Xavier Magazine

VB Coach

With the departure of volleyball coach Mike Johnson for the greener courts of Notre Dame, Athletic Director Greg Christopher announced that associate head coach Christy Pfeffenberger would take his place as the new head coach.

“It became clear during our search process that the best choice for a new leader for our volleyball program was already here,” Christopher says. Pfeffenberger has been with the team twice before already, first from 2008-2010 and most recently since March 2014 following a three-year stint as an assistant at—you guessed it—Notre Dame. All told, she has 10 years of Division I coaching experience including at University of Dayton and Youngstown State. She played at Dayton from 2000-2004 where she was Atlantic 10 Player of the Year in 2004. “I`m excited for my first head coaching opportunity to be here at Xavier,” she says. “I truly believe in the mission and values of the University.”

Xavier Magazine

Sister Act

Aubree Smith remembers the day her family got the frightening news about her older sister Alex. The sophomore volleyball player at Xavier was suffering extreme pain from a severe back injury, and the family feared the worst—that an old spinal injury had resurfaced and she could be paralyzed.

“I was a senior in high school,” says Aubree. “I was at lunch and I started crying.”

Luckily, the injury turned out to be a herniated disc—painful, but not career-ending. Alex had surgery in October 2010 and spent the rest of the season recuperating. When she was ready to start training again, though, she turned to the one person she knew was good enough to push her and get her back into shape—her sister.

Aubree had already committed to playing volleyball at Xavier. She did that when she was 14. So, shortly after graduating from a suburban St. Louis high school, she was on the road to Xavier with two missions—kickstart her college career and get her older sister back in shape.

It turned out to be a grand reunion. Aubree and Alex have played on the same volleyball team since they were in grade school. They played together on select club teams and on their high school team. So it seemed fitting that they should carry that forward to Xavier.

“They are two of our best players,” says coach Michael Johnson. “With any set of teammates who have played together a long time, they develop an awareness, an unspoken understanding of where the other is on the court. With Aubree being the setter, it helps us that she and Alex have had that chemistry of connecting with each other for a long time.”

It’s not often that coaches get sibling players, and when they do, it isn’t guaranteed to work. Siblings can bring, well, sibling rivalry onto the court, where it can damage team chemistry. But in the case of Aubree and Alex, Johnson learned quickly he had nothing to fear.

That’s because these two sisters are close. Very close. Almost like twins. They’ve shared the same bedroom since birth, gone to the same schools and have the same friends. They finish each other’s sentences. They like the same things. They understand each other deeply, and they respect each other even more.

And it shows on the court. Aubree, a setter, puts the ball in just the right spot for Alex, a hitter, to slam it across the net. It’s like a duet. And it’s intuitive. Aubree is the one who signals how the play will go. It’s unspoken, maybe a head tilt or a shift of the eyes.

“Aubree will set the ball knowing where I will be,” Alex says. “Aubree trusts me to be there.”

That word, “trust,” is the key to their relationship and their play.

“I can see where she is and can see if she’s ready. I’ll set her on a perfect pass to hit the ball,” Aubree says. “I know where the other girls are going to be, too, but it’s unique with Alex.”

Alex and Aubree believe their relationship with each other and ability to talk openly about issues has helped bring the whole team closer together.

Johnson says the team prides itself on being a family, and “Alex and Aubree have a lot of sisters on the team besides each other.”

“I know if she’s in a funk,” Aubree says. “Maybe the team sees how open we are, and it opens the door for them.”

“They see how they can be close with each other,” says Alex. “With volleyball, it’s about team chemistry. If you’re angry with each other, you won’t want to play. But volleyball is such a fun sport, and it’s more fun when you’re playing with each other.”

That’s not to say the sisters don’t ever get mad at each other. In high school they would carry grudges, but in college, they’ve learned to drop it, to not say what they might have said a few years ago. “We won’t be mad at each other on the court,” Alex says.

That commitment to each other helped bring Alex back to form the summer after her surgery. Aubree took a freshman English class that summer and began training early with Alex. Aubree needed to learn the team’s offensive strategy. Alex needed to get back in shape.

“I hadn’t had any reps or hitting, and if I wanted to be a starter again, I had to get better quickly,” Alex says. “I needed her here.”

It worked. By the time the season got started, Alex was ready, and Aubree proved herself more than capable as a starting setter. She earned Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year, made the All-Rookie Team and was a seven-time Rookie of the Week—an A-10 record.

Alex was named to the First Team All-Conference and holds the school record for hitting percentage.

With an additional year of eligibility because of her back injury, Alex is looking forward to another season on the team—and another year playing with her sister. It will be their last. Together. But it will be good. Aubree setting it up high so Alex can slam it home.

Xavier Magazine

Behind the Wall

Brandt Bernat took notice when he got an email in March 2010. It was forwarded from Xavier’s club volleyball president Mike Czopek. The return address: prison.

Neither student had received a letter from a prison before. The email was a request from the recreation coordinator at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Ky. “We have just recently started a varsity volleyball team here,” it read. “I was hoping your team would be interested in taking a road trip to Louisville one day to play a match.”

