What a difference a year makes.
As the Stetson University volleyball team heads into its final home weekend of the regular season, the Hatters (16-11, 7-5 Atlantic Sun) have reached new levels of success the program has not seen for decades - winning streaks of five and seven matches in the first month of the season, a 10-2 home mark, a school-record seven conference victories, and the team's highest win total for a single-season (16) since 1996.
The success follows a year in which the Hatters won just four matches overall, and none in conference play.
Much of the foundation for the team's rapid turnaround was laid by the team’s two seniors and team captains, Ellen Hawks and Kaley ‘Mel’ Melville. Even before the first day of fall practice, the pair dedicated countless hours preparing team activities and planning ways to create a family-like atmosphere to help foster a positive team chemistry.
“Mel and Ellen worked their tails off over the summer to put this team where we are,” sophomore Kayla Weller said. “They made us bond as a team and its showing on and off the court.”
During their first three years at Stetson, Hawks and Melville felt a strong desire to be team leaders. Even as freshmen they were key contributors on the court, and they worked hard to set an example for their teammates. Head coach Tim Loesch came to the program at the tail end of their freshman year, and noticed their leadership qualities right away.
“They have been leaders since I first got here and have progressed to taking more and more of a role as they have become older and more experienced,” Loesch said. “One of the differences this year is that they are seniors and they don’t feel like they are stepping on somebody else’s toes by leading.”
Loesch was right. As underclassmen playing with more experienced players, Hawks and Melville focused their energies on setting an example with their hard work on and off the court.
“We just gave it everything that we had and tried to create an atmosphere of what we wanted,” Hawks said. “As the years have gone on we’ve stepped up and taken more of that leadership role, and desired it more, of just changing the culture of Stetson Volleyball, and each year we wanted to change it a little bit more and a little bit more. This year we were just so pumped. We have been working forever for this moment.”
Loesch said Hawks and Melville really started to step up their role as team leaders last spring. Even though the two players were practicing and competing with the Stetson sand volleyball team, they continued to train with the indoor team as well.
“It was great for (Hawks and Melville) to stay in touch with last year’s freshmen and get to play and practice with them during that formative time of offseason training,” Loesch said. “I think it really started there where they made the extra effort to do two sports at once. That really helped them bond with that group.”
The summer followed, and the student-athletes went their separate ways to enjoy a few months off to refresh for the next school year. Hawks went to Missouri to continue her summer work as a Christian camp counselor and mentor, while Melville stayed locally at her home in Daytona Beach. Both spent a lot of time communicating with the incoming freshmen to make them feel welcome before they even arrived, and Melville frequently visited campus to work with the coaches on sprucing up the team locker room.
“Mel put a lot of work in this summer,” Hawks said. “She put up a lot of cool decorations in the locker room, like signs depicting each girl’s home state where they can write about what inspires them. She also made a study room in there and made it feel like a home, a place where the girls would be excited to come into.
“I was so excited when she would call me on the phone and tell me all about it,” Hawks added. “We really focused from the beginning on making it a team-first environment before we even started playing volleyball.”
The pair also developed the team motto for the 2013 season: “One.”
“‘One’ means we are unified in everything that we do, both on and off the court,” Hawks said. “Every day in practice we come in and we work really hard. We create an atmosphere of being confident, being competitive, giving it everything you got, and being there to support your teammates.”
“We decided that ‘One’ is the best term for us because it’s ‘One’ team, ‘One’ love, and ‘One’ game,” Melville added. “But more importantly, ‘One’ just stands for all of the girls coming together and standing as one. We are very excited to hold on to that theme.”
When the summer drew to a close, the student-athletes returned to campus for fall training. With the 2013 squad assembled together for the first time, Hawks and Melville went to work on implementing their team motto and creating a strong team chemistry.
“Before we even started practicing, we decided we were going to put time and effort into team bonding first,” Hawks said. “We wanted to become a team off the court so we can trust each other on the court.”
The seniors’ efforts during those first few days on campus made a huge first impression on the freshmen.
“(Mel and Ellen) really made sure we did a lot of team bonding activities,” said McKenna Foster, a freshman from Ocala, Fla. “We went to the beach, we had a team olympics, and we did a lot of activities together. They really made sure to show us around and include us in everything so we felt like we were part of the team right away. We never felt awkward or out of place.”
On several occasions during the preseason, Hawks and Melville traded their Stetson hats for chef’s hats and cooked meals for the entire team, typically breakfast.
“We would go grocery shopping and easily go through three dozen eggs, two pounds of bacon, and we would just clear out the fridge for them,” Melville said. “It was nice because it gave them a chance to come into our home, and for us to provide for them. It just gave them a real sense of home and family, which has been our goal since day one.”
