By Rob Daniels
UNCGSpartans.com staff writer
GREENSBORO, N.C. – In idle moments, they ponder interior-design ideas about the rafters of Fleming Gym. Right side or left? Middle or on an end?
"We don't have any banners," senior opposite hitter Billi Baker said as the UNCG Spartans prepare for this weekend's Southern Conference championships in Boone, N.C. "And we see them everywhere else."
The quest for the title and all that comes with it will continue, and the Spartans (21-11, 9-7 SoCon) suggest they'll have an edge to them when they face Furman (17-11, 11-5) in the quarterfinals at 10 a.m. Friday. They perused the All-Conference team the other day and were surprised to learn that middle blocker Kayren Finney's name didn't appear anywhere. Finney, after all, is 12th in blocks per game in NCAA Division I, which encompasses 320 programs and more than 1,900 starting players.
The only Spartan representation came from Kellie Orewiler, an All-Freshman team honoree whose personal excitement was mitigated by the absence of teammates from the honor roll. Collectively, they were a bit surprised that finishing second in the North Division – after preseason picks of a fourth-place finish – counted for little.
"We're not some slouch team here," senior outside hitter Caley Redden said. "We're getting better."
Baker barely let her finish her thought after Wednesday's practice.
"No one picked us for anything," she said. "Emphasis on 'anything.'"
If they sound like they've got a bit of an attitude, they do. And it explains why their up-and-down season took an upward trend to conclude the regular season.
After starting 14-3, the Spartans stagnated and then hit a rough patch with 3-0 losses to Elon and Furman and a 3-1 verdict to High Point. Coach Patrick Nicholas convened nine players and decided it was "time for me to risk something."
He challenged the nine to explain their recent struggles. He knew there were no personal issues or team cliques.
"Something wasn't right," Nicholas said. "As we watched tape, we saw that the first seven or eight points of a set were dictating everything else. We became islands out there."
Nicholas said he thought they weren't communicating enough when things started to go bad during a set. They'd need to pick up the pace verbally to jump-start themselves when results didn't make that happen independently.
"They opened up honestly and started to see all they could do to help each other," Nicholas said.
Quick conferences between points – even if limited to platitudes like "Hang in there" or "Nice dig" – were encouraged. Film study became more intense.
In wins last weekend against Appalachian State and Western Carolina, a rejuvenated group rolled to victory to clinch the second spot in the North and take some momentum into the conference tourney.
For the five Spartan seniors, the ride has been eventful. They made the league championship game as freshmen and the semifinals as sophomores and had to deal with a last-minute coaching change in 2009. Nicholas couldn't be hired from Marshall until three days before practice started.
A season ago, they didn't even get to go to the SoCon tourney, which was pared down from eight teams to four in a cost-cutting move that thankfully hasn't been repeated.
"The time has gone by so fast," Finney said, "but it has been a great experience. I wouldn't have traded it for an opportunity to do anything else."
They hope they're peaking again, and their intent is to take it out on the rest of the SoCon.
"Now, we're out for their heads," Finney said. "We want to prove to them that they haven't seen us at our potential."
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