What’s the reason behind Virginia Commonwealth’s red-hot start?

The Rams from Richmond, fresh off a 3-0 showing at their own VCU Invitational this past weekend that included a 3-0 sweep of Northwestern (the program’s first win against a Big Ten school), are among the nation’s top teams in blocking (holding a 174-88.5 total blocks advantage over their 15 foes) and a healthy 92-64 service-ace advantage (92 against 86 errors opposed to its opponents’ 64 against 91 errors).

But ask fifth-year VCU coach Jody Rogers the real reason why her team is 13-2 heading into Atlantic-10 Conference play and the holder of a 10-match winning streak for the first time since 2009 and her response has little to do with the Xs and Os of the game or any stat-rat-type numbers.

“When I took over the program I wanted to establish a new culture and buy-in,” said Rogers, who previously was at the University of Indianapolis for 16 years and led that team to the Division II Final Four in 2012. “We wanted to focus on being a great teammate. There’s that saying that you want your teammates to look better than so you can be a great teammate. They have bought into each other and they trust each other.

“A lot of times women have to like each other to play with each other. These young women believe in each other and they fight for each other. That’s contributed to us being successful.”

To help push that team-first mentality forward, Rogers has encouraged her players to read self-help books such as “The Hard Hat: 21 Ways to be a Great Teammate” and “Fred Factor: How Passion in Your Work and Life Can Turn the Ordinary into the Extraordinary.”

“We want them to work on themselves,” said Rogers, whose team was 19-14 in 2016. “What makes a great person is when they make those around them even better. This isn’t just about volleyball. In life you need the support. If you surround yourself with great people you are going to be successful.”

Other off-the-court, team-centric activities of late have included a ropes course at the University of Virginia and a cooking class.

Senior libero Rebekah Strange gets the dig for VCU/Scott K. Brown Photography

“I’m afraid of heights,” said VCU senior libero Rebekah Strange, who is from Avon, Indiana, and played for Circle City. “My group was up on the highest platform. I trusted my teammates to get me through it.”

The cooking class saw the team make a variety of edibles, including chicken tacos, chive smoothies and pancake batter balls.

“The pancake balls were delicious,” Strange said.

Junior middle blocker Tori Baldwin, who is from Liberty, N.C., and played club for Piedmont, added: “The cooking class was amazing. One of the girls didn’t know how to cook. That was a fun experience and a learning experience. It brought us all closer. We’ve finally become a family here. We trust each other and that’s helped us move forward. Everybody is not only showing up on the court but off the court as well. We have girls who are not only great athletes but great people as well.”

VCU coach Jody Rogers has worked hard on team togetherness/Scott K. Brown Photography

Rogers stressed that achieving that type of sincere team cohesiveness does not occur at the snap of a finger or by simply going through the motions at a ropes course.

“We like to do things where they look outside of volleyball and sit with their teammates and figure out a solution and move forward,” she said. “We spend so much time on this aspect, but I will tell you if you put in the time that will pave the way and you will have results. It’s a process and it’s a process that sometimes keeps me up until two or three in the morning looking at it. The girls have bought into it and we’ve taken big steps forward. The girls know what it’s all about. It’s not about winning volleyball matches. It’s about being better people. Winning is great when you see that kind of growth in players.”

Circling back to the technical part of the equation, the Rams are getting contributions around the court. Sophomore setters Dajah Ard and Tyler Sroufe run an offense that has four players with 100 or more kills, led by German Alica Kandler, a senior who averages 2.74 kills per set (145 kills). Kandler previously played at Daytona State College.

Baldwin has 108 kills, is hitting .421 and has 73 total blocks. Sophomore middle Jasmin Sneed leads the team in blocking with 84 total. Strange is the team leader in digs (198) with Kandler right there as well with 120. Sophomore outside Vicky Giommarini and sophomore right side Gina Tuzzolo not only get it done on the kills end (229 combined), but also are the team’s top two servers with 40 combined aces.

“We’re a family,” Baldwin said. “We click as a team. We’ve all gotten better. We’re still a pretty young team. We had a lot of freshmen last year. We’re all starting to prosper and rise as one. We’ve become better players overall.”

VCU opens A-10 play Friday when Rhode Island comes to Richmond. Fordham visits on Sunday. The Rams have not won a conference title since securing the Colonial crown in 2005. The Rams were picked to finish second in the preseason A-10 coaches poll, 15 points behind Dayton. VCU did get one first-place vote.

“That’s a significant time lapse,” Rogers pointed out of the team’s conference title drought. “We set some preseason goals. We wanted to go 10-5 (in the preseason) and the girls did really well with that and superseded it.”

That’s why they’re optimistic.

“We have to stay energetic and keep the right mindset,” Baldwin said. “The main goal right now is to win a ring. Like coach says, ‘We’re on it.’ ”

They know that winning a conference title will be tough.

“We know Dayton is a great program and Rhode Island and St. Louis and Duquesne have very good programs,” Rogers said. “Our expectations every year are to get to the conference championship match and win the conference and go to the NCAA Tournament. That doesn’t change. We’re going to keep working toward those goals.”


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