons said of her older teammates as Conley nodded. "We just want to find our place."

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