NOTE: 2019 will mark the third year of the revitalized, revamped National Invitational Volleyball Championships, which is a D-I postseason tournament dedicated to expanding the profile of deserving women's volleyball programs. We will check in on various teams through this season, with a particular eye to high-achieving mid-major programs.
by Kyle Koso
There’s no truth to the rumor that the VCU volleyball team’s front line can jump so high, for so long, they have time to wag their fingers in that “nah-nah-nah, no-so-fast” motion before hitting the ground.
But it’s no rumor that the Rams are one of the nation’s toughest assignments when it comes to solving their dominant defense at the net.
Heading into Friday’s home match against George Mason, VCU is a terrific 17-5 overall, 8-0 in the Atlantic 10 Conference, and is the NCAA D-I leader in blocks per set at 3.38. With the No. 1 overall brick wall at the net (senior Jasmin Sneed) and No. 11 (redshirt senior Jaelyn Jackson) setting the tone, VCU has proven capable of frustrating countless offensive forces who just aren’t used to being shut down point after point after point.
The Rams have won 11 straight matches, the past seven in perfect 3-0 sweeps, and are riding a wave built by an eight-player senior class that has a plan and knows what it takes to squeeze the life out of the opposition.
“We all know blocking is such a crucial key element of volleyball now. If you have a great blocking team, it minimizes the number of points … it opens up the door,” said head coach Jody Rogers, who is 142-69 after six-plus seasons at VCU. “People have to tip more, and we can get a transitional play off that and get a point. It helps immensely. When you have a team that’s so vicious at the net and wants to block every ball, the rest of my defense on the team gets so aggravated, but I say, I’m sorry, we’d rather stop the ball at the net.
“It’s so easy to formulate a defense around a great block, and that helps, too. They’re so disciplined with the block; we work so hard on that stuff and we have great athletes who know what to do.”
Sneed jams up the competition with 1.73 blocks per set; the 6-foot middle from San Antonio first got a taste for defense playing basketball and has found blocking to be a skill that transfers.
“We are definitely a wall. When we are blocking and are getting terminal blocks, the other team starts tipping or rolling, and we know we’ve got them and are in their heads,” she said. “It’s easier to take control. When we get easier balls, it’s easier for the offense to set up around us, and it helps us every game.
“Definitely sophomore year is when it really kicked in. Every single one of us at the net were for some reason (piling up) terminal blocks, and from then on it was like, this was our thing, and it has been ever since. We finished my sophomore year (2017) No. 1 in nation in blocks, so it’s been a standard of our team now. When we don’t get blocks, we get frustrated.”
For the vast majority of time the Rams are in sync and in step with each other, something you’d expect to see with such a large senior class. Italy native Vicky Giommarini leads the team in kills, Gina Tuzzolo is close behind, and Dajah Ard is excelling as one of two setters, leading the team with 476 assists.
Having been through so much together, the Rams have an excellent sense of how to push each other, and also lean on each other in times of need.
“They all have a piece of leadership and the confidence in themselves. They don’t feel like they have to show off a lot of ego. They really appreciate each other, and make each other accountable,” Rogers said. “That’s helped with the harmony of the team – no one thinks they’re any better, and really, all the players have a piece of leadership they bring to the team. It’s not like I sit back and let the older girls run the program … every person has to have a leadership piece and feel good about their purpose.
“We have girls who just want to work hard for each other. We’ve never had much trouble with drama, like “you’re better than me, I’m going to feel sorry for myself and make excuses.” They don’t let it affect the overall team. The best things you can see in an athlete is for them to have leadership and confidence in themselves. I’m not saying we don’t have our problems like every other team, but it’s not such a hard impact when it happens. We call people out, hold them accountable and keep things moving.”
“It’s pretty amazing being with the same group of girls for so long and getting to know them. Since my freshman year, we’ve jelled well, never really clashed much,” Sneed said. “We know what ticks us off and what doesn’t, and it’s easy to operate around these girls because we know each other so well, and it translates on the court. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“Some things will pop up, and you’ll have little catty fights or something, but it doesn’t affect us much. We get over it and be right back together like nothing ever happened five seconds later. How we can bounce back when things might bring us down – our bounce back is crazy. We don’t take anything too personal.”
Rogers came to VCU after a distinguished Division II run at the University of Indianapolis, winning 406 matches in 16 years. One positive aspect of the D-II experience is how the NCAA will seed its tournament regionally, opening up a few precious berths for deserving teams from the same area, unlike the D-I event which just goes with the highest ranked programs and/or those who won their conference tournaments. Rogers said she missed that, to some degree.
“I got a lot of interest from school while I was at UIndy. I believe in not running from happiness, and I had that at UIndy, and it wasn’t my time to leave,” Rogers said. “When I interviewed for the VCU job, it was a challenge. I felt like I wanted to see if I could do it at the D-I level, and VCU came at the right time. They had the resources, the pieces were there, and I wanted to see if I could go to the next level. Timing is everything. There are times when I miss the atmosphere at D-II, but everyone here is great and I have all the resources I need.”
It’s a tricky time for the Rams heading into November, with Senior Weekend looming and the distant but noticeable sight of Dayton (16-6, 9-0 A-10) on the horizon. VCU and the Flyers have been going toe-to-toe for years, and they’ll meet Nov. 17 in the final match of the regular season. Last year, VCU beat Dayton twice in the regular season, only to fall to the Flyers in five sets in the A-10 tournament final, while in 2017 it was VCU in five sets over Dayton in the tourney finale.
“All the girls have it in the back of their minds about Dayton, but we’re good about going game to game,” Rogers stated. “This weekend is very important, Senior Weekend. We know how competitive we are with each other, us and Dayton, and we know it will come down to the last game on the schedule, and then how it goes in the conference tournament. Dayton always has a great program, and even though they have young kids … hey, I’ll have a young team next year, and I won’t have that (second-tier) mentality, because I don’t want to lose.
“It comes down to a bunch of Type-A girls who got their feelings hurt last year in the (A-10) championship match with Dayton and lost in the fifth set, and the season was over. The next day, the senior group was saying, our last year is coming and we don’t want to have that same scenario play out. We want to take every day and work hard, so when it comes to the time we need to compete at the highest possible level, we will. They took ownership to get back to the NCAA tournament. I have a very physical team, but a very mature team that understands pressure and can deal with it, can be comfortable being uncomfortable. They’ve played so many years together … there’s not a ton of coaching, because the girls know how we operate and how things have to be. They’ve been in pressure situations and understand how to control that piece.
Sneed echoed the theme of staying prepared and caring about what each individual player can provide for the whole.
“I want to make sure every game. me and my teammates are focused in and making sure were watching where the ball is going, so we can get more blocks,” she said. “We just try to make sure to pay attention to every single detail and keep each other accountable for getting better. When we do face (Dayton) later in the season, we’ll be stronger than we were at the start of the season. The small details add up in the end. Last year, we realized the little things we missed … the reason we lost was because of the little details.”