By Stacey Kilpatrick
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – This Friday the No. 2 Jacksonville University volleyball team is set to host No. 8 cross-town rival University of North Florida for a 7 p.m. match. Earlier in October, the Dolphins beat the Ospreys 3-1 on the road to earn a point in the River City Rumble rivalry, and senior outside hitter/middle blocker Alyssa Robertson knows this is an opportunity to repeat.
“For conference, we play UNF this Friday, so that’s obviously always an emotional game for all of us. I don’t want us to be cocky since we beat them because they can beat us emotionally,” Robertson said. “But our focus is just to keep playing the way we’ve always played together and we all pick each other up when we’re down. I know from our loss [last] weekend that we can come back and kick some butt.”
The Dolphins lost a five-setter last Saturday at No. 3 Lipscomb for their first loss in more than one month, but overall the team has had a turnaround season and hasn’t had to come back from more than three losses. The Dolphins earned their 20th win last Friday at NKU, the first 20-win season since 2008, and played to a 10-match win streak until Lipscomb, a feat not seen since the 2009 program earned 13 straight.
“I don’t think any of us planned to get 20 wins,” Robertson said. “We’ve never, ever thought about it. But I think we’re just living in the moment as it is right now.”
Right now, with three weeks until the Atlantic Sun Championship begins on Nov. 21, Jacksonville is between No. 1 ETSU (11-1 A-Sun), which recently clinched a berth, and No. 3 Lipscomb (10-2 A-Sun).
Thus far, the Fins have been outperforming their opponents in numerous categories. Offensively, they have earned a .257 attack percentage compared to .179, 13.7 kills per set to 11.1, 12.8 assists per set to 10.5, and 1.7 serve aces per set to 1.0 (158 aces to 91). On defense, the Fins outshine with 13.4 digs per set to 12.2 and 2.3 blocks per set to 2.0.
In fact, the Dolphins have outperformed their conference foes in A-Sun awards three times this season.
Robertson earned the most recent on Oct. 21 – a career-first Defensive Player of the Week award – JU’s first of the newly implemented award by the conference. In both Jacksonville’s five-set thriller upset over then No. 1 ETSU (before JU earned the top spot) and its 3-0 sweep over USC Upstate, Robertson averaged 2.1 blocks per set, recorded 17 blocks and made three service aces. She highlighted with a career-high 10 blocks over ETSU with a career-high two block solos while matching a career-high eight block assists. The following day, she assisted in seven blocks against the Spartans, made five kills, hit .308 and earned one service ace.
“I couldn’t believe it [earning the award] because I’ve never gotten 10 blocks in a match before, so that’s amazing,” Robertson said. “Just to know that I got 17 in the whole weekend is another goal that I can’t believe. At first I thought it was a joke because when I think of defense I think of back row and I don’t play back row. But, I’m glad it was my blocking that helped me.”
Robertson explained that Head Coach Michelle Collier has recently stressed blocking and defense as a whole to the team. During the past few weeks, their practices have begun with blocking drills.
“In the beginning I’m just always kind of like, ugh, I don’t want to do this, this is a lot of work, I’m tired, you know, but then I put it aside and now it’s gotten me to a Defensive Player of the Week, which is obviously what she wants from us, to improve.”
As mentioned, this season has been a turnaround since the three seniors, Robertson, Kylie Jacob and Kendall Courtney, began in the fall of 2010. For two seasons under former head coach Shaun Kupferberg, the Dolphins finished 14-16 overall and 4-6 in the A-Sun and 14-17 and 5-8, respectively. With the introduction of current head coach Collier in 2012 for their junior season, the Fins went 10-24 and 7-11, respectively, played as a No. 5 seed in the A-Sun Championship and fell to No. 4 UNF, 3-0, in the first round.
“It was a shocker for all of us,” Robertson said of the coaching change. “We didn’t know what we were going to get ourselves into because of the fact that we’ve had so many different coaches, assistants and everything, so it was bittersweet when Michelle was here because we lost someone else, but I would say overall it was an excellent decision.
“[Collier has] definitely brought a lot more fun to the program, which is what we all want, and we’re obviously improving in our skills. I think she’s just an amazing person in general -- it’s not just coaching-wise -- but it’s also personality-wise and she cares for each and every one of us and she tells us the truth.”
Improving from last season’s record to sit at 21-3 overall and 10-2 in the A-Sun thus far, has been a collective team effort by the players and coaches.
“I adore every single one of these people on the team. I think the seniors this year are trying to set the lead for the program and this is how we want JU to be brought up as, not as our past years,” Robertson explained.
“This group of people, we’re a bunch of weirdoes, but we’re weirdoes together. Our team chemistry – we have pillow fights in the middle of airports. Like, who does that? Or we just bust out singing in a big bus together. It’s the small things that matter most I think to our team and that’s what’s really helped us.
"Over the past four years it’s definitely been an emotional roller coaster for myself and I think for Kylie and Kendall as well. Finally it’s just all put together, so it’s nice.”