NETHER PROVIDENCE — There are a set of mementos that adorn Kevin Haney's classroom at Strath Haven, serving as both a reflection of the Panthers' status as a Delaware County powerhouse and a not-so-subtle reminder as to how far Strath Haven has come as a program under the longtime coach's guidance.
When Haney took over the reins more than a decade ago, the Panthers were a Central League bottom-feeder and the thought of blossoming into an elite power seemed unlikely, if ever possible. But today, those reminders are enough to show how far the team has come.
The glowing faces of Emma Deininger, Jess Keller and Sharay Barnes, all beaming back from their respective Daily Times Player of the Year back pages of 2010, 2011 and 2012, respectively, speak volumes, but this year, Haney added a different touch to it. An additional picture of just a question mark saddled up next to the other three, begging the question as to who would be the next Player of the Year in Delaware County.
Oddly enough, it's from those three players that Panthers senior outside hitter Alice Roberts learned much of what has made her the player today. All three were different in their own right, but at the same time, they all had a hand in shaping Roberts' development as a player.
"Emma (an all-Big South player at Radford) was just a powerhouse and amazing blocker, so I got to spend my freshman year blocking with her. I practiced as a middle against her, so it was great to learn how to avoid a block with her,' Roberts said. "Jess (a starter at Appalachian State), my sophomore year, I was playing outside and right side, so with her, we would do drills together and she would tell me places to hit and helped me adjust myself.
It seems to have worked out well for Roberts. She blossomed as a junior, earning a spot on the All-Delco second team, but it wasn't until this year that she fully grasped the spotlight and became the go-to girl for the Panthers. The results were historic.
If an outside hitter connects on 30 percent of her swings, it's considered to be pretty darn good. Roberts shattered the Strath Haven hitting percentage record by putting down kills on an other-worldly 47.1 percent of her swings. She was also a force to be reckoned with defensively with a team-best 68 blocks and 246 digs, good enough for second on the team.
And while the individual stats were eye-popping enough, the stat that Roberts is the most proud of is the Central League championship that the Panthers took home thanks to a 3-1 win over rival Garnet Valley.
"I would definitely say (it was the highlight) because we lost last year,' Roberts said. "Freshman year was against Penncrest, but then the next three years, which were the three years that I played, were all against Garnet Valley. So it was pretty satisfying to get it my senior year and just be, like, ' I got my rivalry out.''
It was a heck of a way to highlight a fine senior season and it's because of that all-around dominance and consistency that Strath Haven's Alice Roberts is the 2013 Daily Times Volleyball Player of the Year. She is joined on the All-Delco team by fellow Panthers outside hitter Bridget Scott, the Sun Valley middle blocker/setter duo of Chelsea Jones and Madison McCunney, Garnet Valley libero Jenna Hostetler, Cardinal O'Hara outside hitter Caitlin Fitz and Penncrest libero Andrea Hartman. Hostetler and McCunney, both juniors, are the lone non-seniors on the team. Jones and Hostetler were also seriously considered for the Player of the Year spot in one of the closest races in years. All seven players are first-time All-Delcos. The All-Delco team is selected after consultation with the Delaware County coaches.
Stepping out of the shadows of Delco's best volleyball players for three straight years can have its perks. Playing second-fiddle to somebody else can eventually take a toll, but at the same time, it can also bring out the best. For Roberts, her senior season was all about fully seizing the opportunity afforded to her to keep Strath Haven as an elite program.
"It became more of a confidence thing,' said the All-District One pick and potential All-State pick. "I've always been behind a huge hitter who's going to be a big D-1 school and finally, it's my senior year and I'm one of the big hitters on the team. It's my chance to really come out and show everybody what I can do.'
Yeah, sure, but that can bring heightened expectations, increased attention from other teams and pressure that can cripple a player who can't handle the bigger role, right? Right?
"I like the pressure,' added Roberts, who has decided to play at the Division III level and will likely choose a school soon. "I enjoy having the pressure on me. I feel like I do well under pressure. I think I play better when there's pressure on me.'
The results are hard to argue with. The hitting percentage is easily a school record, a full 7.4 percentage points better than Keller, the next closest.
"It's absolutely mind-boggling,' Haney said. "I've never seen anything like that. That record is not going to be touched.'
The 346 kills are the fourth-best single-season mark in school history. The stats impress enough and Haney always figured Roberts had a bright career when he saw her as a freshman, but it wasn't until the bright lights were on during her sophomore year that he knew just how good she would be.
"We were playing Ridley in the first round of the Central League playoffs,' Haney said, "and she just went off. We knew she'd be good, but we didn't know how good. That night told us we had a special player on our hands.'
Roberts' senior year didn't end the way she wanted as Sun Valley, led by McCunney and Jones, stunned the Panthers for Strath Haven's third home loss in five years. It was that loss that brought out one of Roberts' favorite memories, though. About a week after that, the Panthers organized one final informal practice, which led to ...
"We had this terrible loss and nobody expected our season to end like that, so we thought, ' let's end it on a good note and have a fun practice.' All the varsity girls came in and we had tons of fun,' Roberts said with a smile. "All the back-row players got to play in the front row, we got to play defense. It was so much fun.'
So all in all, a 23-3 record against one of the toughest schedules in District One — she averaged 15.1 kills per match against District One and state-qualifying teams — a Central League title and the quirky memories that she shared with her teammates is more what you'll find Roberts reminiscing about.
"Volleyball's not an individual sport,' Roberts said, "so sure, I had a great season and I'm very proud of it, but I'm more proud of my team than I am of myself for doing any of that.'
There's a heck of a lot to be proud of.