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The rain began to fall as the masses rushed to complete tailgating outside Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, the super-sized home of the Hokies that seems to rise out of the valley on Route 460. Virginia Tech fans gathered to root their team on to its third straight win after an opening day loss to defending national champion Alabama.
And those who didn’t know about #45, by game’s end, did.
Sam Rogers, the Hanover High graduate who made headlines by climbing the depth chart from preferred walk-on to starting fullback in August, solidified his position as an increasing part of the Hokies’ offense. Of his 33 plays on the field in Saturday’s 29-21, triple overtime win over Marshall, most were on offense, and most of those were blocking assignments.
The man deemed “too short, too slow” to play FBS football handled most assignments well, handling linebackers and defensive linemen alike. While his statistics only show a running play for 3 yards and a pass completion for 5, another pass was ruled complete before being overturned by video replay in the first half, and, in the fourth quarter with the Hokies down 21-14 and driving, quarterback Logan Thomas missed a wide open Rogers, who had successfully blocked, then broken off into the right flat.
All the while, the freshman did what was asked of him, carrying play calls into the huddle during substitutions.
After the game, the rain-soaked thousands heard the Virginia Tech radio crew praise Rogers’ performance. In only his second showing at Lane Stadium, Rogers converted more fans, and impressed more pundits.
Memorial Gymnasium on the campus of the University of Virginia is nearly 90 years old. It was the original home of the Cavaliers basketball team. Today, it’s the quaint, historic home of UVa’s women’s volleyball team, who hosted the Cavalier Classic Friday and Saturday, a tournament featuring Seton Hall, Columbia, and William & Mary.
For Atlee graduate, and Virginia freshman Karlie Suber, it was her fourth pre-ACC weekend tournament of the season, one that has brought challenges, victories, adjustments and growing pains.
Suber seems right at home with her Cavalier teammates, now wearing #5 and concentrating on defense. Suber was the first substitution into set one Saturday night as the Wahoos played their final match of the Cavalier Classic against state rival William & Mary.
Suber had six digs and an assist, but seemed to struggle early. Head Coach Dennis Hohenshelt made rotation changes and Suber watched the final two sets of Virginia’s 3-1 victory from the sidelines. That is all part of the freshman experience, especially for Hohenshelt’s team, who play four freshman as they prepare for ACC play starting Friday in Durham at Duke.
“I know with [the freshmen], there are going to be peaks and valleys,” Hohenshelt noted. “I’ve stuck with them, and you ask them to do things and the first week you think, ‘they’re a disaster,’ but they start to see things and see what I want.”
In this, Hohenshelt’s second season, the Cavaliers continue a rebuilding program. They have not enjoyed a winning record since 2007. Suber wants to be part of the team that turns it around in Charlottesville, but first must become used to life on campus, characterizing her first weeks as “great.”
“It’s a lot of hard work. It gets stressful at times. But it’s all worth it,” Suber noted.
When asked about the biggest difference between volleyball at Memorial Gymnasium as opposed to the Atlee High School gym, she was quick to answer.
“It’s definitely different when it comes to practice schedules, rehab schedules, It’s very demanding, and recovery time is not nearly as much as in high school,” Suber said, choosing to give an intriguing inside look into life away from “game night.”
Before leaving to rest and get ready for conference play, Suber looked ahead to her first trip around the ACC.
“We’re looking a lot better than last year,” Suber noted of a team that went 3-17 in conference action. “Hopefully, we’ll take that ability and turn it into execution.”
Hohenshelt reminds his team of the rigorous mental preparation they must undergo to survive on the road, as traveling to Lee-Davis, Hanover, even a trip to a state championship game, is nothing compared to going to Duke.
“I told the freshmen, ‘now we’re going to places where people are going to call you names and they’re going to get on you,” Hohenshelt said. “You have to have that thick skin from here on out.”
Suber’s thick skin, and ability to perform at the collegiate level, are a day-in, day-out, work in progress, all in the hopes of personal, but more importantly, long sought-after team success for the Lady Cavaliers.
