By Chris Attwood
The Amherst College women's volleyball team has enjoyed a long history of success under long-serving head coach Sue Everden. The Jeffs have posted 20 or more wins in 21 of the last 24 seasons, and have twice reached the 30-win plateau (1995 and 2007). But where does this sustained success come from? Look no further than Coach Everden's tremendous ability to recruit and develop superb talent from across the nation. The 2014 version of the Purple & White exemplifies the point.
"I started recruiting Californians earlier in my career and have sought out some of these pipelines because the grassroots volleyball, particularly in Hawai'i and southern California, are equivalent to Pop Warner football leagues and Little League baseball," Everden said. "The quality of the passing is so much better, and I think that you have to pass well to be successful.
"I also think I have been able to do a good job recruiting Amherst College to those individuals who are looking for a different experience," Everden continued. "We get players that are in awe of our campus, and the academic and athletics programs that we've established here. Because we've also been able to have consistent success on the court, I think that players coming from the west coast feel a level of comfort in knowing that they're joining a very strong program."
Fourteen players have taken to the hardwood for Amherst's matches this year, and a staggering 11 of those are from California. The group breaks down as follows: Sisters Lauren Antion '15 and Kate Antion '18, Marialexa Natsis '18, Asha Walker '18, and Samantha Newby '16 come to Amherst from Los Angeles; Nicole Gould '17 and Jennifer Mackinnon Krems '18 are from Pacific Palisades. Katie Warshaw '16 is from Manhattan Beach, Nicole Carter '16 is from Irvine, Lizzie Ahern '16 is from Corte Madera, and Maggie Danner '17 hails from Newport Beach.
In fact, the closest member of the squad to the Pioneer Valley is first-year Annika Reczek who is from Miami, Fla. – some 1,400 miles away. The other two non-Californian members are sophomore Kate Bres, from Houston, Texas; and sophomore Kelci Keeno, from Honolulu, Hawai'i.
Given the geographical composition of the team, Coach Everden is quick to point out that this particular unit has developed a unique chemistry early in its 2014 campaign.
"This team has very little drama," Everden noted. "They come to the gym every day, and want to work hard for each other. They all share a passion and enthusiasm for volleyball, and I think that translates into very good team chemistry."
The players also realize that a unique bond has been formed.
"The number one thing that brings our team together is our shared love of volleyball," explained Keeno, a defensive specialist. "We have a very drama-free team. We work hard, and have a lot of fun off the court.
"I do check out of some conversations about California, and I do laugh every time the starting lineup is read because every single player is from California, but we all come from big volleyball states. We all come from warmer climate states. We all love volleyball. The team consists of a great group of girls, which is enough to have amazing chemistry."
Bres echoed her sentiments, pointing out that it doesn't matter where a player is from because the group identifies as being an Amherst athlete. "Our team genuinely enjoys each other's company, and we spend a lot of time with each other outside the gym," the second-year setter said. "I think this plays a big role in our great team chemistry, and we all really want to play well for each other."
A junior co-captain in 2014, Carter attributes the team's love for volleyball and its desire to win as the driving forces behind the team's trust and camaraderie, both on and off the court.
Senior co-captain Lauren Antion took those thoughts one step further:
"The team is driven by a united goal," she stated. "Defeating Williams in the finals of the 2014 NESCAC Championship for a select position in the NCAA post-season tournament."
Ever the leader, Lauren referenced an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary that she watched with her fellow captains from all of the Jeffs' varsity athletic teams at the start of the Captains Symposium this fall. This particular episode titled "Survive and Advance," chronicled the 1983 North Carolina State men's basketball team which won nine single elimination games, seven from behind within the final minute, to win the NCAA Division I championship.
"The film clearly conveyed that the team that is willing to work the hardest, up until the final second, and leave absolutely everything on the court, will succeed.
"That is exactly what we strive for each and every practice," she continued. "We try to improve from each drill and advance to the next challenge, which will further prepare us for the end goal."
Lauren also made note that each player holds a very distinct and important role on the team, whether a starter or a non-starter, and that helps in achieving the team's overall vision and fosters the team chemistry.
"We are all close, both on and off the court, and are constantly there for each other, whether it's helping choose classes, editing papers, squeezing in extra practice reps, breaking down film or just being social."
Outside of the geographical make-up of the squad, Newby offers her perspective on the roles of her teammates, and they take on the appearance of family, which is exactly what this team is.
"I would say Kate Bres and I are the moms of the team, Lizzie Ahern and Nicole Carter keep everything fun with their humor. Katie Warshaw, Maggie Danner and Nicole Gould are the stable and reliable forces of the team. Lauren Antion gives us her experiences and wisdom on and off the court. Kelci Keeno is super sassy and definitely the hardest worker I've ever met. As for the first-years, they are just coming into their own, but they are each picking up their own roles. We all work together so well, and I think that's because we all feel like we belong."
And belong they do. With each player coming from great distance, three common characteristics attracted each player to Amherst: east coast location; a healthy balance between academic, athletic and social life; and Coach Everden and the firedogs.
"I knew I wanted to go to college on the east coast, and after doing some research, I found that for the most part, the NESCAC schools were the perfect balance between academics, athletics and a social life," Gould explained.
Danner added that that she "absolutely loved the volleyball team and Coach Sue" and thought it was the perfect team environment. She was also "very interested in the open curriculum, and fell in love with the campus" when she visited.
Warshaw added that "the prospect of visiting a different part of the country" was appealing to her.
Keeno also credits the fact that her older sister attended Amherst as a volleyball player, and that was also a key factor in her decision to don the Purple & White.
"I remember hearing my sister and mother talk about Amherst, Coach Sue, and the volleyball program," Keeno said. "I remember thinking that Amherst, volleyball wise, seemed like a great fit for me. Academically, it's such a great school that I was encouraged to apply. I definitely love Amherst and the volleyball program."
For a few of the Californians, a connection was made before even stepping foot on the Amherst campus. Lauren and Kate Antion played on the same Marlborough team during Lauren's senior year, and are enjoying the opportunity to do the same for her senior year of college.
"It is really crazy that the three of us played for Marlborough together my senior year of high school, and are back together again representing Amherst as a trio for my senior year of college," Lauren said of her sister and Newby. "I am beyond excited that my younger sister has chosen to follow in my footsteps not only to the east coast, but more excitingly, to Amherst, and that we are able to spend a year as teammates once again."
Carter and Danner played club volleyball together, and Carter played against Warshaw. Gould also played at the club level with Warshaw, and played high school volleyball at Harvard-Westlake with Natsis.
"I also competed against Lauren Antion and Sammy Newby, our club teams were rivals in a sense, but by senior year, when Sammy and I knew we were going to Amherst, it was fun to compete against each other," Warshaw said. "I've also played and competed against lots of players within the NESCAC, and those ongoing rivalries are fun."
To be a volleyball player on the east coast and see a roster comprised almost entirely of Californians can be an intimidating sight. As first-year Reczek indicated, "it is both amazing and terrifying." But make no mistake, each one of these players brings a unique perspective, and set of values to the court each day, and delivers an answer on what it means to be part of the Amherst volleyball program.