Each of the four teams that played in the NCAA first- and second-round volleyball matches hosted last weekend by the University of Minnesota had at least one player of color: Cheyanne James (Radford), Alexis Austin (Colorado), Victoria Hurtt and Erin Taylor (Iowa State), and two Puerto Rico-born players: Iowa State’s Neira Ortiz Ruiz and the Gophers’ Daly Santana.
James was second on her squad in kills — one of a school-record five players receiving all-conference honors. Hurtt thrice led Iowa State with 20-plus kills.
Colorado Coach Liz Kritza called the sophomore Austin “team-oriented.”
While seeing a low single-digit number of players of color at a volleyball match, even a post-season match, wasn’t that surprising, discovering that one of the schools was coached by a Black female was a surprise, especially since, unlike the other three schools, her photo was not included in her school’s pre-game notes.
Marci Jenkins last weekend completed her sixth season at Radford (Va.) University, which won the Big South conference this year. Her Highlanders finished 25-10 after a 3-0 loss to Minnesota last Friday in the first round — it was the squad’s first NCAA appearance in 13 years.
Jenkins also won Big South Coach of the Year for the second time in three years and has led Radford to six consecutive regular season titles in as many tries. They were picked to finish sixth.
“We had a great season overall, and we told the kids they can be proud of that,” said Jenkins during her post-game press conference. “We started in preseason in August — we thought we could be a special team. Obviously, you don’t know all of the outcomes of everything in the regular season.
“We had our ups and downs throughout the season. We played some good teams and had some good wins. We had to grit out a lot of matches.
“[But] we matured every weekend,” she continued. “We got better at practice.”
“It was a long road for us getting to the NCAA tournament,” added James.
The Radford head coach refused to take full credit for her team’s success. Jenkins credited her two assistants, Chris Hertel and Caleb Adams, “but it took our players buying into what we were doing in order to be where we are right now — a total team effort.”
Jenkins told her players that if they want to get back to the NCAA a year from now, it will take more than dreaming — that they should start “really tomorrow to prepare to get back here next year. Now that we know what we are looking at, we need to know what we need to do [for next season]. If we don’t have that aspiration, you shouldn’t be playing Division I volleyball.”
Despite the quick exit from this year’s tournament, “This experience hopefully will make us that much more hungry next year,” surmised the coach, who has the entire squad returning next season. “Now that we have who we have in our program, we know we have the dedication of our student-athletes… We want to move forward, get [back] here again, and do better and win a first-round game.”
The MSR spoke to Jenkins after the press conference.
“I’ve been involved with [volleyball] for 16-17 years,” said Jenkins, a Chicago native. She added that she formerly coached basketball “and evolved into volleyball.” The paucity of Blacks in her sport is clearly noticed by her: “It’s been tough to get them involved. [But] at the top level, you’re starting to see it.
“Texas’ best player is African American. Penn State has them as well. They’re out there — it’s just a problem trying to find them.”
On James, her only Black player, “She was huge for us this year,” noted Jenkins. “Last year she played but didn’t start. She started every match this year. I’m proud of the work ethic she has.” James had to switch from right- to left-side hitter this season because of injuries, “and she did that pretty flawlessly,” said the coach.
“My team fought so hard all year long,” said Jenkins. “I don’t want to say that we definitely will get back to this point next year, but this definitely is my goal.
“It’s not going to be as easy as waking up in August and saying we are going to get to the NCAA tournament. We have to battle through it again. I think they understand what it feels like right now. I think they will be poised and ready to do that. I’m looking forward to it.”
Not ignoring her “Only One” status at last week’s NCAAs, Jenkins commented, “I never felt shunned or anything like that in the sport. I’ve only been met with appreciation and people trying to help me out. I’ve had a lot of help to get to where I am right now. I’ve been lucky to [be] where I am.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.