Nov. 13, 2005
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -
By Matt Riley
They've been waiting for a long time to get to where they are today.
The wait took four years, but now it's finally over.
Four years for three special players to finally be on top, but it's definitely been worth the wait for Amber Sims, Nickie Sanlin and Katie Stein.
The 2005 senior class of the Thundering Herd volleyball team has helped bring the program to new heights in the last four years, but it's been a long building process. A year-by-year procedure that has seen ups and downs, successes and disappointments. Now, as they head toward the final weeks of their careers wearing the Green and White, Stein, Sanlin and Sims are set to lead the Herd to destiny.
Already the senior class has guided the 2005 squad to its most successful season perhaps of all-time. After all, the Herd clinched the Conference USA regular season title a week early. The team has been ranked on top of the Midwest Region for the last five weeks, its RPI has reached numbers it's never seen before and now the team is even getting votes in the top 25 poll.
See, it wasn't too long ago when all of this wouldn't have been impossible. In fact, before the arrival of head coach Mitch Jacobs along with Stein and Sims, the Thundering Herd was thunderless, winning only 10 matches in two seasons combined. Sanlin, a fifth-year senior was here then and got a year back after knee surgery, and the Fairveiw Heights, Ill., native can attest to those not-so-good days.
"I think it's pretty unbelievable now when you look back on it for us to have come to this point from where we were," Sanlin said. "I guess it really just took believing in coach's system when he got here. At first we were like `who is this guy' and it took awhile to buy into his system. Now, we've got a group that buys into the system. Everybody is believing now. Nobody is questioning anything. I think that's why we're so successful now, because it's all about believing."
And the believing had to start with the current senior class.
"Amber, Nickie and I have been through so much together," Stein said. "To go through this complete turn-a-round, we had to trust each other and believe in what we can do. Each one of us balanced the other out, that's why it's easy to lead this team. We each know our role."
The three captains definitely must be doing something right.
"We could not be the team we are today without Nickie, Katie and Amber," sophomore libero Maggie Arias said. "They are committed to this team and willing to do whatever it takes to get things done. They are the best leaders any team could ask for."
But Stein says it's the current group of players that makes the difference.
"Everyone on this team has the same motivations and desire to win," she said. "They make it easy to lead because we all have the same ambition and that's to win every night and go home with a title."
And a title they already have, this 2005 team is the first team to capture a conference regular season championship since 1996 when the Herd won the Southern Conference regular season crown. The current class at Marshall is also the only one in the modern history of Herd volleyball to put together four-straight 20-win seasons. It was done in the late 1970s by teams coached by Marshall Hall of Famer Linda Holmes when matches were best out three and teams played double the total of matches that are played today.
"I'm excited beyond belief to see what they've done," said Holmes, the winningest coach in Thundering Herd volleyball history. "It such a great turn-a-round for them to have come from where they were a few years ago to win a conference championship. They've gained so much respect and have such a commitment to winning. It's amazing to sit back and watch what this program has become."
Even with a regular season conference championship, the three seniors and the rest of the Thundering Herd are not about to lose sight of the task at hand.
Next week, Marshall will head to Houston, Texas as the No. 1 seed in the C-USA Tournament and the Herd won't be content with just a regular season crown. After two seasons of disappointment by losing in the Mid-American Conference finals to Ohio and coming up short of making an NCAA Tournament appearance, the Herd is hungry to claim tournament gold.
"Honestly, I'm sick of being in second place," Stein said. "I'm ready to win a championship and leave Marshall with a title. I'll do anything within myself and within the team to get that done. It would be a dream come true to play in an NCAA Tournament."
"It's been such a progression these last four years," she said. "Each year we've gotten better, but came up a little bit short. This year we're even better and there's a sense of accomplishment in winning the regular season, but there's still more to work for. No one is going to hand the championship over to us. I'm pumped to be there and see how it plays out next week."
First things first, the Herd will take on Memphis on Senior Day, Sunday at 1 p.m. in the Cam Henderson Center. The same Memphis Tigers that handed the Herd its only loss in Conference USA play this season. So the Herd will be out for redemption as well as honoring some of the most decorated players in its history.
"Obviously, the numbers of this class speak for themselves," Jacobs said. "This is probably the most prolific class ever for Marshall volleyball when you think about it. We're going to miss them terribly, but we still have work to do. I'm excited about this weekend and can't wait to see this team strive for its goals at the tournament."
The numbers do indeed speak for themselves, starting with Stein.
The senior setter from Sussex, Wisc., has most definitely etched her place in Marshall volleyball history. Stein broke the Marshall career records for service aces and assists this season and her totals continue to climb. For her career, Stein now has 194 service aces and 5,717 assists. Stein is also fourth in career digs. The senior setter from Sussex, Wis., is currently sixth in the nation in assists per game and 13th in aces per game for the season and she also leads C-USA in those categories.
Sims will finish her career as the third-most prolific blocker in Herd history. She currently has 408 total career blocks. Sims is also fourth in career service aces. The Ney, Ohio, native became just the sixth player in Marshall history to eclipse the 1,000 career kill plateau this season and she will also finish her career in the top five in hitting percentage at Marshall.
Last but not least, Nickie Sanlin will finish her career as one of the top six blockers in Marshall history. Sanlin has 295 career blocks. The middle from Fairview Heights, Ill., leads the Herd in hitting percentage this season with a clip of .368 coming into the weekend. Sanlin broke the Marshall individual match hitting percentage record earlier this year when she went for an .857 mark against Seton Hall with 12 kills, zero errors on 14 swings.
"To be honest, you don't really think about the numbers," Sims said. "I didn't really know where I stand in those categories and it'll be nice to look back on and say `wow, I did have a good career,' but what I really care about is how the team is doing and just going out there and trying to help win a championship and go to the NCAA Tournament."
An NCAA Tournament for Marshall in volleyball? What used to be a joke is now almost a reality.
If Marshall can win the Conference USA Tournament it will get an automatic bid, if it stumbles, its record is so good that it should make it in anyway.
"We've been waiting all our lives to make the NCAA Tournament," Stein said. "That would be an absolute dream come true. Hopefully we can make it happen. This is our last chance so it's now or never, do, or die trying."