If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.
With Mercer's 5-0 win today against FGCU in the opening match of the 2014 Sand Volleyball Championship, the Bears continue to show that perhaps the third time is the charm.
Playing in its third A-Sun Sand Volleyball Championship, Mercer claimed its first A-Sun Championship match win in program history along with giving the Bears their third victory this season against FGCU. The win, however, is much more of an indication of the turnaround that the program is experiencing in its third season of sand volleyball.
Mercer, like most collegiate sand volleyball teams, began its program with indoor players who had some sand experience. Like most since the first season, Head Coach Damien Elder has also begun to recruit players for sand only. However, the seniors from indoor on this Bears team, particularly Emily Rochefort and Zoe Becton, have led the way.
"Our seniors from indoor were pioneers for our program, and they have led the way as we have continued to develop," said Head Coach Damian Elder. "They have won a majority of our matches this season, led by Emily Rochefort and Zoe Becton."
Playing as the No. 3 pairing all season, Rochefort and Becton posted a 10-9 overall record and a 5-3 mark in A-Sun play. Benefiting from the leadership of those seniors, however, Elder points out that a pair of freshmen have also made an immediate impact. Tori Penrod, the 2014 Sand Volleyball Freshman of the Year, has been a part of seven wins for the Bears, six of those playing in the No. 1 pairing with Natalie Braun. Penrod and Braun also posted as 3-3 mark in A-Sun matches.
Emma Peel, another of Elder's first-year standouts, has been a part of five wins, four of which came in the No. 2 pairing with Jamie Duffy. Together, Penrod and Peel also recorded a 1-4 overall mark.
Elder says that one of the strengths of this team is how it has processed the experience from the first two seasons to improve. He points to the progression and the total about-face that indoor players must go through to adapt to the sand game.
"The effort has been there since we began sand volleyball," said Elder. "We have played hard for two seasons. Before when we would spray a lot of balls, now we are turning those into successful rallies, point and wins.
"Volleyball players, particularly indoor, have been drilled in a specific skill training as long as they have played the game," said Elder. You spend years in club doing specific things over and over again. But there is a great deal of improvisation in sand, and it just takes a while to adjust and to gain the instincts and to get the timing and feel of the game."
Elder says that even for him, learning to coach sand volleyball has been a learning experience.
"I played sand volleyball, and I am still figuring out the coaching part of this," he said. "I am still getting a feel as to what I have to say and how and when I say it is the most valuable for them."
Another factor in the program's development has been Elder's commitment to and ability to develop a rapport with his players. He recalls that component was clearly missing in the team that he inherited in his first season in 2011, but that is something that he has been able to create by taking steps such as regularly working out and training with them.
"It has been great to see this team come together as players and with me," said Elder. "It seemed obvious to me that to have a coach do the stuff with you that you have to do it would make an impact, and it has. To this group, that matters. We have established trust between our players and staff and it has made us a much stronger volleyball team than Mercer ever had before."
Elder also points to the A-Sun's relationship with the AVCA and its willingness to take a leadership role in the sport's development as a factor in not only his program's development but the conference's development as a whole. The A-Sun was the first Division I conference to conduct a championship in sand volleyball, led the way by structuring regular season scheduling and was the first conference to receive an automatic bid to the AVCA Collegiate National Championships.
"The A-Sun's role in sand volleyball has been huge for the conference," Elder said."Two years ago everyone was struggling to develop schedules and looking for a consistent format, and I think our structure led the way, sort of providing a template and reigning everyone in. It took a lot of hard work to stick to it and to push for what we have now, but I am glad that we had a part in leading the way to legitimize the sport."