By Garth Shanklin
For the first time in three seasons, the University of Cincinnati – Clermont volleyball team is returning to the national tournament.
The team drew the sixth seed in the event, which begins on Thursday, Nov. 9 with games starting at 9:30 a.m. The Cougars’ first tilt is at 12:30 p.m. against Penn State Fayette, followed by a 3:30 p.m. contest against Saint Marys of the Woods. The team concludes pool play on Friday, Nov. 10 with a round against Johnson and Wales.
Lady Cougars head coach Josh Hamer had the perfect phrase to describe the team’s reaction to qualifying for the tournament.
“Pure excitement,” Hamer said. “We watched the selection show, we happened to have a game that night and it was being aired right about the same time as our pregame locker room meeting. We had an iPad set up with an external speaker. The Dean came down, the Athletic Director, Brian Sullivan, was there and the soccer coach who had just found out an hour earlier they were going, he came to watch with us as well.”
UC Clermont’s women’s soccer team had earned the 12th seed to their tournament less than two hours prior. Hamer said for the volleyball team, he had a feeling the team’s name would be called.
“It was kind of cool to see our emblem and our name come up as the sixth seed in the tournament,” Hamer said. “We kind of had a feeling we were in when the third and fourth seed were mentioning that they had wins over UC Clermont. They were using us as a base, or their claim to fame. We beat the fifth seed earlier in the year, and I had a feeling we were in after that. I thought ‘We better be the sixth seed if they’re the fifth, because we beat them.’ Sure enough, it popped up and the locker room went nuts. The girls were screaming, crying. It was a neat experience.”
Returning to the tournament after a short absence is proof that what Hamer is doing with the Lady Cougar squad is working, and he knows how much it means for the program and himself individually.
“It means a lot,” Hamer said. “Taking over a successful program, there’s a little pressure on me to do as well as they have done in the past. There’s no pressure from the administration or the school, or the players or anything like that, but from me personally. I want to make improvements and make things better, it was rough being on the bubble the last two years, being really close and not getting it. Getting back is something we’re really proud of.”
The Lady Cougars pride themselves on defense this season, something that was referred to throughout the selection show. Hamer said he makes defense a priority due to his experience with the game.
“I really think, for me, I probably to a fault focus on it too much,” Hamer said. “Back in my playing days, defense was always the best part of my game. I think I focus on it a bit too much. I love that part of the game. Fans and parents and everyone in the stands see the big kills and the big blocks and that’s the glory part of the game. Defense is the overlooked aspect. I love taking your opponent’s best swing and popping it up and being able to run your offense.”
One thing that helped UC Clermont turn the defense around was moving Kelsie Holland from defensive specialist to libero.
“She works really hard in practice,” Hamer said. “She has a no ball hits the ground attitude in practice and it’s paying off for her.”
That attitude helped Holland lead the USCAA in digs with 730, 107 more than the second-place player. In addition to digs, UC Clermont has a leader in blocks per set, while the team as a whole leads in total blocks.
“Madison Jenkins, our freshman middle, leads the USCAA in solo blocks,” Hamer said. “The first part of defense starts with your blocks, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence she has done a great job blocking this year. We always try to win the serve and serve receive battle. That’s helped us along the way as well.”
In terms of the tournament itself, winning is not necessarily the main goal, though if everything goes according to Hamer’s plan a title run is not out of the question.
“I want to get a great experience for our team,” Hamer said. “We have eight freshman. This is such a great thing for them their freshman year, being able to experience this. What I want to get out of it is the same thing we’re looking to get out of every game we play: compete at our highest level. Win, lose or draw, we want them to know they just played UC Clermont and they fought for every single point. The rest takes care of itself.”
Hamer added how proud he was of the players and the staff and thanked the school’s administration for the support.
“I’m proud of these kids and this coaching staff,” Hamer said. “I’m thankful for the support we get from the administration. Dean Bauer is a huge supporter of all our sports. We get great help from Sullivan. It’s truly a team effort.”