Friday, November 22, 2013

For Jacksonville's Collier, Success Is All Part of the Experience

Second-year JU Head Coach Michelle Collier has the Dolphins as the No. 1 seed in the A-Sun Championship for the first time in program history.
If you watched the Jacksonville Dolphins in their A-Sun Championship semifinal this evening, then you saw a team having fun.

Yes, the Dolphins defeated No. 4 seed FGCU 3-1 and advanced to their fourth final in program history. Yes, the win was an important one, but the smiles and the celebrations on the court and in the locker room are the indicators that tell Head Coach Michelle Collier that this team is truly successful.

“I think what has been most rewarding to me about this season is when the girls tell me that they are having a good time,” says Collier. “I had a great college experience and I am fortunate to have a staff that also played a high level and that understands how important the experience is. You want to be a part of an experience that makes you happy, and this team is enjoying that right now.”

The on-the-court success this season of Jacksonville Dolphin volleyball is well documented.

In one season the Dolphins have gone from 10-24 to 27-3, a mark that is seventh best in the nation in wining percentage. JU is ranked in the top 50 nationally in a total of five statistical categories, and the Dolphins secured a share of the A-Sun regular season title and earned the No. 1 seed in the A-Sun Championship for the first time in program history.

The Dolphins are made up of several players who also receive their share of the spotlight, including seniors Kendall Courtney and Kylie Jacob, sophomore Sammie Strausbaugh and freshman Rachel Miller. But these players, says Collier, are where they are this season because her team has bought into a philosophy that she instituted from day one.

“This team lives and dies as a team,” says Collier. “They understand that no individual is bigger than the team. Yes, you have those who receive the attention, but there are six others making those seven better by showing up in the gym ready to work and playing with passion to make everyone better.”

That philosophy bears out clearly when looking at the A-Sun’s success in the national statistics. Jacksonville is ranked among the top 50 teams in the nation in five categories, the most in the conference. However, when looking at the individual rankings, not one Dolphin is among the top 50 players in the nation. 

As a high level player in her own right, Collier ranks among the greatest players ever collegiately. She ranks fifth in NCAA Division I history with 2,729 career kills and sits in the Bulls' top-10 in numerous career and single-season categories. She holds the top spot in USF history in two career categories (kills and digs, 1,747) and set three single-season marks during an amazing 2000 season. After coming back from an injury that forced her to the sidelines in 1999, Collier compiled 760 kills, 1,873 attacks and 6.28 kills per set.

A two-time Conference USA Player of the Year and 2002 All-American, she claimed the league's Player of the Decade in 2004. She also claimed the C-USA Freshman of the Year plaque in 1998 and led her school to three of the program's seven NCAA Tournament appearances. USF went 120-48 during her three years, claiming two C-USA titles and one C-USA tournament crown during her four playing years. Collier is the only volleyball player in USF history to have her jersey retired. She joined the USF Hall of Fame in its third class announced in 2011, the first Bulls volleyball player to earn that honor.  

Collier’s passion for the game is unmatched, and it has helped her instill the culture that now pervades Jacksonville volleyball. But it is much more than that, she says, that has enabled her to change the mindsets of her players and to get the most from her team.

“I have a good relationship with our players, and so does my staff,” says Collier. We don’t micromanage them, we do it with them. At first there were some things and attitudes that had to be addressed, but now they have bought into this culture and they realize that we are FOR them, not against them. Now it is more like a family, and they feel disappointed if they let the staff or me down. 

“At the same time they know that we have high expectations from them, and they respond to that. I am much more approachable than my coach was with me, and to be honest I don’t know the secret formula to why everything has been working this season. We are just having a good time. I won’t write about a book about it because I don’t know. But I do know that we have gone about things with the right mentality and intentions, and that is crucial.” 

The Dolphins’ roster includes the A-Sun Career leader in service aces, Kendall Courtney, and the 2012 A-Sun Freshman of the Year and member of the 2013 Academic All-Conference Team, Sammie Strausbaugh. Throw in Rachel Miller, a member of the 2013 A-Sun All-Freshman Team, and you have quite an impressive trio. Those three join senior Kylie Jacob, who ranks third among career active leader in blocks in the A-Sun, and the spotlight could remain on JU for quite some time. 

Collier’s experience of developing young players throughout her coaching career, along with her approach to her players and her passion for the game, has certainly provided immediate success for her as a developer of younger players like Strausbaugh and Miller. 

“Coach has been an incredible help to me,” says Strausbaugh. “Knowing that she was so good as a player herself, and that she played the same position as me, has really enabled me to improve my game. I can go to her with any questions and she knows because she has been there. And at times in a close match or when we find ourselves in a tough situation, she can help me out of it.” 

Miller is from Clearwater, Fla., near Tampa where Collier enjoyed a successful career at the University of South Florida.  

“I have so much respect for her and look up to her because of what she was able to accomplish and because of how she deals with us as players and individuals,” says Miller. “All of my club coaches were so excited when I made the decision to attend Jacksonville because they think so much of her, particularly in that area. 

“The way she deals with the team and the way the team responds to her was obvious to me when I visited. They included me right away and, while I also liked the school environment, I was welcomed right away and I knew that I could be comfortable spending four years in this program.” 

That experience, although certainly impressive, is not the only one that Collier has to draw from in order to teach players appreciation of the game. Growing up in Brazil and playing abroad, Collier learned the culture of high-level volleyball. She learned the passion for the game, and had opportunity to hone her skills by playing against older players who pushed her and taught her to expect high standards from herself and her teammates.

“I don’t know that I learned my approach as a coach from any one person or coach, but more through life experience,” says Collier. “I saw a lot and was a part of a lot of volleyball growing up in Brazil, and I also learned how fortunate players here in the states are when it comes to their resources. They are in an once-in-a-lifetime situation. I want to be sure that they understand that and that they are thankful for everything that they have going for them.”

The Dolphins are certainly enjoying one of their best seasons in program history. Ask anyone who is associated with the program and it is obvious that in just two short years, Collier’s impact is clear.

“This year the team chemistry is amazing,” says Miller. “We are all friends, sharing the attitude of ‘I will do anything for this team.’ I know that helps us in game situations and raises our level of play because we are committed to that idea.”

Strausbaugh agrees. “Our biggest strength is that we are a very close-knit team. When we are at work we are focused on volleyball, and we don’t let things on the outside distract us from that. But Coach has also done a great job in being both a player’s coach and a disciplinarian. She is tough on us, and that helps us to play with discipline. But she also communicated with us and we are comfortable going to her with non-volleyball stuff as well.”

Collier’s approach has clearly transformed this team into one poised for future success because she understands the importance of chemistry, particularly in volleyball.

“Chemistry is a huge factor in this sport,” says Collier. “I think that has translated into one of the most rewarding results of this season for me, which is how we handle ourselves as a team. They like being around each other, they have bought into our approach and they play with heart and passion in practice and in matches.

“I had a great college experience, and I miss it, and so does my staff. We want everyone who comes through this program to feel the same way when their careers are complete here. Sure we want to enjoy success, but success on the court is a nice by-product when you are in it for the right reason.”

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