Aug 23, 2013
By STEVE COTTON
Herd Insider Columnist
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Fall camp had barely begun this month and Marshall volleyball Coach Mitch Jacobs already was dreading the thought of having to replace this season's three seniors.
"If they do what we expect them to do, and what they expect of themselves, the loss of this year's senior class will be as devastating as any class that we've lost," said the Herd coach on the eve of his 12th season at Marshall.
That's how much the triumvirate of middle blocker Sacha Byous-McConnell, outside hitter Laura Der and libero Dorothy Rahal means to Jacobs and the Herd as the coach compares them favorably to some of the best leaders in Marshall history.
"We had good leadership in 2009," Jacobs said of a team that went 22-9 (10-6 C-USA). "But the last time we had this kind of leadership in place, I would say, was 2007 (23-9, 15-1 and C-USA regular-season champs).
"Prior to that, the 2005 team (26-6, 15-1 and C-USA regular season and tournament champs) had the best leadership I've ever had in all my years of coaching. The question remains whether this team will go out and get the job done like those others did, but having great leaders gives you a chance to have a special year."
Jacobs gives his senior trio much of the credit for the team's rebound from 10-win seasons in 2010 and 2011 to last year's 18-13 record, when Marshall also improved to 8-8 in conference play and advanced to the league tournament, far outpacing the preseason prognostications.
It is the culmination of a plan Jacobs implemented during their recruiting process in an effort to jumpstart the Herd back to the days of 20-win seasons and title contention.
and Dorothy Rahal
committed to Marshall the first day we offered them scholarships," Jacobs said." Marshall was the place they wanted to be and as soon as we offered it was done.
"I got to the point that while you need to convince kids that Marshall is the right place for them, you don't want to then keep having to convince them every day from then on that they made the right choice.
"I wanted people who were as excited to be here as we are to have them here and that's what they brought in."
Der, Rahal and Byous-McConnell all logged significant playing time as freshmen and have been on the floor as long as they were healthy since then. Last season, Der finished in the top 25 nationally in kills (4.3 per set), despite being undersized for an outside hitter at 5 feet 9, and is a preseason C-USA selection this season.
"That tells you a lot right there, 5-9," Jacobs said. "She does it by just `bringing it' every night. Most importantly, it's that attitude that's coming back for us."
That senior leadership is crucial, too, on a roster that has 10 players (of 15) who are freshmen or sophomores.
After a couple of years where Jacobs said it was a battle to get the team to buy into one focus, this year's seniors started to change his team's outlook from the onset even though the process took time.
"They have loved being a part of the Herd through the good and the bad," Jacobs said. "They have the attitude of, `Let's conquer.'
"They do it in their own ways - Laura Der says, `Let's conquer what's on the other side of that door,' even before she knows what's there because she's always excited for a new challenge. Sacha wants one of the others to go look at what's on the other side of the door and come back and tell her about it first, but then she's in, too, just as much as anyone.
"It took time to learn how all the parts work, but the common ground is that they're all in and as a coach that's what makes it fun."
Jacobs also benefits from what great leaders leave behind.
"They also have the desire to leave a legacy," he said. "They want the next group of players to care about Marshall volleyball as much as they do.
"We have players who others gravitate to and they're willing to lead, and you want that to keep going. We have a junior setter in Sammie Bane who's already a leader, too. We have young players and freshmen coming in who have those same traits. They can be leaders, but they're new at this point and that needs to be nurtured in them, but it's in there."
That's critical for a program moving into a Conference USA era in which volleyball could be one of the league's shining gems.
"The new-look Conference USA is crazy good," Jacobs said. "Florida Atlantic will quickly become one of the top teams in this league - if not this year, then soon. FIU was hit extremely hard by injuries last year so they didn't have a good record, but they're super talented. Both of those schools are poised to be NCAA-level teams at some point.
"The Texas schools are all tough. North Texas won its division in the Sun Belt. UTSA was second in its league and has everybody back including the league's Player of the Year. UTEP brings everybody back, and Rice is picked to win the league. Middle Tennessee has been traditionally strong, then the following year we add a good Western Kentucky program.
"The new Conference USA is a league that could consistently go five deep in getting teams to the NCAA Tournament."
Yet Jacobs knows that his team, led by Byous-McConnell, Der and Rahal, won't back down from anyone.
"They play with a chip on their shoulder," he said. "They have the attitude that it doesn't matter how tough things are or what obstacles we have to overcome -- just find a way to make it happen.
"I couldn't feel any better than knowing it starts for us with those three seniors."
The Herd opens Aug. 30-31 with three matches in Virginia's Jefferson Cup, in Charlottesville.
Marshall has 11 home dates at the Henderson Center. The home opener is Sept. 10 against East Tennessee State.