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Volleyball: Long, Martin looking forward to leadership roles in Year 2

Sayonara, sophomore slump

If Hollywood wanted to remake the Odd Couple, and were choosing volleyball players from the Sauk Valley area, there would be few duos who would fit the bill like Dixon's Jessa Long and Sterling's Kaylee Martin.

One is a diminutive, talkative back-row defensive demon. The other is a tall, softer-spoken terror at the net. Both are sophomores looking to take the next step after stellar freshman seasons for the Duchesses and Golden Warriors.

And both are extremely well-equipped to do just that … and not just physically. A year of varsity experience has done wonders for the duo, and the growing pains are a thing of the past.

"It was very scary last year," said Martin, who was fifth in the area in kills (243) and third in the area in aces (64) as a freshman starter for Sterling in 2013. "I didn't know what to expect, or what to do to fit in. Last year, I wasn't mentally ready for varsity volleyball; I'd get nervous and mess up, and I'd let it get to me.

"But I had great teammates, especially Darien [Bardoner, a senior setter], who helped me a lot and just kept me calm."

Long's story is very similar. As Dixon's libero, she led the area in digs with 520, setting a single-season school record in the process. But at the start, she was in the same boat as Martin: a wide-eyed freshman wondering how she would be accepted by the older girls.

But it seems as if those tables have turned heading into this season. Both Long and Martin will be heavily relied upon to provide leadership for teams looking to make deep postseason runs.

And both seem to have gone from the nervous youngsters to the responsible veterans.

"Jessa is the calming influence for us back there," Dixon coach Bunyan Cocar said. "It's just so chaotic when she's not on the court. The girls understand how she plays defense, and they rely on her and have so much confidence in her … and she's developed so much confidence in them, too."

"Kaylee is excited to take on that leadership role," Sterling coach Dale Dykeman said. "Last year, she always talked about 'the' team. This year, she talks about 'my' team. She's really taking ownership of things."

The journey from needing a security blanket to being the security blanket was a somewhat gradual one, filled with potential pitfalls – which never seemed to trip up either phenom.

But while those converging paths eventually led to the same place, they were very divergent at the beginning.

For Long, it was less about stepping up and more about earning trust. Never one to shy away from voicing her thoughts, Long was determined from the start to prove herself to her teammates and earn that varsity libero spot as a ninth-grader.

"I respected them so much, and I think once they saw how I could play, they respected me just as much," Long said. "Once we meshed together, I think we all realized what we were capable of."

Martin's issue was the opposite. Her teammates knew right away that she had elite-level talent; the problem was she wasn't always comfortable asserting herself, and often deferred to her older teammates.

"I was very quiet last year, and that can't happen this year," Martin said. "I have to be a better leader, which means being more vocal and encouraging and confident. I just want to give more to my teammates."

There is a prime example for the two girls to learn from, and they don't have to look very far. Rock Falls' Bailey O'Brien knows exactly what her former youth volleyball teammates are going through, having had the same adjustment period in the summer of 2013.

O'Brien was a key piece in the Rockets' run to the Class 3A supersectional as a freshman in 2012; the timid O'Brien found it easy to fit in and go with the flow in a senior-laden group. But last year, O'Brien struggled at times to come out of her shell, while leading Rock Falls to its second straight Big Northern West championship.

"I'm kind of a shy person, so it was hard at first when I realized I had to communicate a lot more," said O'Brien, who finished second in the area in kills (283) and aces (71) last fall. "It was really weird being a leader, learning how to be more vocal. It's definitely something you have to keep working at."

Even now, as a wiser junior, O'Brien was reluctant to offer the two advice. Having played in a national tournament with Long and Martin when they were 8 & 9 years old – they played to a top-36 finish – she knows how good the two new sophomores are, and how much better they're going to be.

Both have oodles of confidence in their teammates, and both are effusive in their praise of how hard their teams have worked, and how much fun they have playing with them.

But as both Long and Martin are eager to build on the foundation they and their teammates started to build a year ago, they realize there will still be some speed bumps along the way. How they control their emotions through adversity – something both of their coaches believe they will excel at – is the key tidbit O'Brien took away from her own journey.

"They just have to keep pushing through, fight for everything, and always keep their heads up," O'Brien said. "If they're always positive and nice to everyone on the team, everything will work out."

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