SDSU volleyball: building the team on personalities

Their fans see them on the court, in classroom and on the street, but is that enough to learn the personalities of the SDSU volleyball team?

A recent visit with junior middle blocker Wagner Larson, junior defensive specialist Alanna Pengilly, sophomore outside hitter Kacey Herrmann and freshman setter Jessi Henter offered some insight into just who the 2014 Jackrabbits are.

Jackrabbits might be their team name but the four unanimously agreed that if they had to pick another mascot for their teams, they would be the owls.

“Last year was a big owl moment,” Herrmann said. “There was a quote one time with an owl and we kind of went with the owl. Owls are wise and they have their eyes open. I think the owl signified staying positive for us last year.”

Herrmann went on to describe a situation that fans may have witnessed during games but not fully understood.

“If we were down in a game and really struggling someone would whip out the owl eyes,” Herrmann said. “It wasn’t like we were laughing – oh, haha, we’re losing. It was to bring us back down to earth. Alright we have a game. Remember that volleyball is supposed to be fun.”

All sports teams will have their ups and downs and as Herrmann alluded to, the Jacks had some down moments last year, but as athletes, they have discovered ways to manage those ups and downs.

“I would say that just not letting things get to you,” Larson said. “As an athlete you’re going to have to go through those mental ups and downs and if you win or lose you can’t let it get to you. You still have to be competitive. You still got to be a competitor. You have to play your hardest all the time no matter how you do.”

Herrmann said that she just has to avoid listening to outside voices. In addition to avoiding outside voices, the players draw strength from each other, especially from their leaders.

“I would say that Wagner Larson is a person that is a big leader on the team,” Pengilly said. “She’s a presence on the court; she holds everyone accountable. I would say that Margit Hansing is another one. She’s not necessarily the loudest person, but she’s very stable. Everyone looks to her as an example of what to do when you’re on the court.”

Although Pengilly did not list herself among the group of leaders, her teammates did, citing Pengilly, Hansing and Larson as a leadership group.

“They like to call each other WAM,” Henter said. “They have their little clique. I would definitely say that I look up to WAM and trust them to get the job done.”

Larson declined to limit the leadership group to WAM though and said all the upperclassmen served as leaders on the team and specifically mentioned fellow junior Lizzie Palmer.

When it comes time to lighten the mood, the Jacks have Brooke Leetham.

If she’s not on the ground laughing hysterically she’s pulling a prank on someone else or quoting something that no one else really understands until five minutes later,” Pengilly said about Leetham.

Herrmann is Leetham’s lifting partner and said that Leetham can always lighten her mood when she’s feeling down.

When it came her turn to answer, Larson said Herrmann is funny in her own right though.

“I think Kacey is really funny too,” Larson. “You have to have a certain personality to understand Kacey because people are apparently scared of her at first, but once you get to know here you realize it’s all sarcasm, which I love sarcasm. I’m a sarcastic person so I think we mesh pretty well.”

Another energizing force is Hansing. Henter said that although Hansing is quiet, she often says hilarious things if anyone is close enough to hear. Hansing also has garnered a reputation for studying.

“Margit is a really smart player on the court and off the court she’s always doing whatever it takes to study and to get good grades,” Pengilly said. “I remember last year she’d be literally at the library from maybe 8:30 to 8:00 at night. Then she’d come back, eat and go back to the library until midnight. She was a workaholic for sure.”

When the laughs are over and it is time to refocus it is often Palmer leading the charge.

“She’s very analytical. She’s definitely strictly business,” Herrmann said. “We have so many people out there who love to get excited, but she kind of reels it back in to keep us focused.

The bonds these teammates make is forged by countless hours together, hours not coming just during the season.

“A lot of people probably think fall is our busiest time,” Herrmann said. “It is when it comes to travelling, but I’d say during the week we’re the busiest in the spring just because we stuff with [strength and conditioning] coach [Nate] Moe every day – Monday through Friday.”

Pengilly and Larson described the offseason as a time for focusing on skill work and really improving as a team for the next year, but it is not all work for the athletes.

“I was here this summer and it was mostly just workouts Monday through Friday and then we did a lot of team bonding type stuff, like we would go to one of the girl’s cabins and just hang out on the weekends which I really liked,” Henter said.

The athletes also enjoy bonding during road trips. Herrmann and Larson said they enjoyed the trip the team took to Chesapeake Bay earlier this season. Pengilly’s memory went farther back.

“My favorite road trip moment was two years ago,” Pengilly said. “I was with Margit. We were at one of those photo booths in the mall and we didn’t realize that they have your video outside the thing while you’re making all these faces and one of our coaches walked by and came in our thing and scared us right in the picture thing. One of our pictures was just of us completely screaming.”

When it came, to their coaches, the athletes didn’t take long in picking out something they liked about them. Pengilly likes the bluntness of assistant coach Hailey Crowles and she was not alone.

“A thing I really like about Haley is she’s super to the point blunt, but she can also keep you relaxed at the same time,” Herrmann said. “With me especially, she says I play intense sometimes. She’ll say a joke to me to get me to loosen up.  I like that she can be goofy a little bit just to remind me that volleyball is still a game and it’s supposed to be fun.”

Larson on the other hand credits graduate assistant Holly Hafemeyer with taking her under her wing.

“I just really like how she personally was in my position,” Larson said. “She definitely knows the game, what middles do, knows the best techniques to use and I honestly think I’ve learned a lot from her, just within these past couple months. … She’s been such a help because of her knowledge and she actually just got done playing so she’s fresh to the whole playing volleyball.”

When it comes to head coach Phil McDaniel, Henter likes that he can be a rock for the team.

“I like how Phil is level headed most of the time,” Henter said. “You never see him super excited or super angry. He’s pretty much the same all the time which I react to better. I don’t react to coaches that are like all over the place. I like that he can just be that rock for us.”

As the Jacks look ahead on their season and future seasons, their goal is to improve, beginning with a year where they can win half their games and make the Summit League Tournament.

“I would say to win at least half of our games and to make it to the Summit League,” Pengilly said. “This is my fourth year right now and we have not made it to the Summit League. We are going to make it to the Summit League [Tournament]. That is my goal.”

Also included in their goals for the future are beating SDSU’s rivals.

“I definitely think this year we should beat USD and NDSU,” Larson said. “I haven’t beat USD since I’ve been here and that is definitely a goal of mine because nobody gets me more fired up than USD does.”

When given the chance to offer a final comment Herrmann had a message for their fans.

“I guess I say to the fans. Just keep following us, keep coming to our games. I know last weekend [in the Jackrabbit Invitational] we didn’t perform the best, but I just want them to keep having faith in us and know that we are working hard. We’re trying to make strides. Just bear with us.”