A10-champ VCU, riding a 17-match win streak, isn’t here for the “participation medals”

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VCU volleyball 2019-Jasmin Sneed
Jasmin Sneed is part of a balanced VCU offense and leads the Rams in blocks/Scott K. Brown Photography

Seventh-year VCU coach Jody Rogers would like to remind you that she is a Bostonian, and that she therefore does not see the world in shades of gray, but in black or white.

Good or bad.

Yes or no.

In a sporting era of enormous NCAA tournaments with subjective selections and endless talk of who’s on what bubble, Rogers doesn’t waste her time.

“It’s going to come down to this weekend,” Rogers said of the upcoming Atlantic 10 tournament at Rhode Island, where the winner will get the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. “We both know that. I’m factual. I’m from Boston. I’m black and white, there’s no gray area with me.”

Scan the season schedule and there is no dearth of opportunities to find accomplishments of which this Virginia Commonwealth team to be mightily proud. Perfect 14-0 Atlantic 10 record? Another Atlantic 10 regular-season title? A come-from-behind win over rival Dayton to win in five on Sunday, closing the season in as epic a fashion any decent scriptwriter could ask? Seventeen straight wins?

Yes, Rogers recognizes all of that. She’s not too proud to see this season, and all those accolades that have come with it, as excellent. But she’s also not one to claim wins to be what they are not.

This, she readily acknowledges, is what the VCU Rams are: More off of the NCAA Tournament bubble than on.

That victory over Dayton? Great for morale. Nice to add a regular season title to the growing list of accomplishments.

But it’s not what they’re after. She knows it. Her players know it. Everyone over in Dayton, Ohio, knows it, too. They expect to play VCU — ranked No. 48 in the NCAA RPI — in Sunday’s A10 tourney final. Dayton stands at 51 in the RPI.

Italian senior Vicky Giommarini leads VCU on offense/Scott K. Brown Photography

VCU, a team laden with seniors and experience, is led by Italian Vicky Giommarini, a 6-foot senior outside from Rome who has 301 kills this season (3.04/set), 35 aces, and is second in digs with 207 (2.09/set).

Gina Tuzzolo is a 6-2 right side from Newport News, Virginia, and the senior has 263 kills (2.60/set), is hitting .291, and has 107 blocks, six solo.

The middles are Jasmin Sneed and Jaelyn Jackson. Sneed, a 6-foot senior from San Antonio, has 178 kills (1.76/set), is hitting .395, and leads with 163 blocks (1.61/set), 10 solo. Jackson, a 6-3 senior from South Chesterfield, Virginia, has 192 kills (1.90/set), is hitting .359, and has 142 blocks, 10 solo.

The other outside, Paula Neciporuka, a 5-8 junior from Latvia, has 188 kills (1.90/set), 24 aces, 192 digs and 37 blocks. And the other right side in the 6-2 offense is Kat Young, a 6-3 senior from Chantilly, Virginia, who has 143 kills, is hitting .301, and had 105 blocks.

The setters are Dajah Ard, a senior from Arlington, Texas, and Dani Jo David, a sophomore from Virginia Beach. Between them they had 1,080 assists, 325 digs, and 27 aces.

The libero is Madalon Simpson, a senior from Louisville, Kentucky, who leads with 376 digs and has 76 assists and 18 aces.

VCU coach Jody Rogers

“I know we won the regular season and that’s great for the girls and it’s a great accomplishment and I’m never going to undermine that but at the end of the day, do we want to win a regular season title or do we want to go to the NCAA tournament?” she said. “Because that’s success to VCU. Getting to the NCAA tournament and winning a championship is success to us.

“They know that. Winning the regular season? Good. We checked that off. It was a great accomplishment, it’s hard to do, especially with hard teams like Dayton and George Washington and St. Louis and others like that but we did that. Now we’re 0-0. It’s a brand-new season. Here’s your participation medal. I don’t want a participation medal.”

The value, then, that she sees in that win over Dayton on Sunday evening, the one that sealed up the regular season conference title, was not in an empty accolade, but in a legitimate mental morale boost. While she understands the obvious, tangible benefits that can come from losing, she has seen the way it can sometimes cripple teams.

She’d seen it just a year before.

She saw the way her girls walked into George Mason last November 3.

“We went into the gym thinking we were Penn State, like ‘Hey, we’re here and we’re just going to take the W!’ Nope. George Mason handed it to us,” Rogers said. “At that point, my team unfortunately started second guessing themselves. We went into the championship and you could still feel like you could possibly play like that again at the end of the season. We could have clinched that regular season championship but we didn’t, and then it was out of our hands.”

Three matches later, in the finals of the conference tournament, they lost in five to Dayton, losing their NCAA bid in the process.

From that loss came a mantra for this season: Predict our future.

“We don’t want to rely on anybody else,” she said. “We don’t want to let anybody else dictate us.”

And so, this week, a new season begins, everybody back at 0-0. On Saturday, they’ll meet the winners of George Washington and La Salle in the conference tournament semifinals. Should the Rams win, they’ll be back to where they were a year ago: in the conference finals, the most likely opponent being the Flyers.

“I think when we got beat last year in the fifth set, I think it hurt their feelings and that’s what you do when you beat people that hate to lose,” Rogers said.

“That’s the only way I can put it. When you leave a match and you got your butt kicked, your feelings are hurt. They had nine months to have that feeling, that feeling of ‘We should have left more out there. We should have done this.’ And I’m like ‘No, we need to do this for this outcome to come out. We can’t be selfish. We need to be able to call each other out.’ All the things you need to do to win a championship.”

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