Oct. 3, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - If absence really does make the heart grow fonder, then Marshall volleyball coach Mitch Jacobs and his team certainly appreciate senior Laura Der much more than they already did six weeks ago.
The senior outside hitter's importance to a very young - again this season - Thundering Herd team can be distilled with a few numbers.
With Der on the court, Marshall is 7-4. With the Clarksville, Ind., native on the sidelines, the Herd is 1-5.
So, as Marshall (8-9, 2-0) heads toward its cancer-benefit "Fight Like Hal" two Conference USA dates (Tulane and Louisiana Tech) at Cam Henderson Center on Friday and Sunday, keeping Der on the court is crucial ... even as she deals with pulled muscles in her abdomen.
Her early season absence came after she suffered a concussion in MU's third match of the season, against James Madison in the Jefferson Cup in Charlottesville, Va. It was a feeling more foreign than frightening to Der, after she and teammate Allie Kellerman banged heads in the match.
"Allie's playing right back and we're going for every single ball, and the front of her skull caught me on right side of my head, just above my ear, that soft tissue right there," Der said.
"She got a bump and I remember my head hurt a little bit, but I finished the match. But once we got back on the bus, I was trying to respond to my mom's text messages and it hurt to look at the phone, hurt to focus. The light on the bus, sound from movies playing bothered me."
After she told the symptoms to a trainer, Der was told she had a concussion.
"I'd never had one before," she said. "I had to then go through all of the processes, all the impact testing. I passed those as far as memory and reaction time, but completely failed when they asked me about a symptom. You have to be asymptomatic for 24 hours before you can even start playing, so it was about 10 days I was out."
Der didn't have to be told she needed to sit. She has a 3.9 grade point average, majoring in advertising and taking two minors in sports marketing and Spanish. She will graduate in May. The degree of difficulty was something new to the fourth-year Herd starter, however.
"It was more painful than the concussion for me, honestly, because it's my senior season," she said. "I've got such a sense of urgency. I've only got 50 days left. A freshman's perspective is, `I'm only on Day 50, I have three more years.' I've got 50 days left before my volleyball career comes to a close.
"And if it were my ankle or my knee we could suck it up, tape it, treat it, move on. But it's my brain. You can't lie about your brain. You need that for the rest of your life and you don't want to mess with that."
Der is one of three seniors on a team that also has a three-year starter at setter in junior Sammie Bane. But about half of Jacobs' roster is rookies. Der said it's not an unfamiliar feeling.
"It seems as if all four years we've had a young team," Der said when asked if this Herd group was different to her. "My freshman year, there were seven of us freshmen, much like this class, with three seniors. My freshman year was very similar, almost an exact replica.
"My sophomore year we had one senior. We were young again last year. This season, we do have three seniors in starting positions (Der, libero Dorothy Rahal, middle blocker Sacha Byous-McConnell), and Sam, a junior setter in just a great leadership role. Honestly, some of these freshmen have stepped up really huge for us.
"Being young can be good, too, because these freshmen haven't had that wear and tear on their bodies of college volleyball for three years, so they can just come in and completely steamroll some of us who feel really old sometimes. The freshmen have a great energy about them, and it's really all mixed well this season; we've all become really good friends.
"We had the 29th-ranked recruiting class my freshman year, but some of those girls didn't stay. This freshman class, as far as stepping in and playing huge roles right away, this is the best freshman class I've seen. Sammie came in and took over that setter role as a freshman with poise, grace and absolute leadership. We have freshmen contributing in different positions ... there are middles and right sides that have really stepped up huge. So, for those positions, I think these are the best freshmen we've had."
It seems she figured a lot out very early at Marshall. In her three-plus years on campus, Der has only one B and one C, the rest A's. And the kind of maturity Jacobs says Der brings to his team is reflected in what she says about her lowest grade and how she reacted to it back in the fall 2010 semester.
"The one C came my freshman year, first semester," Der said. "I came in as a biology major, and took a chemistry class my first semester; I wanted to pursue pharmacy. Well, it's first semester, all new, and I'm gone all the time playing volleyball.
"I thoroughly enjoyed the lab, the experiments and all the testing -- got an A in there -- but I remember sitting in my chemistry lecture, thinking, I don't understand any of this because I wasn't there for this. And we had four tests and a final and those were the only grades in the class.
"I hated sitting in class, didn't want to go, and finally asked myself did I really want to do this the rest of my life? Pharmacy is a great field, there's a lot of promise there, can be great financially, but I just wasn't happy. And my parents told me you're not going to be happy, don't waste four years of your life doing it
"After my first semester, I looked at a course catalog, narrowed it down to five things, then decided to take the road of athletic training split with exercise diet, or advertising/marketing. I decided to take the sports marketing role because then I could still be around sports, which I love, but on the business and marketing side, where I'm headed."
As the Herd plays its way through a C-USA with plenty of new faces - a trip to south Florida for wins over FIU and FAU last weekend was a first for Der - the preseason all-conference pick is trying to enjoy the moment while winning with a lot of new teammates.
"This being my senior year, all I'll ever play these teams is once, maybe twice if meet in the conference tournament," Der said. "So that's something we think about ... we've got one shot and that's the kind of do-or-die mentality we have on the court now.
"We went down to Miami with the idea we don't want to lose to these guys, not, `We'll get `em next time,' because there might not be a next time."
# # #
The Herd's cancer-benefit weekend games at The Cam are dubbed "Fight Like Hal," in honor of late UAB assistant volleyball coach Hal Messersmith, who died this summer after a two-year battle with colon cancer. Messersmith's wife, Kerry, is the UAB head coach.
Jacobs and the late Messersmith were longtime volleyball friends, and the Herd coach wanted his program to devote its efforts toward all forms of cancer with the special "Purple Games" weekend.
All fans who wear purple to the Friday and Sunday games will be admitted through the gates for $1.
On football Homecoming weekend, Jacobs' team faces Tulane on Friday night at 7, then goes against Louisiana Tech on Sunday at 1 p.m. Marshall will wear special purple jerseys, which will then be available via a silent auction during games, with all funds raised going to the American Cancer Society.
Purple is the ribbon color representing all cancer awareness, and several C-USA schools have cancer awareness promotions this season in honor of Messersmith.