It took just a few hours after being hired for Benavia Jenkins to reach out to Kaela Massey.
“Everything,” the new coach of the East Tennesse State volleyball team told Massey, the lone senior, “is going to be new.”
In Jenkins, there was a new coach, along with the staff she brought. There was a new trainer. A new SID. A new platoon of seven freshmen, many of whom would be required to play significant roles, including Emily Arnold setting in a 5-1 offense.
“You just don’t see that at the DI level,” Massey said.
The only thing that’s not new is ETSU being at the top of the Southern Conference. The Bucs, 17-3 overall, lead the league at 8-0 and play host to Furman (4-15, 4-4) on Friday.
Jenkins, a hall of fame player at the University of Florida, had been an assistant coach, yes, but never head of a program. Similar to how Massey, an outside hitter, had been a leader on the team prior but never the lone senior.
“I told her up front, ‘I am new to this as a head coach and this is going to be your fourth year, and we’re really going to have to be a tag team. I’m going to have to trust you and you’re going to have to trust me and if we have to do that, this team will follow me. But I’m going to need you as a leader, who the girls respect, I’m going to need you to help me lead this team,’ ” Jenkins told Massey. “I’ve leaned on her and I’m still leaning on her.”
It is no small wonder how in the world this ETSU team is doing so well. One look at the roster, with its 11 underclassmen and Massey, suggests, and rather loudly, “rebuilding year.”
Jenkins would never admit to thinking 2019 would be reduced to that, but when spring practices began a few months ago? It wasn’t the sunniest of outlooks.
There was another piece of the puzzle, too, to figure out: The star of the 2018 ETSU team, 5-11 outside hitter Leah Clayton, who was the SoCon player of the year and finished 50th in the nation in kills per set, transferred to Colorado. Clayton, who is redshirting this season, had 503 kills last season (4.02/set), more than 100 more than her closest teammate, and led the team with 344 digs (2.75/set).
“If you would have asked me how I would have predicted our season during the spring, I would have given you a positive answer, but maybe I wouldn’t tell you that we would be 17-3 right now,” said Jenkins, who had been an assistant at the University of South Florida before accepting the ETSU offer.
“When I came in the spring, we had six players in the gym, I knew I had a huge incoming freshman class, and I knew we were going to be young. I saw a lot of good things in the spring, and that gave me a lot of hope.”
Things started out nicely from the beginning of this season when the Bucs opened 5-1. They lost in five at Coastal Carolina, a team likely to win the Sun Belt. The two other losses were in five at UAB and to the SEC’s Tennessee.
In the SoCon, they’ve only gone five twice, including a big victory the last time out, a 25-21, 25-23, 22-25, 19-25, 15-12 victory last Friday at second-place Samford (14-5, 8-1) that broke a tie at the top of the league. In that match, Massey had 19 kills, hit .421, and added four digs and three blocks, one solo.
Massey, a 6-foot-1 middle from Brentwood, Tennessee, is already just two kills away from tying her 2018 total of 228. She’s not only averaging 3.05/set, she’s hitting .333, is averaging 1.47 digs and leads in blocks with 79, 14 total. She also has a team-high 23 aces.
Olivia Cunningham is having a big season, too. The 5-11 freshman outside from Knoxville has 207 kills (3.51/set), is averaging 1.9 digs and has 20 aces. Lauren Hatch, a 5-10 freshman outside from Homewood, Illinois, has 183 kills, is averaging 2.23 digs, and has 23 blocks, 10 solo.
“No one knew exactly how preseason was going to go and then we started to all mesh really well and we were like ‘OK, we actually got something here,’” Massey, a 6-foot-1 middle blocker, said. “So I think we were all kind of shocked. How are we 8-0? All these other teams have so much experience and five or six out of the seven freshmen play. It’s a really big transition but it’s been great.”
A big help has been freshman setter Emily Arnold, a 5-7 setter out of Louisville, Kentucky. In early October she was named the SoCon setter of the week twice. Against Samford, she had three kills in five errorless attempts, 59 assists, an ace and eight digs. For the season, Arnold has 43 kills, is hitting .391, averages 9.88 assists per set, has 17 aces, is third on the team with 141 digs, and has 16 blocks, one solo.
Since Jenkins arrived on campus, Massey said she’s been in her office every day. It was Jenkins who helped Arnold become more vocal, even if she was a newcomer because, heck, wasn’t everybody a newcomer at this point?
“We don’t have time right now to be afraid of anybody,” Jenkins said. “We were voted to finish fifth in the conference so our biggest thing right now is: You have to shock the doubters.
“Yes, you have a whole different coaching staff, trainer, SID – we’re all new here. But this is the fun part about it. We’re all learning together, we’re growing together. I think they’ve bought into it. They believe in themselves, they believe in us.”