OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — Across the net stood Megan Chase, a 5-foot-9 junior, and Destinee Harrison, a 6-1 sophomore, of Seoul American, ready to leap and block anything that came their way.
On the shorter side, Osan American junior Nicole Sparks stands at 5-foot-1, and is a more renowned defensive specialist who last season had a team-leading 289 defensive digs for an Osan team that finished the year 23-6.
Still, Sparks lept from her outside hitter spot and smacked the ball between the double block, one of her eight kills in the match.
"That really surprised me," she said. "I didn’t know I could do that."
Though Osan lost the conference match 25-21, 25-22, 25-23 on Sept. 10 at Falcon Gym, Sparks made a statement that her Cougars, despite just four returning players, aren’t ready to fold.
To help prepare that statement, she and teammate Laura Vega were busy last summer. They spent 25 days on the road in July attending three stateside volleyball camps while visiting 11 college campuses in five states.
The trip was the brainchild of several folks. Longtime Seoul Foreign coach J.P. Rader invited the two to a camp he runs at Asbury College in Kentucky. Vega’s mom, Christine, wanted to give Laura and Nicole exposure to selected small liberal arts colleges from the book "Forty Colleges That Change Lives," by Loren Pope.
"You have smaller classes, you’re able to forge relationships with professors, you’re not taught by a graduate assistant," Christine Vega said. "And if you’re dedicated to your sport, there may be more of an opportunity" to play at smaller colleges than Division I universities.
Spending most of the 25 days in the car driving from state to state, Chris Vega and her husband, Gualberto, also drove Laura and Sparks to the Penn State camp at Juniata College and the Lockhaven camp at Mansfield.
Sparks and Vega each characterized their experience as an "eye-opener."
"Especially for an athlete who does sports in Korea," Vega said. "They’re better than you and they’re worried about just making their JV team. It’s scary. They practice all year round, they play on club teams, everything. You see how good they are and you want to improve."
"They helped with our skill a lot," Sparks said. "They got really technical, the science behind volleyball."
They also saw a different slice of Americana as they drove through Amish and Mennonite country in Pennsylvania and to New Jersey, where many Hasidic Jews reside. "Nicole and I jumped out of our seats when we saw a horse-drawn wagon and the way they dress," Vega said.
The two behaved as figurative sponges wherever they went, absorbing as much as they could about the game. Vega worked on improving her setting and defense; Sparks worked on her hitting.
"My defense got better," Vega said. "I’m moving my feet more, not relying on my arms and hands."
"Nicole can hit with almost anybody now," said first-year Osan coach Cari Pease of Sparks, who had 47 kills in 29 matches last season but already has 24 in four matches this season.
Rader feels the two also developed a tougher mindset, which can help Osan get through rough patches during matches, and have cut down on unforced errors.
"That’s critical in taking the next step up," said Rader, "That can only make their team better and improve their chances at playing at a higher level."
Holdover Celine Baldevia, a senior and reigning Class A Tournament MVP, feels the two can improve their numbers from last season. Sparks should see her assist, service ace and spike kill numbers rise from 8, 25 and 47 last season; Vega led the team with 342 set assists, 91 service aces and 22 block points, had 121 kills in 436 attempts and 123 digs.
"Nicole is better all around. She can hit, and her setting has improved," she said. "Laura’s setting had improved and she can place the ball on serve anywhere she wants."
"Every aspect of my game is better than it was last year," Vega said. "And I’m a senior now, more experienced."
Baldevia, Sparks and Vega, or the "Little Big Three" as they’re known at Osan, should help the Cougars go far both in KAIAC and Far East, another rival coach says.
"Those three are going to take that team far," Seoul American coach Denny Hilgar said. "They’re well coached. They place the ball well on serve and they attack weak spots. They’ll be the key to whatever success they’ll have."