There are five seniors leading the 2011 version of the New Mexico State volleyball team, however, two names have graced the roster each of the past three seasons- Honorable Mention All-American setter Jennah DeVries and All-WAC middle hitter Kelsey Brennan.
As freshmen the pair experienced the highs of defeating national powerhouse Hawai'i in Honolulu, sharing the regular season WAC title, reaching the NCAA Tournament and winning the first NCAA Tournament match in program history, a 3-1 victory over St. Mary's. As sophomores they experienced the sting of an NCAA tournament snub and their junior year they felt the frustration of an up and down season that marred by numerous team injuries and eventually saw the team fail to eclipse the 20-win mark for the first time since 2001.
Enter 2011 and the pair of seniors are ready to lead the Aggies' charge back to the NCAA tournament. Bolstered by a heralded freshman class, DeVries and Brennan are excited to see what the team can do on the court. "We have some really talented freshmen this year and they're all going to play a major role," said DeVries.
"Preseason was really competitive. All of the new freshmen that have come in have really stepped up and are making it really competitive in the gym," said Brennan. "They're [freshmen] jumping so high and hitting the ball so hard. It's been a huge transition with them coming and just fitting right in and flying around and just pounding the ball. It's a lot of fun to be able to have those long rallies with people banging the ball back and forth and getting picked up left and right and blocked. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing that in action against other teams."
One of the challenges for both DeVries and Brennan will be the lack of a "go-to" hitter after the graduation of outside hitter Kayleigh Giddens, who set the Aggies' single-season kills record, and opposite hitter Whitney Woods who was one of the Aggies' other veteran arms. "Kayleigh was our go-to player and we set her a ton of balls, she would get triple the amount of anyone else because she could handle it and she could score points off of those so it's a little more pressure on us just to be able to spread it around and trust that hitter to score the point," said DeVries.
Having the influx of freshmen at the key hitter positions means DeVries will need to elevate her play even higher than it already is. "I need to be the steady player that they can rely on," said DeVries.
Although not having a go-to player will pose some challenges, it could also play into an advantage for the Aggies this season with teams being unable to load up the block against one player. "This year, we can spread it around a lot more. It's nice in a way but it's also kind of hard because you don't really have that expectation of the younger players to be that go-to player," said DeVries.
Being thrust into a key role as a freshman is also something that DeVries knows plenty about as she spent significant time on the court in the Aggies' 6-2 system her freshman year. "I did the very same thing, I was playing as a freshman and it was super hard," said DeVries. "The game is a whole lot different. The offense that you're playing against is a lot better and you just kind of get overwhelmed." DeVries also knows that it won't always be easy for the freshmen this season. "Of course they're going to struggle at times, everyone's going to struggle at times, it's really hard being the freshman playing. I know that so I just need to be the one to be there for them as a leader and encourage them and help them with whatever struggles that they're going through."
As one of the returning veteran hitters, it will be important for Brennan to help fill that offensive void left by Giddens and the defensive blocking void left by Woods. "I've kind of always been recognized as an offensive player," said Brennan. "I definitely needed to work on my blocking and I worked on that in the spring and in the summer and I think it's gotten better and I'll potentially be playing on the right side this year and I'll definitely need to become a better blocker. I've been working hard at it and I think it's starting to show."
As seniors, both DeVries and Brennan also know the value of strong leadership and for DeVries, she views her role as slightly different than in the past. "My leadership skills have definitely progressed. I've always been the one to point out the positives, throughout my career, to be the encourager basically," said DeVries. "Now, my leadership role has developed more into a "tough love", that's the role that I have to take. I have to put the expectations at a high level for the younger girls."
Brennan added, "Communicating with them and making sure they know what's going on because we've been in the system for four years now and we should know what's going on and we need to be good at communicating that to the other players."
When asked what words of advice they had for the freshmen this coming season DeVries and Brennan both offered up similar messages. "I would say just to have discipline. They all know what they can do as a player they just need to believe in themselves and be disciplined in what they do," said DeVries. "They need to be consistent and not be overwhelmed with the errors that they do make. That was huge for me."
Brennan added, "Be focused. It's hard to come in as a freshman and you're in season and you're on the road all the time so it's really important to keep on top of things. Stay focused on making sure you know what needs to be done and when it needs to be done."
Having seemingly seen it all, these two seniors, along with the other three seniors on the roster, Kelsi Phillips, Brynja Rodgers and Michelle Kuester, all stand ready to lead the Aggies into the new season.
"You look up to the people who are older than you," said DeVries. "There are five seniors and all of us are hard workers and really supportive and I think it shows," said DeVries. "I feel like the freshmen see that and are like, "Man, if they're working hard, then we need to work hard too."
"When it's hard, work your butt off. When it's easy, work your butt off. It's definitely a lesson that I've learned and I'm trying to pass on to the freshmen."