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Open Mike: Eden volleyball stands out among all programs

CHAMPIONS — The Eden girls volleyball team celebrates the program’s 11th state title, after sweeping its way through the state tournament over the weekend.
There is a separation that Eden has established from other girls volleyball teams and most athletic programs, in general, around the state.

The Raiders are accomplishing feats over and over again that most programs would be good with doing just once. It seems we’ve gotten so used to Eden winning state titles, it becomes commonplace to take these accomplishments for granted.

Eden coasted through the state’s final four – without losing a set – during the weekend, to win a fifth straight state title and seven in nine seasons. It’s the program’s 11th overall; eighth, as a Class C team.

There is such precision, attention to detail and an air of confidence that goes into every run and, when it ends with a state title, it almost seems to have become more expected than appreciated.

In actuality, this may be the most impressive run for a program since the era of state championship tournaments began in New York in the early 1990s. This is as close to perfection you’ll see at the high school sports level and it is all happening right here, in the small hidden-gem of a town called Eden.

“We consider ourselves a small school playing at a AA-size level,” said head coach Stephen Pierce.

Pierce is the driving force behind most of his players’ competing at the highest of levels, also encouraging them to play in club, many with Niagara Frontier Volleyball, which is also second to none in building and enhancing talent. Pierce also coaches and is on the board of directors with the NFVC.

There is year-round playing talent every season at Eden, which makes the program head and shoulders above similar-sized programs in the growing sport, but to have this much success at such a high level goes beyond solely talent. Pierce pinpointed two factors in Eden’s success: expectations and culture.

This team is held to a different standard, that which is required to win championship after championship.

There’s a certain level of play expected, which leaves some in awe and others uncomfortable, at times. To see a coach finding fault with a team that’s thoroughly dominating a match can elicit some uneasiness, but Pierce demands the best from his players at all times, regardless of the opponent’s strength.

“Even in a 20 – 5 set, the girls understand [that], if we don’t play to a certain standard, there’s an issue,” Pierce said. “If the girls play a point casually, it’s not about, ‘Oh well, we still won.’ It’s about playing to an acceptable standard.”

And then there’s the ownership that every player on the team seems to willingly take on. Pierce said that each new generation of team leaders are interested in leaving a path for others to follow, just like teammates before them did.

It provides each player with a sense of responsibility, especially when younger eyes are watching. Pierce also said that the maturity of older players each season is very helpful to the coaching staff.

“I don’t have a lot of rules; I don’t have to because the juniors and seniors do that for me,” Pierce said. “That’s what we’re all about here.”

Of course, a team of this standard has been able to accomplish quite a bit individually, as well. Starting with 2009 graduate Heather Henry, who played for North Carolina, Eden has had a remarkable number of players go off to play for Division I programs, some at major schools. By my count, it’s now seven, if you include recent Penn State signee Lainy Pierce.

That also includes Stacey Smith (2010), a senior at Georgia; Hannah Herc (2010), a senior at Kent State, Hailee Herc (2010), a senior at Stony Brook, Heather Feldman (2011), a junior at Gardner-Webb and Kendall Pierce (2012), a sophomore at Penn State, who will soon be reunited with her sister.

No surprise: The Pierce girls are the nieces of Stephen Pierce and daughters of Robert Pierce, a former Penn State men’s volleyball player himself, who demands much of the same level of play from his boys volleyball program at Eden. In a way, the Eden volleyball program seems to be an extension of the Pierce family’s standards and values.

It takes discipline and dedication to maintain these expectations and a culture, which are the framework of all of the successes Eden has experienced. It may not be a fit for every student-athlete, but for the right person, the lessons learned while playing in this program can also help create some separation from others, in how that person carries one’s self in life.
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