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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, August 28, 2012

By Bethany Bradsher

Deep staff shaping volleyball's future

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

Anyone who took in a few Olympic volleyball matches understands that it is a sport with a significant international presence. And few collegiate programs have a staff with broader contacts and experience in other nations than the one sharing an office at East Carolina University.

The combined resumes of head coach Pati Rolf and her assistants Jeri Estes and Jackie Simpson feature stints playing, coaching or officiating in Russia, Guatemala, Brazil, Switzerland, Germany and Cyprus.

Rolf was a line judge in the gold medal match at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Estes spent four years as an assistant with the Russian National Team, helping lead the squad win a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Simpson played in both Germany and Cyprus and coached in the youth developmental league in Cyprus, even though her limited Greek made communication with her players interesting. “It was a lot of hand signals,” she said.

Together the trio hopes to take their rich history with the sport of volleyball and apply it to a Pirates program that has only won four matches in the last two seasons combined.

Rolf, who is starting her fourth season at the helm of the program, knows that she has assembled the kind of staff that can produce a system geared toward victory.

“It’s important that we incorporate the knowledge of all three of us,” Rolf said. “I think the three of us are so uniquely different, that whatever the 14 women need, they will find it from one of us.”

The squad tested the waters of the new season with the East Carolina Classic, a home tournament last weekend that produced a win over Bethune-Cookman and losses to Campbell and UNC-Charlotte. The schedule includes three more tournaments — including another home event Sept. 13-15 — before Conference USA play commences on Sept. 21.

Estes, who has been friends with Rolf for more than a decade and spent six weeks working with the Pirates last season, might be the only person who has ever located to Eastern North Carolina because it provides good proximity to both Russia and Hawaii. His wife is a world-class volleyball player in Russia, so he travels there often to be with his family, and his mother is ill in Hawaii.

When Rolf asked Estes to sign on as a full-time assistant, he saw it as a prime opportunity in a strategic location.

“I see commitment from the staff here to get better, and this university is committed to taking female athletics and sports in a positive direction,” said Estes, who has coached at the collegiate or club level not only in Russia and Switzerland but also in St. Louis and Southern California."

Simpson, a former All-American setter at the University of Wisconsin, has had success at every level in the sport and spent two years playing professionally overseas. She is in her second year with ECU and relishes the chance to learn from Rolf and Estes and to grow as a coach. Simpson has aspired to be a volleyball coach since she was in seventh grade, she said, and ECU is providing the perfect learning environment.

Of course, Rolf knows that creating a team of three strong leaders with rich experience is only part of a winning formula. Just as important is recruiting talented, driven players and convincing them to buy into their coaches’ system. And with a roster that includes five freshman and two transfers playing key roles, that learning curve is in full swing now.

Even though the Pirates return five juniors and one senior, only three of those returnees are starters, and the team is relying on newcomers like Nicole Willis, a junior transfer from LSU, to spark the offense. Willis, a right-side hitter from Raleigh, posted two consecutive double-doubles in the East Carolina Classic, scoring 30 kills and 15 digs against Campbell and 10 kills and 10 digs in the win over Bethune-Cookman.

Anchoring the defense is junior libero Shelby Beasley, who totaled 49 digs over the weekend and was named to the All-Tournament Team. And newcomers like Torre Blake, the daughter of former star Pirate quarterback Jeff Blake, are also showing promise for the Pirates.

The tournament showed Rolf flashes of her team’s strengths, she said, but they have plenty of hard work ahead to contend for a winning C-USA record.

“We had some really good things, but also some inconsistencies, but that’s why I love the preseason,” she said. “Our biggest issue is just getting the game organized properly for our team. The main element is going to be controlling the ball, keeping the ball in play when we’re off system, and our setter getting the ball to the hitters so they can score.”

E-mail Bethany Bradsher

PAGE UPDATED 08/29/12 02:05 AM.

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