Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Digging Deep for Success: North Florida's Nicole Baran and Mercer's Emily Rochefort

For the third consecutive week, North Florida’s Nicole Baran and Mercer’s Emily Rochefort occupy positions in rarified air.

Last week, the duo ranked second and fifth, respectively, in the nation in the NCAA Women’s Volleyball statistical rankings for digs per set. Baran averaged 5.91, while Rochefort was just below that at 5.83. The week prior in the first rankings of 2012, both ranked among the top collegiate players in the country, Baran at No. 13 and Rochefort at No. 30.

This week, although dropping a bit to No. 7 and No. 12, the pair brings additional significance to their rankings as they grant the Atlantic Sun Conference the distinction of being the only Division I conference to have two players ranked among the top 12 players nationally in digs. The A-Sun also has multiple teams in the Top 20 in digs, as Rochefort's Bears check in at No. 2, Baran's Ospreys at No. 9 along with USC Upstate at No. 19.

Along with excelling in their roles, their contributions have extended into helping their teams to win streaks of four or more matches this season. Rochefort’s Bears won four straight in a string from Sept. 15-21 that included opening wins in conference over ETSU and Stetson. Mercer now sits at 2-1 in A-Sun play, tied for third with Northern Kentucky and Kennesaw State. 

Baran’s Ospreys won seven straight from Sept. 7 to Sept. 15, which included sweeps of the Radisson/North Florida Invitational and the Winthrop Classic tournaments. North Florida has dropped its first two conference matches of the season, the first to Northern Kentucky, who is tied with the Ospreys in third, and to three-time defending champion Lipscomb, who leads the A-Sun at 3-0.

For Baran, this season’s success will be the culmination to a wonderful career. To first-year coach Steve Loeswick, the senior's experience and talent is of great benefit, allowing him to focus and shore up other parts of his team knowing that Baran is taking care of her responsibilities.

Nicole has been our libero for a few years and she's an outstanding passer and defender,” says Loeswick. "She is one of the more fiery players I have seen in a while at the libero position. She is a very competitive player and a great leader, and is someone who is not afraid to challenge her teammates when it's necessary.

"She worked hard to prepare herself for her final year and she is playing very well for us.
We knew that we would be a defensive-minded team, and so it is nice as a coach to have someone you can count on that is taking care of their half of the court like Nicole."

She has played in every indoor match and led the team every year in digs since joining the Ospreys in 2009. Last season she finished with the second highest single season dig total in school history (503) and became just the seventh player in school history to record more than 1,000 digs in her career. She has finished in the top five of the A-Sun in digs the last two seasons, and last spring she helped North Florida claim the inaugural A-Sun Sand Volleyball Championship. Off the court, she has also earned All-Academic honors the past three seasons. Baran is also currently in seventh place in A-Sun history with 1,581 career digs, and is 36 away from becoming North Florida's all-time digs leader.

In 2012, Baran has earned Player of the Week Honors (9/17), Tournament MVP honors (Winthrop Classic, 9/14-15) and leads the A-Sun in digs with 310 (5.74 per set), followed in second by none other than Rochefort with 268 (5.58 per set). She holds all of the Ospreys’ season highs, including the season high of 33 in the five-set win over Davidson (9/8). The Player of the Week honor is a microcosm of what she is providing, and Loeswick appreciates what Baran is accomplishing this season. 

“It's not often that a libero gets a weekly honor, but Nicole is an excellent player who had an outstanding week,” said Loeswick. “Thirty-dig matches are tough to come by. To get two in the same weekend speaks to the strength of her defensive ability.” 

Junior Emily Rochefort is a contrast to Baran, as she began her career with the Bears as a walk-on. First-year coach Damian Elder got his first glimpse of Rochefort during Mercer’s inaugural sand volleyball season in spring 2012, and knew he would be counting on her for the future.

“Literally the first conversation I had about a player involved placing Emily on scholarship,” says Elder. “I did it because she assured me that she would be the hardest working player on the team, and she has been. The success she has enjoyed from a statistical perspective is a bit of a surprise, not because she doesn’t have the talent to do what she is doing, but because as a first-year coach I didn’t know what to expect from her.”

Prior to this season, Rochefort had seen action in a total of 30 matches in two seasons, earning three starts. Last year she topped 100 digs for the first time, finishing the year with 136. She tallied 10 or more digs on five occasions and finished the year strong with five straight matches of five or more. She also competed as a member of Mercer’s inaugural sand volleyball team, partnering with teammate Caroline Carlton as Mercer’s No. 3 pairing. Twice she also has been named an A-Sun All-Academic honoree.

This season she trails only Baran in digs per set in the A-Sun, has recorded nearly a third of the Bears' assists, and recorded four of the team's five season highs in digs, including a 43-dig effort in Mercer's victory over North Carolina A&T on Sept. 15. As Rochefort continues to shine with her play this season, Elder says what she brings to this team is much more than what is necessarily seen on the stat sheet.

“She is all about the team,” Elder says. “You get nothing from her that isn’t sacrifice for the team. She throws her body around to make digs and she is a player that would literally run through a brick wall if it means making the team better.

“Along with her digs, there are other things like assists, passing and leadership that she provides to make our team successful. She embodies something that is making this current team successful that I think Mercer teams lacked in the past, and we are very fortunate to have her.”

By the numbers they are among the nation’s best, but the contributions from Nicole Baran and Emily Rochefort are much more than about statistics. They are leaders, they are competitors, and they are valuable team members who dig deep to lead their teams to success.

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