Local products Ivey Rice (10), Renzey Rice (8), Meredith Hardy (9), Megan Devine (3) and Jamie Rutledge (1) have helped ETSU volleyball coach Lindsey Devine (center) build the Bucs into a championship program.
East Tennessee State head volleyball coach Lindsey Devine knows her team has a special bond.
What many don’t realize, however, is the connection began long before any of the current players on this year’s roster set foot on campus.
The bond started seven years ago when the “Kingsport Trio” – Megan Devine, Jamie Rutledge, and Meredith Hardy – began a successful run at Dobyns-Bennett High School and with the Kingsport Volleyball Club. Little did they know, the three would continue their connection 20 miles
down the road as Buccaneers.
Along the way, the three recruited Ivey Rice, a high school rival at Science Hill, to join them and build a dominating club group. From there, Ivey’s sister, Renzey – the 2011 and 12 Big 8 Conference Player of the Year at Science Hill – took interest and later joined the “Fearsome Four” at ETSU.
“Moving to another club team wasn’t an easy decision, but I remember Jamie sending me a Facebook message saying ‘We’d love to have you,’” said Ivey. “I remember my dad saying I should try out, so I was debating between them and TEVA. After Jamie messaged me, I thought they weren’t as mean as they were made out to be, and I decided to try out with them. Everyone was really nice at the tryout and the rest is history.”
During their time in the club system, the group was coached by Devine, and the team reached levels that were never touched prior. The team, which was often mistaken as a group from Kentucky or Kansas, went on to finish 10th at Junior Nationals in Miami, along with winning several tournaments over the years.
“The girls reached new levels in club play and put Northeast Tennessee volleyball on the map,” coach Devine said.
The turning point for the team came at a tournament in Roanoke.
“It was my first year playing with Jamie, Megan, and Meredith, and we played Volley FX, which was a team of 18-year-olds,” said Ivey Rice. “The majority of their team already committed to play collegiately and we were little freshman and sophomores. They were pounding the ball in warm-ups, and I remember Coach Devine telling us to play our best and we can do this. We came together and beat them, and everyone in the gym was shocked. This was a defining moment, because it proved when you have chemistry and work together that a team can beat talent.”
It wouldn’t be the last memorable moment for the group as Megan Devine moved on and arrived at ETSU to wear the Blue and Gold in the fall of 2010. A year later, Rutledge, Hardy, and Ivey Rice reunited to join their former teammate, while Renzey became a Buccaneer this fall.
When it came down to deciding on ETSU or another school, several factors weighed in, but one common theme kept popping up when asked “Why did you choose ETSU?”
The group agreed that the family atmosphere that coach Devine has instilled and the connection they made by playing together in the club system played a large role in their choice.
Hardy, who didn’t start playing volleyball with Megan and Jamie until her freshman year at D-B, had two additional factors in her decision-making process.
“I wanted to be close to home so my parents could watch me play and I could also watch my brother play,” said Hardy, who first united with Megan while playing soccer in elementary school. “Also, Megan was already playing here and Jamie committed before me, so those were also big draws.”
Meanwhile, Ivey had other schools in the picture at first, but after she toured the campus her thoughts became clear that ETSU was the choice for her.
“I went to summer camps at Freed-Hardeman (where her older sister played) and loved the school,” commented Rice. “But after coming on ETSU’s campus and walking around – along with some help from Megan – I knew I wanted to come here.”
Megan knew Ivey had the skills and talent to play Division I volleyball, and she didn’t want her to lose out on that experience.
“I kept telling Ivey that she needed to play at the Division I level, and fortunately for us, she decided on ETSU,” commented Devine.
As for Megan, it was herself who took interest in ETSU because coach Devine wanted her daughter to keep her options open.
“We really weren’t recruiting Megan,” said coach Devine. “As a mother, and coaching her for so long, I thought she had to branch out and explore other options. But she continued to recruit us, and as a family, she knew we wouldn’t get to see her much if she played elsewhere. We have a strong family bond and it was important for her to have us there.”
“I remember the day I committed to ETSU,” Megan said. “Earlier in the week, I was in Florida for a USA High Performance showcase, and I came back for the last day of ETSU’s summer camp. Coach had recruits at camp all week, and she said, ‘You have to play well tomorrow.’ I remember doing well on the last day of camp and I came into the office to commit, but coach said she was out of scholarships. After a few moments of silence, coach said she was kidding and offered me an opportunity to be a part of the ETSU program.”
As for Renzey, it wasn’t easy with her older sister already being a part of the program, but seeing the championship caliber of play and making ETSU as close or far away from home were strong selling points.
“Making my decision wasn’t easy, because I didn’t want people to think I was following in Ivey’s footsteps,” said Renzey. “I enjoy playing with my sister, but I decided on ETSU because I witnessed the championship success and wanted to be a part of the winning culture.”
Having local talent at ETSU has not only made it an easy transformation for them, but for the rest of their teammates as well.
“Our moms get together and help with the family bond by cooking meals for the team, so this helps our teammates who aren’t close to home adjust to college life,” added Ivey Rice.