“We thought it might have been a joke or a scam,” Bernat says. But the email listed three Bible colleges that already visited Luther Luckett, so Bernat and Czopek started calling around. How was it? Did they feel safe? Would they do it again?

“Everybody we talked to loved it,” Bernat says. “They were planning on going every year. It was a great time and a learning experience.”

Bernat and Czopek took the idea to the rest of the team, who saw the community service value of playing at the prison. “Club sports are supposed to dedicate a certain number of hours to service,” Bernat says. “Our team enjoys going out and doing stuff. It’s not something we feel obliged to go do.”

So the team scheduled a scrimmage. In November 2010, still unsure of quite what to expect, they piled into their cars and drove south on I-71 to La Grange, Ky. “When you first pull into the parking lot and see three layers of barbed wire fence and watchtowers all across, you get this sense that this is something you never imagined you’d be doing yourself,” Bernat says. “You’re walking into a prison to go play a team of inmates. You’re a little scared at first.”

Getting into Luther Luckett was a bit like going through security at an airport. “When you walk into the prison, you have to check in, go through a metal detector and run your bag through a baggage check,” Bernat says. Cell phones aren’t allowed, nor are cameras or any sharp objects. Team members could only bring a couple snacks, a water bottle and no more than $20 in cash. They exchanged their driver’s licenses for numbered wristbands at the front desk, and then walked through three barricades to the gymnasium. It was empty.

Half an hour later, 50 inmates filed in, filling 12 rows of courtside bleachers. The prison team followed. The Xavier squad was on edge. How were the inmates in the stands going to react? The prison team had Xavier right where they wanted them.

“For a team that’s coming in for the first time, we know that our best chance of winning a set is the first set,” says Damon Romel, the Luther Luckett recreation coordinator who formed the prison team and invited Xavier to play. “The guys come in and they’re nervous. They’re not sure about their surroundings.”

The first set was close—Xavier won by seven points—but with growing confidence, the Musketeers swept the remaining four sets. The Xavier team quickly realized the inmates in the stands were rooting for them. “They were cheering for us,” Bernat says. “That helped us calm down.”

Still, the level of competition surprised Bernat. “They were better than we originally thought,” he says. “Some of these guys had never played volleyball before coming here. They really work hard.”

Then came Bernat’s favorite part of the experience—a mixed-team scrimmage. “That was a lot of fun,” he says. “It gave us the opportunity to talk with these guys. Going back and forth at the net, we were all laughing and having a great time.”

After the matches, several inmates spoke about how a series of wrong decisions landed them in Luther Luckett, but now they were working to create a better life when they get out. The Xavier team, who had been scared coming into a prison, left with a better understanding of the people who inhabit them.

“We saw that these guys are really trying to put in the work to better themselves so that when they get out they can better their families and society,” Bernat says. Now the president of Xavier’s club volleyball team, Bernat hopes to make the Luther Luckett scrimmage an annual event. The team made a second visit last fall.

Romel enjoys watching the transformation of outside teams who play the inmates. “It’s good for them to come in and actually get a feel for what it’s like to be behind the fence,” he says. “At that point they start to realize, the guys in here are for the most part pretty much just like them.”

So far the prisoners of Luther Luckett have only won one game against an outside opponent—Wittenberg University. That doesn’t bother Romel. “I’m not as concerned about us winning,” he says. He’s more interested in the way volleyball lets his players momentarily escape their day-to-day confinement.

“When people are willing to take the time to go in and play volleyball with them, it makes them feel better,” Romel says. “For a little while they have a little sense of freedom. All they have to worry about is volleyball.”

Xavier Magazine

New Coaches

This season Xavier volleyball will have a new face net-side. Hawaii-native Mike Johnson starts his first season at Xavier this fall.

Last year Johnson led the Austin Peay State University volleyball team to a 22-9 record in his first season as head coach. Austin Peay also finished second in league standings, sent three players to the Ohio Valley All-Conference First and Second Teams, and produced the league’s Player of the Year in Stephanie Champine.

“I feel both inspired and humbled to join the Musketeer family,” Johnson said. “I have long admired Xavier for its esteemed academics and great athletic support. I’m thrilled to get started.”

This summer, Xavier also named a new head coach for men’s and women’s cross country and track. Dan Flaute, the former cross country head coach at Wyoming High School in Cincinnati, begins his coaching at Xavier this fall, and he has high hopes for his athletes.

“I am grateful to Xavier for giving me this great opportunity to lead the men’s and women’s cross country and track and field program,” Flaute said. “I am excited to begin working with our athletes this fall and building a winning program here at Xavier.”

Xavier Magazine

Intelligent Choice

Jill Quayle, a senior middle blocker on the volleyball team, was named Honorable Mention All-American by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. She is only the second Musketeer to earn the distinction, joining Sara Bachas in 2001.

Quayle was the 2007 Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, finishing the season as the A-10 leader in hitting percentage (.386) and blocks with 1.28 per game. She ended her career at Xavier in first place all-time in block assists for a career (442) and second all-time in hitting percentage for a career (.330). Quayle’s .386 hitting percentage for 2007 is tied for first place in Xavier program history for a season. She led the team to runner-up titles for the A-10 regular season and A-10 Championship and helped the team garner its first-ever at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.