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Home Finale: Golden Eagle volleyball team to send off three on Senior Day


By Jocelyn VerVelde, Sports Information Coordinator

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – "In our lives we will encounter many challenges, and tomorrow we face one together. How we accept the challenge and attack the challenge head-on is only about us -- no one can touch that. If we win or lose this weekend, it will not make a difference in our lives. But why we play and how we play will make a difference in our lives forever." – Beth Anders, a former field hockey sweeper from the United States, who was a member of the national team that won the bronze medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California.

While Beth Anders may have said the above quote in preparation for a field hockey game, it reflects in a different context on the career of a college student-athlete. Every college athlete has experienced challenges that will make a difference in their life forever, and hopefully prepare them for the challenges following their careers.

This weekend, the Tennessee Tech volleyball team honors and thanks their three seniors, Natalie Penrod, Elise Robertson and Ashleigh Hancock. Each has had to deal with their own challenges, but have been able to push through and be able to play a sport they love at the Division I level. 

"Having the opportunity to play and represent Tennessee Tech at the Division I level has not only been a great experience but has also taught me many valuable lessons preparing me for my life after college," said Penrod. "Coming from a high school where I was the first athlete to receive a full scholarship and compete at this level was an accomplishment in itself. Then I came into the Golden Eagle program as a freshman starter and was honored with the all-newcomer team award.  I couldn't have been more thrilled.

"My freshman year was the most successful of all my years playing here at Tech. However, regardless of the season results over the past three years, I've gained some great friendships, learned many life lessons, and with all my injuries and health problems, I've learned that life does go on. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and most importantly, don't take anything for granted."

While head coach Dave Zelenock has only coached Penrod, Robertson and Hancock for one season, he has seen them grow and develop as people and players.

"Natalie was the driving force behind the team from spring all the way through fall," Zelenock said. "She was our emotional leader and really was a great leader by example during a real time of transition. She did anything we asked of her and went hard at everything. That's just the type of person she is; when she commits to doing something, she's all in.

"Through all her health concerns, she has tried to stay connected to the team. It's a little tough because she hasn't been able to physically even be in the gym to lead us, but what she did was lay the foundation and show others how to lead and step up, and that's what we are seeing out of the team."

Right-side hitter Elise Robertson has struggled with her own injuries, but has been able to push through and have one of her best seasons.

"I've learned a lot throughout my career," said Robertson. "When I was injured during my junior year, I learned to see the game from a coaching perspective. From the bench, you see the way coaches see the game, and you learn the game differently. My challenges have taught me to never give up on things. I have a trust in the system, and faith that things will work out even if something does do wrong.

"The player I am this season is the player I have always wanted to be. I don't know if it's because of the change in the program or if it is because I am a senior and know this is my last chance, but I have more confidence in my teammates and more confidence in my own capabilities. It's nice to have the responsibility and role to contribute to the team the way I have always wanted to."

Statistically, Robertson is averaging a career-best 2.32 kills per set, including a career-high 17 kills against Stony Brook on Sept. 14. She also has added a total of 47 blocks this season, including a career-high 10 against Kennesaw State on Sept. 13. She also made her first all-tournament team at the Akron Invitational in September.

"Elise brings us power," Zelenock commented about Robertson's attacking abilities. "She has one of the heaviest arms I've had on any team. Early in the year she was our go-to kid when we needed a point. She had a little slump, but the last few matches she has re-emerged as a real point scorer in and out of system. She also has a powerful personality within the team and isn't afraid to say the unpopular thing, which I love. She's very comfortable in her own skin and you always know what she thinks, you never have to wonder.

"Her mind set as a player is the most improved," he added. "She was fairly tentative in the spring and now she's going for it on every swing. As coaches we were telling her how good she is, but it took a while for her to really believe it, and I think now late in the year she's really dialed in and knows how good she is."

During the 2013 season, Zelenock needed to call on Hancock to play a full-time role as a six-rotation setter for the first time in her collegiate career.

"I realized I had to take a step this season as a senior and help lead this team," said Hancock. "I had more of an input and people respected me more. The biggest lesson I've learned is that you always need to stay positive, even if it means forcing it. Especially as a setter, I learned that my attitude would affect players on the court so I had to make a conscious effort to stay positive. I've loved having the opportunity to improve my skills and my volleyball mind, and being a part of a team."

Zelenock appreciates the strides Hancock has taken.

"Ashleigh's done great. It's been tough because she's never blocked in college because she only set from back row," he said. "It's night-and-day different from the first day I worked with Ashleigh until now. Her set quality, decisions, blocking, digging and leadership have all grown tremendously. She's also adding attacking to her skill set and that's something she didn't do last year.

"She's in the office a lot watching film and constantly talking to Coach Joyner about what types of schemes we want to run in certain rotations, against certain blockers, set distribution, and has really become a student of the game. The last two weeks she has been playing her best and that's exactly what you need seniors to do, be their best late in the year."

While each of these three seniors had to overcome challenges on and off the court, they learned valuable life lessons that will help them throughout their lives ahead.

On Saturday, Hancock, Robertson, and Penrod will don purple and gold one last time as the Golden Eagles host Southeast Missouri at 2 p.m. CT. This will be the final game of the 2013 season. Admission is free.