Robert D. Edgren Eagles junior outside hitter and team captain Kalean Middleton.

Robert D. Edgren Eagles junior outside hitter and team captain Kalean Middleton. (Sheila Suckart/Special to Stars and Stripes)

Robert D. Edgren Eagles junior outside hitter and team captain Kalean Middleton.

Robert D. Edgren Eagles junior outside hitter and team captain Kalean Middleton. (Sheila Suckart/Special to Stars and Stripes)

Robert D. Edgren Eagles junior setter Nicole Marquez.

Robert D. Edgren Eagles junior setter Nicole Marquez. (Sheila Suckart/Special to Stars and Stripes)

It’s been coach Sarah Richardson’s seemingly never-ending story during her near quarter-century tenure as Robert D. Edgren volleyball coach: Possess some talent, but never enough to challenge the Division I wolves in the Kanto Plain, nor Morrison Academy and Daegu at the Far East Division II Tournament.

Struggle to find good transfers. Struggle to just get games, given Misawa Air Base’s distance from Tokyo. And invariably, watch the D-II title game from the stands. Edgren’s best finish was third three years ago.

Repeat all that every year.

Until now. A Labor Day weekend sweep of Division I Yokota was followed with another sweep two weeks later at Zama. And the Eagles took three-time Far East D-I Tournament runner-up Nile C. Kinnick to five sets last Saturday.

They’re hungry, loaded with veteran blood, they’re confident, they have chemistry and desire, Richardson and players say.

“We’ve got our eyes on that banner,” Eagles junior team captain Kalean Middleton said. “We’ll gladly take on anyone who tries to get in our way. We all believe that this is our year to win the D-II Far East title. We have the potential and we’re ready.”

In the eyes of junor setter Nicole Marquez, the early play that’s netted them their 4-2 start is simply building on a process that began in 2013.

“Since most of us are returners, we basically are just continuing (from where) we left off last year,” Marquez said.

With students moving in and out frequently, “it’s tough to build a team; a piece of the puzzle is always missing,” Richardson said. “This year, we have been fortunate to have several girls from last year. The beauty of this team is, I have a group of girls who bring different parts of the game to the court.”

Size in sophomore middle blocker Naomy Montanez. Defense in sophomore Coko Magby. Athleticism in Middleton and sophomore Essence Prince. The quick development as a setter and team leader by Marquez. “Teams in the past lacked experience. This group is a little more seasoned,” Richardson said.

Winning their opening match in five sets over Yokota on Sept. 5 was the eye-opener, Middleton said. “That is definitely the moment we realized that we could accomplish many great things this season.”

A three-set win followed the next day. Then came a three-set and four-set win at Zama on Sept. 19-20. The confidence level kept building and the team continued to bond, players said.

“The chemistry, communication and energy (are) phenomenal,” Middleton said. “Compared to last year, the girls have grown exponentially and continue to grow before my eyes.”

But then came the road trip to Kinnick – which occurred with Richardson on a family emergency in the States. Assistants Angie Martin and Ross Carreon took the team to Yokosuka Naval Base, where the Eagles surprised the host Red Devils by taking the first set 25-23 on Friday.

Kinnick rebounded to take the next three to win the match. But then came Saturday and another surprise performance by the Eagles. Edgren fought Kinnick all the way to five sets, winning the first and fourth sets while Kinnick took the fifth in surviving 23-25, 26-24, 25-22, 23-25, 15-10.

Though disappointed in losing, the Eagles did find some big takeaways that players say will prepare them for the rest of the season.

“Going up against a D-I school and matching up to their level is one of our greatest accomplishments this season,” Middleton said, adding that Richardson not being there made the Eagles fight all the more. “We learned a lot from it. We didn’t win the match, but we won hope.”

“Things happen for a reason and we felt good about how we did” Saturday, Marquez said. Kinnick “made us a better team as well. After playing Kinnick, we are basically mentally ready for the other teams.”

Kinnick’s coaching staff noticed. “They seemed to be unfazed, no matter what the score was or the outcome of the previous set,” Red Devils coach Tony San Nicolas said.

“This team … seems to have paid attention to what their coaching staff has prepared them for, and though they don’t have any real big standouts, I feel their understanding to work together as a team is a recipe for making few mistakes.”

Key to the team’s development as a winner has been the development of Marquez as a setter, Richardson said. “Nicole is always hungry and ready to play in any situation. She's the energy that I need and rely on. She's that no fear type of player that you always want on the court,” she said.

The Eagles get another shot at Kinnick come the DODDS Japan tournament Oct. 23-25, right back at the Devil Dome. While players and coach hope for a happy ending there and at Far East Nov. 3-6 at Zama, “it will be a tough road,” Richardson said.

“The competition will be tough. They have to get out there and play as a team, but most importantly, play with heart. They have the skills. They have to want it.”

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages the Pacific Storm Tracker.

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