FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 02, 2007
Melissa Merchant joins the national block party
Nov. 2, 2007
For senior middle blocker Melissa Merchant, volleyball was a sport that she found interesting in her youth before quickly realizing it could become a way to pay for college. Despite a flurry of offers out of high school, Merchant started her career at North Idaho College for two years before making her way to JU.
Now in the final year of her collegiate career, the Northern California native finds herself in elite company among national players in blocks and in prime position to collect a prize she has always wanted - a championship ring.
Raised in Oakley, Merchant quickly learned volleyball would be her ticket to an education as she mainstreamed her way through Freedom High School and at the club level. What came as a surprise was the interest she generated as Hawaii, Arizona and Davidson showed initial interest but Merchant decided to start her career at the junior college level in Idaho.
"I really dropped the ball on some things because I was overwhelmed and I eventually ended up at NIC," said Merchant, who is an imposing presence at 6-foot-2. "Every so often I'll wonder what it would have been like at a different school, but I don't regret any decisions that I've made. I like JU and NIC and I have made a lot of great friends for life."
After two stellar years with the Cardinals, including a win over the top NJCAA program in the national tournament, Merchant chose the Dolphins over Tennessee State despite having teammates sign with the Tigers.
Not only did she have to adjust to a new school, a new city and a new program but head coach Shaun Kupferberg made his way to the First Coast from Northwest (Wash.) University after she had already signed with the program.
Although the two faces met for the first time, the stage was set for greatness as Merchant soaked in the knowledge from Kupferberg and added it to her already relentless work ethic.
"Shaun is a big proponent of swing blocking and it's a technique that's not taught at the high school or club levels in most cases," Merchant said. "He uses a lot of repetitions in practice and it makes you move from side to side at the net as opposed to just trying to guess where to go."
Along with the lateral movement and agility she took from her new coach, Merchant also continues to use certain hand placement for her block that she learned in high school. Her coach, Laurie Griffith - a former player at St. Mary's College, had her place her thumbs up (as she turns her hand and fingers outward) to help support a better block by allowing the arm line to go straight.
With these techniques combined, Merchant quickly established herself as the top blocker in the Atlantic Sun Conference as a junior by tallying 141 blocks and an average of 1.27 blocks per game.
"Melissa has always had the quickness and vertical to be a great blocker," said Kupferberg. "The challenge was harnessing that energy and making the right decisions after the set. To her credit, she was able to take that step and become a truly elite blocker.
"What's more impressive though is her development as a hitter. That required more concentration and dedication on her part and she has continually improved throughout her time as a Dolphin."
This season, Merchant is off the charts as she is wreaking havoc on the Dolphin record book in only two seasons (every other player on the list has at least three) while ranking second in the nation with 144 total blocks and fifth with 1.66 blocks per game. In the JU career record book, Merchant is second with 251 block assists and fifth with 285 total blocks. Merchant, who surpassed her previous record of 13 blocks with 15 at East Tennessee State on Sept. 21, ironically trails Endia Oliver of Tennessee State who is third in the nation with 1.77 bpg.
"I always joke with my old teammates at Tennessee State about Endia," Merchant said. "I always kid around with them and hope she has a horrible weekend so I can catch up with her, but it's all in good fun. Not too many other people follow the rankings, except my mom of course, and she is really proud of it."
The fun could continue for Merchant as the Dolphins (15-11, 8-2) find themselves ready for a showdown with conference newcomer Florida Gulf Coast (21-2, 9-1) for a shot at the A-Sun regular-season title this afternoon at Swisher Gymnasium. A youthful squad filled with seven newcomers (including five freshmen), JU hasn't really exceeded expectations because no one knew what the team was capable of at the beginning of the year.
"When I first looked at the team in the fall, I could tell we were an athletic squad that could jump and swing but how long would it take for us to pull together as a team," Merchant said. "We are really young and we got frazzled early on but we finally found out how good we were after we played against Dayton in the Wake Forest Tournament. They were a ranked team and we took a game from them, which really said a lot."
At the forefront of the Dolphins' strengths is their ability to block at the net as JU dominates the conference with an average of 2.8 blocks per game. Along with Merchant, two other members of the squad (Aidan Yeager and Abby Gruenbacher) rank in the top five in the conference which helps keep her on top of her game.
"They definitely are a benefit to me because if you look at my stats, I have more assists than solos," said Merchant. "I have to hustle to get over to the block but sometimes the ball will hit their hands and go off my arm. It's reassuring to know that they are there and it's even exciting when Hannah (Munneke, who stands 5-foot-8) gets involved because she gets so fired up. Shaun does a great job of recruiting athletic players, teaching them how to be in the right place and putting us in a competitive environment in practice."
Despite her success, Merchant believes she is only doing her job at the position and it will take a team effort if the Dolphins are going to pursue a championship ring, a tournament title and a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.
"I didn't expect this kind of success to happen for me," said Merchant. "I'm a front row player and I should excel at it because I get the most opportunities.
"This is a team sport and there are five other players out there who are all depending on each other. We need to step up as a team, adjust to whatever obstacles come our way and be intense if we want to achieve our goals."
Kupferberg agrees with her assessment but knows that Merchant's play can inspire a young squad as they enter the final weeks of the season.
"Melissa came in as a raw athlete last year and has worked very hard to improve her technique and over the last 12 months no one has worked harder and accomplished more," Kupferberg said. "She is an emotional leader on our team and has been very consistent, which is vital with such a young team surrounding her. Her volleyball knowledge is starting to catch up with her physical abilities and that could be scary. When she is in a zone, there aren't many people that can slow her down."