Valley spikers off to solid start under new leader
To say interim Missouri Valley College head men's volleyball coach Joan Rickert hit the ground running is not only cliché, but gross understatement.
Hired from Midland Lutheran (Neb.) -- where she spent the last eight of her 23 years in coaching -- following the sudden resignation of Ed Johnson, Rickert arrived in Marshall only two days before the start of the Vikings' Jan. 18 season opener.
"I didn't know any of their names," she remarked. "Fortunately, they can all speak English."
They can also work, which they had been doing on their own -- with conditioning help from MVC men's wrestling coach Mike Machholz and men's soccer boss Vladimir Simic. That made the transition considerably easier.
"They helped me out with their normal procedures," Rickert said. "They've been working themselves so long that they incorporated me into it."
That resulted in a solid 7-1 start, although there have been a couple of bumps during the last week -- starting with a five-set Jan. 31 loss to defending national champion Lindenwood.
"It showed the guys we could be in there with them," Rickert said. Since then, Valley -- 8-4 overall and 4-1 in the MidAmerica Men's Volleyball Intercollegiate Conference -- split two matches at the Lindenwood Tournament. "There were a couple of games in there that we kind of let go of, but I feel responsible for that."
The Vikings return the bulk of the squad which finished third in the Tachikara/NAIA Championships a year ago, including all four all-MAMVIC picks. Sophomore libero Nebojsa Janovic was the conference's top defensive player and sophomore outside hitter Adam Tuifagu was the "freshman of the year."
This season, more of the hits have gone to sophomore Leandro Justen, while junior Milos Velimirovic has been a reliable force in the middle.
The Vikings also have veterans in junior hitter-setter Christopher Kaneko, junior middle Kapena Wong and senior hitter David Hoke. The addition of three newcomers -- sophomore middle Mirko Janovic, freshman libero Justin Himori and freshman blocker James Scheppard -- have made a strong group better.
"The experience of playing together, that familiarity of being around people," is an asset, according to Rickert. "They know how they play and what they do.
"If I had come in with some other schools, it could have been a huge struggle," she added. "It was a huge benefit for me."
Still, there is plenty to work on, and finally some time to do it -- with a string of weekend matches ahead, providing more time for practice during the week. Although Valley's players are in good shape athletically, Rickert said volleyball conditioning still needs to be fine-tuned.
Fortunately, the sixth-ranked Vikings are long on motivation -- a desire to return to the NAIA tourney.
"They've set their goals and are working hard toward all of those goals," Rickert said. "They are very, very, very emotional about volleyball."