The players aren’t the only ones who have enjoyed the run and special bond.
“With us staying together, our parents have also benefited,” said Rutledge. “Volleyball has provided them with a lifetime of friendships, and at times, they all stay together when we are playing on the road.”
Along with the local parents assisting to make the adjustment to college life easier on the girls, coach Devine and her staff does a tremendous job recruiting student-athletes who display high character.
To go with their success on the court, the Bucs have constantly won the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Team Academic award, while last year’s team posted the second-highest GPA among any team at ETSU with a 3.592 GPA. Overall, 12 players registered a GPA above a 3.0 a year ago, while six recorded a 3.7 clip or higher. Meanwhile, in the fall of 2012, a record-high four ETSU volleyball student-athletes were placed on the A-Sun All-Academic Team.
Then, earlier this week, Hardy was named A-Sun Scholar-Athlete of the Year, while she and Devine landed on the all-academic team.
“Coach Devine makes it easy for all of us to come together by recruiting great people,” said Hardy. “We’re a family here at ETSU. People probably think we have our own local ‘clique,’ but this team is close and we are all friends. When you’re with your teammates for so long they become family and it feels like everyone has been friends their entire life.”
The group also does a sound job interacting within the community, and in result, fans flock to Brooks Gym to support the Blue and Gold.
“This is a group that gives back to the community,” said coach Devine. “They are coaching in the club system they grew up in. We also host a middle school tournament and our players do an excellent job interacting with those schools and coaches. This team does a great job in public, because they come to ETSU with strong people skills and their families instill strong values in them. It really shows how wonderful they are."
As well as being great ambassadors off the court, the Bucs have been thriving on the court as ETSU won an Atlantic Sun Championship and went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history last season. So far in 2013, the Blue and Gold have enjoyed a pair of nine-match win streaks, beat Tennessee, and claimed a share of the A-Sun regular season title.
“This team has so many great traits and they all have one common goal – to be successful,” said coach Devine. “The group has a lot of different personalities and that has been the key to our success. These girls are genuine, sincere, caring young ladies who respect each other. They developed these traits outside of volleyball and it has carried over on the court.
“This group knows the great things about each other and their weaknesses. Sometimes girls can take things personal, but these girls don’t. They are all about having competitive spirit and each of them strives to bring out the best in one another.”
Being a student-athlete takes a strong commitment, and the players have already reaped the benefits of being part of a team environment.
“Playing volleyball and being a part of this team helped me in my summer internship,” said Ivey Rice, who interned at Siemens Corporation. “We worked in a team environment and playing sports helped me reach out to the group to apply leadership skills.”
“Being a Division I athlete has taught me so much about life,” added Rutledge. “We have so many responsibilities and we are fortunate to carry our experiences from collegiate athletics into the real world. Sports can teach you so much about yourself, but it’s what we do for each other that makes us better people. This team does so much to shape the lives of others.”
Along with preparing for the real world, the group hopes to have made an impact in local recruiting at ETSU.
“I don’t think people see the Tri-Cities as a huge sports area, and I believe most people see ETSU as being the back-up to UT,” Ivey Rice said. “But I think we helped change that image. We weren’t forced to come here, we chose to come here and that says a lot about ETSU. I think us staying close to home and having the success on the court can help other programs. It shows we aren’t a small school and we can do big things here.”
“It’s exciting for the community,” said Rutledge. “Whether fans have a close connection or not, there are those who come to our matches because of the local talent.”
“I think more local talent will want to follow after seeing us stick together and achieve everything we have built at ETSU,” said Megan Devine. “Our success at ETSU is a strong testament that we are a big program having success. It shows we aren’t just a bunch of local farm girls and we do have talent in this area.”
Coach Devine also knows the importance of keeping local players close to home.
“If you can recruit a local athlete that is going to help the program it’s such a rewarding opportunity for the family, community and school,” said Devine. “To see parents, friends, and family in the stands supporting local players, really highlights the hard work high school and club coaches have put in throughout the area. We are going to continue bringing in local players, so we can have the support of the community. Programs thrive when you have the support we are getting, so it makes everyone want to be a part of the success at ETSU.
The current players have done a tremendous job laying the foundation of the championship success, but all good things must eventually come to an end. When asked to put the local group into words, Devine became emotional because of the strong bond that has been built throughout the years on and off the court.
“It’s going to be hard to replace them,” said Devine. “They are like my kids. You have to scold them when they need it and put an arm around them in a time of need. They are such wonderful, caring, genuine young ladies, and they make my job so rewarding every day. I love being around them.
“It’s really unique because they take each other’s weaknesses and strive to make each other better. They don’t judge and they’re quick to help each other, because they really want to bring out the best in their teammates. I’m really lucky to coach this group.”
Coach says she’s lucky to be a part of this group, but ETSU, the community, and volleyball fans are also blessed to witness this connection build even further.
This group already has one championship under their belt. Could another come this weekend?
Only time will tell, but if the hardware is brought back to Johnson City, a dynasty may be forming right in front us.