Coaches always dare to hope –- but hardly expect –- their NCAA women’s college volleyball rosters to assemble in perfect harmony.
However, you probably can’t find a volleyball lineup more in tune than the group at Radford, which has won 12 of its first 13 matches in 2017 and looks to be as skilled and savvy as any in the Big South Conference. The Highlanders are off to a 2-0 start in league play, are steaming toward their fourth 20-win season in five years, and have broken into the VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll presented by the NIVC.
Coach Marci Jenkins has carefully crafted a team that is experienced but not senior-heavy, and ready to win now without leaving the future a complete question mark. The lineup typically includes a mix of juniors and seniors, with a sophomore and freshman starting, and features a classic 6-foot kill-shot machine in the form of senior Maddie Palmer.
Last year’s Big South player of the year is swinging with style again, leading the team in kills and digs, and is comfortably ahead of the pace needed to become the program’s all-time kills leader by the end of 2017.
In 2016, Palmer had 495 kills, 266 more than her closest teammate, and averaged 4.5 kills per set. In her first 13 matches this season, the product of Simpsonville, S.C, Palmer has picked up right where she left off, averaging 4.46 kills. What’s more, she had 18 aces and leads the team with 150 digs, 3.06 per set.
“She’s really good with the younger kids. She does not have the sort of ego you might get at times, and in fact could be a little tougher, to be honest. She wants those younger kids to develop, because she knows she can’t do it by herself,” Jenkins said.
“As a freshman, she came in with team that had won the Big South in 2013, learned from older kids and saw a path in how she would become a leader.”
Jenkins, whose team won 24 matches each in 2014 and 2016 and is hoping to revisit the glory run of 2013, when it won 25 and reached the NCAA Tournament, said Palmer is a hard worker.
“She was always a physical kid. She did a ton of work in weight room after her freshman year. We don’t always get kids who are polished and ready to go, and it might take a couple of years to get their body ready to go,” Jenkins said. “Now, she’s the kid we thought she could be, but she has certainly exceeded it by so much. She’s come a long way as a person and player and student –- she finished with a 4.0 last semester.”
All kinds of talent have taken root in the environment provided by Palmer and Jenkins. Junior setter Haley Kleespies (whose mother and two sisters all played college volleyball) was first-team all-conference in 2016, while junior Valerie Gonzalez has more kills now (119) than she had all last year. Sophomore Stephanie Neast is also fortifying the offense (105 kills), while freshman Maci Keaton is the team leader in blocks.
Jenkins mentioned the program is aware the post-Maddie Palmer Era is something that must be prepared for, but the excitement and potential of the here-and-now has to be enjoyed. Radford posted five-set wins on the road a week apart at Arizona and South Carolina in early September, which certainly pointed to something promising.
“We knew coming in we had a veteran team, and that we might need to rely on some younger players to provide a few pieces as we lost just two seniors from last year. And we scheduled a tough preseason,” Jenkins said. “I wasn’t sure what we were going to get – my first thought was, just have our head above water before conference, and then we’ll be OK.
“Beating Arizona was huge, and the next weekend beating South Carolina was also huge. I (certainly) didn’t sit here in May and say we are going 12-1 and 2-0 in conference to start. For them to produce what they have so far, is a thing of beauty for us to watch. And we haven’t played our best volleyball yet, which is interesting.”
The one recent year where the Highlanders struggled was 2015, when the record deflated to 14-15, but that was the result of freakish injury problems. Palmer missed 10 matches with an ankle injury, no middles were healthy, two setters missed time with concussions and current defensive specialist Kaylor Nash had to run the offense.
Radford is healthy and in sync in 2017, and must now stay sharp for the challenges of the Big South schedule. Next up is a tricky road match Friday at Campbell (an unexpected 0-3 so far in league play) and then a true test of mettle Saturday at High Point. The Panthers (10-6, 3-0) were the preseason favorites for the Big South crown.
“We try to say it every week to the team, we are 0-0, regardless of what happened last week,” Jenkins added. “This conference has teams that do good things in their own systems. There’s not a day you can say, we’ll play one team the same way we just played this other team.
“We’ll have to face High Point at least twice, and maybe more if we take care of business as we go through it, but it’s too early to get too focused on that.”