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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, August 31, 2011

By Bethany Bradsher

Early gauntlet offers stiff test for volleyball

Pati Rolf
Jeri Estes
Jackie Simpson
(ECU SID images)


Early gauntlet offers stiff test for volleyball
'Cone of Uncertainty' about to narrow for ECU
Details will define ECU's success
Ruff's workouts lead to clothes shopping
Pirates get a jump on game week routine
Burning questions as season approaches


Cliff Perryman
Ben Ryan
Matt Milner
Joe Womack
Michael Dobson
Hugh Parker
Will Simmons
Antonio Allison
Ty Holmes
Marke Powell
Damon Magazu
Michael Barbour
Derek Blacknall
Grant Harner
Justin Jones
Torrance Hunt
Andrew Bodenheimer
Michael Brooks
Lance Lewis
Justin Dixon

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

To be sure, the East Carolina volleyball team has more uphill road to travel than any other Pirate squad this year.

But the Lady Pirates are off to a strong start — a victory over Gardner-Webb in their season opener on Friday. And they will take that boost of confidence to a daunting test this weekend — a Saturday match against California, the No. 1 team in the nation.

The 1-0 team, shored up with strengthened leadership and a more intense conditioning program, brings plenty of optimism as it prepare an antidote to last season’s 2-30 record.

Head coach Pati Rolf is sure this group is tough and talented enough to raise expectations.

“This group is, I think embracing the concept that it’s really a team sport, and they’re really doing a great job at working together,” said Rolf, who is starting her third season leading the Lady Pirates. “I think the players are very mature. They’ve grown up a lot.”

Even though the Gardner-Webb victory, which featured 13 kills each from seniors Jackie Varnum and Britney Roper, was a bright start, the Pirates were hoping for three wins at this point. Hurricane Irene trimmed the planned East Carolina Classic from a four-team round robin format to a single game, because the teams from Presbyterian College and Florida Atlantic decided it would be unwise to make the trip.

So this week, as classes resume today and the players focus primarily on their Friday match with tournament host Virginia, they feel like their mettle is still waiting to be tested. The testing ground will include the 2-1 Cavaliers, Long Island and California, which has long been a strong program but made a nationwide splash this week when it was voted as the top team in the nation for the first time ever.

“It’s a good opportunity for us to elevate our game and our knowledge,” Rolf said. “You can’t be hurt by Cal — they’re only going to help your RPI.”

ECU’s lineup is not significantly changed from last season, but this squad features four seniors and one junior who are healthy, strong and poised to lead. The attitude of the upperclassmen is so good that the sophomores and lone freshman have the freedom to learn at their pace and find their strengths at this intense Division I level.

The other major change facing the Lady Pirates this season is the staff, on which only Rolf remains the same from last season. Jackie Simpson, who helped with team operations as a volunteer last year, was promoted to assistant coach in July, and in August Jeri Estes was announced as a temporary assistant, originally tapped to fill in for Katie Baggett while she was on maternity leave.

Estes’ stay in Eastern North Carolina will last only six weeks, even if the position he is filling was vacated permanently recently when Baggett announced that she was moving out of town. But even though Rolf can’t keep him permanently, she feels like Estes’ role in shaping the program will pay dividends for years to come.

Estes and Rolf have known each other for years through national and international volleyball circles, and when he offered to  help she knew he was the right fit.

“This is a team that really needed to feel secure,” she said. “I needed to bring in somebody who had great confidence, great control, great ability to lead, and I was not finding the person I wanted.”

Estes has a resume in the sport that ranges from club to professional and top-level international competition. He has been on the staff for teams that have won three national titles in three countries — the United States (Long Beach State in 1998), Russia and Switzerland. He was even an assistant coach for the U.S. National Team in 1999 and 2000.

Rolf, who has traveled extensively as an international referee, has watched him coach for years and has always learned from him, she said.

The two colleagues became friends, and when Estes heard that she needed an experienced hand to help jump start her season he took a leave from his contract with the Russian professional team he still coaches for.

“When I saw the opportunity to help such a good friend of mine, I wanted to give the time that I could,” Estes said. “Without a doubt, they are headed in the right direction. They chose a great leader who can take them in the right direction.

"Being here in the short time I have, it seems like the athletic department itself, as well as the university, has ever y intention of giving the sport support materially.”

E-mail Bethany Bradsher

Bethany Bradsher Archives

08/31/2011 04:45 AM

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