Bailey Lien came home Sunday, sort of. The freshman goalkeeper from Hanover High helped lead the Christopher Newport Captains onto Day Field for a field hockey clash against Randolph-Macon. Lien played 48 minutes in goal, making two saves en route to a 5-2 win for the Captains to keep them unbeaten at 9-0.
Fellow freshman goalkeeper Savanah Cummings (Trinity Episcopal) and senior Julie Collins also see playing time, and the trio has only allowed seven goals in nine games, with a save percentage of 91.4 percent. But Lien has started eight of the nine games and has seen the vast majority of minutes in goal with 32 saves. Her save percentage is 88.9 percent.
“Bailey really stepped up at camp prior to preseason,” said Christopher Newport Head Coach Carrie Moura. “She appeared confident and comfortable, which are great qualities for goal keeping, and she carried that into preseason.”
As is life being a goalkeeper in field hockey, or ice hockey, a trip to the bench is as close as a bad performance. Lien understands that, and, according to Moura, relishes and welcomes the friendly competition that Cummings and Collins provides.
“All players must earn the opportunity to start and play. Nothing is given. They all seem to welcome the healthy competition amongst one another,” Moura noted.
The formula is working so far, with the Captains looking to stay unbeaten in their Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) opener at home in Newport News Saturday against Frostburg State.
With fall sports players especially, conditioning, preseason, and the start of regular season play all collide with leaving home, moving to new surroundings, and truly beginning a new era in life for kids barely 18 years old. Colleges and universities work to help them through the multi-level, rapid transition.
“[At CNU], freshmen are matched with a ‘big sister,’ an upperclassman on the team, during the summer, to help them with transition. When they arrive on campus, we have a fabulous orientation program called ‘Welcome Week,’ with mentors, tutors, and time management workshops,” Moura said.
Which makes the on-field accomplishments of Lien, and her fellow county freshmen, all the more impressive.
In addition to Suber, Lien, and Rogers, there are other Hanover County alumni on the college playing field.
Donte Haynesworth, former two-way football and basketball standout at Hanover High, is already contributing for Division II Norfolk State, a team looking to improve on a 4-7 mark from 2012, but off to an 0-3 start as they travel to Baltimore to meet Morgan State Saturday.
“Donte is progressing well,” Spartans special teams coordinator Marco Butler told the Herald-Progress. “He has played some defense in two of our games, but more importantly is his contribution on many of our special teams. I look forward to him getting better each week and doing his part for the defense, and the team, to be successful.”
Deshaun Rogers is in a similar position right here at home. Seeing significant playing time in both the defensive secondary and on special teams for Randolph-Macon, Rogers already has a fumble recovery, but continues to show the combination of promise and learning curve that all freshmen do. His promise, and future, at Day Field, seems very bright.
And for all those who get to see action on the field, there are others who work hard and wait for their opportunity, sometimes very painfully.
None know this more than Hailey Brooks, the Gatorade State Girls Volleyball Player of the Year for Atlee last year, who, along with Suber, led the Raiders to three straight state tournament appearances.
She was to start as a freshman for the University of South Florida in the new American Athletic Conference until, suddenly, everything changed in April. Brooks suffered a broken foot that required extensive surgery.
“She had a bone removed and two tendons transferred,” said Krista Brooks, Hailey’s mother. “Her foot is not at 100 percent; she says it’s about 85. She’s doing a lot of physical therapy. Her coach wants her to play so bad.”
Brooks has not redshirted as there are still hopes she can get on the court before the end of the 2013 season, which comes in early December. Adding to the frustration is the Bulls’ 6-8 record going into AAC play starting this weekend. If healthy, she could certainly be contributing.
But for now, she waits for those “first-time” jitters on the collegiate stage, grinding out in rehab, fighting a mental battle to return to the rectangle she knows, and loves, so much.
For every Suber, Lien or Haynesworth, there are hundreds who graduated from our county’s four high schools last June and advanced to higher education without the fanfare that comes with playing a sport. Their hard work, ability to transition, and early returns, are, too, recognized here and congratulated.
But as these stories show, every road is different, nothing is guaranteed, and for these six student-athletes, it is no longer a simple saying. Truly, “real life” has begun.