Soon it was time to hit the court, where the coaches put the team through a grueling three weeks of practice, strength training, and conditioning.
“The seniors have made it a lot of fun but they have also made it tough,” Loesch said about the preseason. “They set the standard high for all the incoming girls, and everyone has followed their lead. They took the other girls under their wing and showed them what they needed to do to be successful and helped them get through a tough preseason.”
The Hatters’ strong start included a season-opening win over Drake, a four-match sweep of the Stetson Westin Classic, and the team’s longest winning streak since 1988. However, after opening the Lion Classic with a win over Southern University, the Hatters dropped two straight matches to Southeastern Louisiana and Nebraska-Omaha. During a break before the team’s next match, the coaches spent some time talking to the team and challenging them to play more aggressively. Then Hawks and Melville pulled the team aside and held a players-only meeting.
“As much as we enjoy leading, we wanted the other girls to have a chance to say what they wanted to say,” Hawks recalled. “They said some really good things about picking up the energy, what we need to do, and how we need to trust each other. Then we took a second and I said, ‘This is where we decide what we want to be about. Mel and I know what we want this team to be about, but this is also on you. You have to take ownership of it. Don’t tell us. Come back out and show us. We decide now, and once we decide, we are not changing it.’”
The Hatters took the court against Louisiana Tech, and despite falling 27-25 in the first set, Stetson came roaring back, hitting a phenomenal .457 over the final three sets to pull away with a convincing 3-1 victory.
“We came out and played so aggressively,” Hawks said. “The passing was on point, (setter) Kayla (Weller) was incredible. She had all of her hitters hitting high percentages. When we got off the court, Mel and I were so excited. We said, ‘that’s what Stetson Volleyball is about, and that’s what we expect from here on out.’”
As the season progressed, the victories continued to mount. A 4-0 start in conference play put Stetson in first place in the A-Sun at the end of September. October brought road wins at USC Upstate and Mercer and another home win over Northern Kentucky. Now, as the Hatters prepare for their final two home matches Friday against USC Upstate and Saturday against ETSU, they find themselves on verge of clinching a spot in the A-Sun tournament for the first time since 1995.
As much as Hawks and Melville have contributed off the court, they have led the team on the court as well. Melville currently ranks fifth in the conference in kills (3.57 per set), and she was named A-Sun Player of the Week on Sept. 23. She recently became the first player in school history to surpass both 1200 kills and 1100 digs in a career.
Hawks, meanwhile, ranks fifth in the conference in blocks (0.95) and earned A-Sun Defensive Player of the Week honors on Sept. 9. Her 370 career blocks is tops in school history in the rally-scoring era, and that total currently ranks seventh all-time in A-Sun history.
However, individual accolades and accomplishments are not what motivate Hawks and Melville. Their team-first mentality has always been their first priority and has been a real blessing for the coaching staff.
“It is very selfless of them to put the team first,” Loesch said. “They are seeing when they do that, we have a lot of individual success as well. We get more individual awards, and people reaching personal milestones. They are definitely putting the team first, and that’s why we have been successful. All the girls have bought into that, and it has been a lot of fun to see them come together as a team.”
“Last year, we had an image of what we wanted it to be like this year,” Hawks said. “I think as we worked to develop what we wanted the team to be about, we realized that even though we have a bunch of personal desires – we want to make a huge impact (on the court), we want to go really far – getting to know these girls and coming together as a team has made it so much more. It’s not just about us. We care more about leaving a legacy of the program being changed forever, so that those girls have a chance to experience something entirely different than what we experienced: that they know a winning program, that they know what it’s like to work hard, and that they know what it’s like to be a team.”
“This isn’t a change that we implemented for one year,” Melville said. “This is a change for Stetson Volleyball forever. This is something that the school and our teammates deserve. Now is our time. Just to see that really resonate with the girls is something that is really important to me.”
For the seniors, each victory is bittersweet. They are thrilled at how well the team is doing, but also constantly think about how few games are left in their career.
“I have dedicated 12 years of my life to this sport, and this is it,” Melville said. “We have x-number of games left and every single day, when we come out onto the court, I look at Ellen and say, ‘We only have so many left. Let’s make sure every single game counts, so that when we leave, these girls will carry on what we helped create.’ That feeling alone is better than any record that either one of us will ever break, or any recognition, or just knowing that our team came together as one, in the last year that we were here.”
Hawks and Melville will be honored prior to Saturday's match vs. ETSU. Tickets are $5 for adults and $4 for students and seniors (Stetson students, faculty, and staff are free with an ID). Live video and live stats will be available through GoHatters.com.