Joe Dodson, Contributing writer
Volleyball head coach Jody Rogers is making up for lost time with her most intense practices yet, pushing her players to keep their competitive edge despite not having any upcoming matches.
Rogers said she is running her practices at a high pace going from drill to drill to keep the team sharp during this unique time for athletics.
“We have a really talented group so I think I can challenge them more than I have in the past,” Rogers said. “From top to bottom, I believe that this is one of the strongest programs at VCU in volleyball.”
After three straight years of winning the Atlantic 10 regular season but losing the conference tournament finals, Rogers is ready to turn the page. The squad has dominated the A-10 going 45-3 in the conference the last three seasons, but Rogers said she would rather have the titles.
“We need to turn the corner on that piece,” said the two-time Atlantic 10 coach of the year. “Turning that corner is gonna come from the confidence and the leadership that they can rely on each other as teammates to be better in those situations.”
Despite a summer of uncertainty with rising COVID-19 numbers and political unrest, Rogers said when the team arrived on campus, they were focused.
“They were really eager to get started,” Rogers said. “That is the culture I have here at VCU. They want a challenge, they want to work and they want to get better.”
The team looks considerably different from last season’s regular-season championship squad. Rogers added six freshmen and two transfers to her squad, what she calls one of her “strongest” recruiting classes yet.
“She [Rogers] sees this time that we have as an opportunity to really grow,” said junior libero Alyna Draper. “She’s really just trying to push us all to go as hard as we can each practice.”
To stay in shape during the early months of the pandemic, Draper returned to her home club in Phoenix and had private training sessions with former University of Arizona libero Makenna Martin. She said not having meets to plan for is challenging as a competitor.
“There’s days where it’s hard to get up and go work out or go to practice because we don’t have competition,” said Draper. “We just try to push each other.”
Although VCU’s volleyball players do not have any official matches in the near future, they played a black and gold intrasquad scrimmage Sept. 5. The black team featuring Draper, who had 35 digs, crawled back from down two sets to win 3-2.
“It was really nice to see that this team is so strong mentally and physically that we can come back from that,” Draper said about the scrimmage. “We all want to work to win for each other.”
Rogers said she looks for a particular type of player when recruiting.
“She can handle adversity, and she can be disciplined,” Rogers said of the ideal recruit. “She can fall down and pull her big girl panties up and keep it moving.”
Freshman libero and defensive specialist Sydney Ashton said she sees similarities among the new recruits but that their differences will help them.
“I think we all bring a different set of skills, ideas and ways to do things,” Ashton said. “It all mashes very well and makes us a really strong team.”
Rogers and her staff know this is a far from normal school year. With less social interaction, plus the regular stresses of being a student-athlete, Rogers prioritizes her players’ wellness.
“Mental health is such a huge piece,” Rogers said. “I don’t want to have any kid in my program that struggles with that and thinks that they can’t say ‘hey coach, I need some help.’”
Although the circumstances are unusual, the players continue to push each to get better each day — a product of the culture Rogers has built. Ashton said the team focuses on “the now,” rather than what’s to come.
“We’ve been spending a lot of time together,” Ashton said, “bonding over the grind.”