South Jersey Sports Report: Girls Volleyball Player of the Year
There is no doubt that high school coaches in any sport put in a ton of time and work, and there are reasons why some are highly successful. Their knowledge of the game, the ability to teach it, the dedication to game planning and scouting. There are also times when a coach simply needs a bit of luck.
Four years ago, Cedar Creek girls volleyball coach Brian Beck was whittling down his roster after tryouts, and decided to keep one extra player. He had known her as a middle school student because he was a teacher at William Davies Middle School in Mays Landing, and knew she was a nice kid who would work hard even if she had no volleyball experience. It never hurts to keep a “character” kid on the roster, he figured.
A player who was seen as an add-on to the roster as a freshman has since vaulted the Pirates into the elite among Cape-Atlantic League girls volleyball programs, and a team that this year garnered a No. 8 seed out of 32 teams in the Group 2 state playoff bracket, which features teams from throughout the entire state. Oh, and there are back-to-back CAL Tournament titles now sitting in the trophy case in Egg Harbor City, thanks in large part to Nina Casselberry.
The Glory Days Magazine Girls Volleyball Player of the Year went from a kid who liked to play the sport in gym class to the class of the Cape-Atlantic League in just four seasons — and only two-and-a-half on the varsity level — but if you know anything about Casselberry’s background, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. She decided in seventh grade that she wanted to someday become an aerospace engineer.
���I was the last pick for the team. I was a dancer my whole life up until that point, but I always enjoyed playing volleyball in gym class, so I figured I would go to the Stockton University camp because it was local. It seemed fun. I tried out and didn’t really have high hopes, but I enjoyed playing it so I figured I would give it a try. I was going to take it seriously, but I didn’t expect to fall in love with the sport the way I did. I started playing the game every night that I could. It started out as a fun thing, but turned into a passion,” the senior outside hitter said.
“It was really difficult (to learn all the skills), but luckily when I went to play travel ball I had a coach that reinforced technique every single day and believed nobody could get better unless they perfected their technique. He spent countless hours teaching us technique and really reinforcing that until we could apply that into everything we did. By the end of my travel club season freshman year and going into sophomore year, that’s when I realized I could hang with the girls on varsity. Going from JV to varsity was a tough transition, but coach Beck just kept supporting me. When he told us the starting lineup sophomore year, I was like, ‘oh, my gosh, I’m on there!’ That’s when I realized I could really add something to the team and help the team win games.”
“She’s the best player I’ve ever coached and the best player who has ever come through Cedar Creek. She was a dancer in middle school, and that’s all she did. Her freshman year she came out for the volleyball team and because I knew her from middle school, it wasn’t going to hurt me to keep her,” Beck said. “So I kept one extra girl — she was the last one I would have cut, but I’m so happy I kept her. If I had cut her, we wouldn’t have back-to-back CAL Tournament championships and a division title this year. She’s really blossomed. As a freshman she played JV, then she started playing travel and started working hard to get her skills better, and midway through her sophomore year we really saw a big improvement in her and brought her up to varsity. This year, she really rose above everyone else in the CAL.”
That Casselberry would work hard to become a force on the volleyball court could most likely have been predicted by those who know her. She still has six months left of high school and already has a resume that would rival a lot of people in their 30s or 40s. Her list of accolades is long and impressive — She was recently named a Governor’s STEM Scholar, is in the National Honor Society, National German Honor Society, a Rensselaer Medalist, a Distinguished Varsity Scholar, a state finalist for STEAM Tank for her app for epilepsy patients. She is on the robotics team, a class officer, a student council member, Key Club treasurer, and in her school’s Project Lead the Way (PLTW) engineering magnet program. Her particular area of interest in STEM is engineering and plans to major in astronautical engineering and minor in astrophysics.
“It’s difficult, but I work on time management a lot. I go from track or volleyball to back home doing homework, to club volleyball. I juggle it all because I know it will set me up for success in college and after college. I’ve had a goal of being an aerospace engineer since the time I was in seventh grade, so I’ve always wanted to work toward that goal. Having that goal makes it easier to put in all the work. Every single day I know that’s what I want to do with my life. It can get overwhelming, but luckily I have teachers who are willing to put in the extra time if you are. They’ll go over the lessons as many times as it takes. And having my parents there to support me and keep my head on straight when I get stressed out, they are my biggest support system,” Casselberry said. “I think that’s why I like volleyball so much, because it didn’t come easily and I really had to work at it. With the classes I take, I have to put in extra work and they always keep me busy, but I’m always learning something new, which is exciting to me.”
Her work on the volleyball court this year was equally impressive. She helped lead Cedar Creek to 18 wins, a CAL National Conference title, the overall CAL Tournament title and a berth in the second round of the state Group 2 playoffs. Individually, Casselberry made the switch from middle blocker to outside hitter this year and the stats were off the charts. She finished with 202 kills, 114 digs, 14 assists, 184 service points and 65 aces, and she holds school records for service aces in a season, career aces, career blocks, season kills, season service points and career service points, and this year was named first-team All-Group 2.
“I think all around she was probably the best player in the league. I expected this kind of year from her. She really started coming on in the middle of last year and she wanted to move to the outside because in club volleyball she had moved to outside hitter. She was a middle hitter last year and had 153 kills, and this year she had 202. She had more digs, more aces — her serve was much better this year — and it didn’t matter if she was in the front row or the back row, she was a player who was vocal and talking. She was one of our captains and definitely a leader on the court,” Beck said. “One of the people who did really well for me this year was our setter, Angelina Cox. I called it ‘The Ang and Nina Show.’ You can’t have one without the other, and Angelina knew I needed a setter so she transitioned to that position during her travel season. A big part of her success was Nina moving to the outside because Nina had more than 50 kills than she had last year. It was a combination of moving some parts around a little bit. Overall, it was a team season, but Nina definitely shined.”
The Pirates had a home playoff game for the first time ever this season, and nearly made it to the Group 2 quarterfinals before Indian Hills made a late comeback to end Cedar Creek’s state title hopes.
“This year a lot of girls played club volleyball and I was able to switch to outside hitter. Everyone was really well rounded, so the positions kind of filled themselves out. Coach Beck had the intent of moving me to the outside to get the ball more and create more options, and with everyone playing club and being so skilled, it kind of just filled out that way,” Casselberry said.
“I don’t think anyone ever expected us to be a No. 8 seed in all of Group 2, so it was an incredible experience being on a team with such hard-working girls who know what they are doing and have the same love for the game that I do. We played every single point for each other and not for ourselves. It was an indescribable feeling, winning that first playoff game and winning the CAL Tournament for the second year in a row. People doubted us because we lost some seniors who were a big part of our team, but we knew we had it in ourselves and we believed in ourselves. We lost to Absegami twice during the regular season but beat them in the tournament, and that came from just knowing we could do it. It was an amazing feeling. Having that win in the tournament, and having that carry over into the playoffs, we were on such a high. We went from the first point in that playoff match to the last with energy I’ve never seen us have. Even when we lost in the second round, we still carried that energy and that was the best match we’ve ever played in our program’s history. Even though we didn’t come out with the win, we played with so much energy.”
Casselberry said she is happy with the impact she has made with the Cedar Creek volleyball program, and believes the team is in good hands with the players it will have returning in 2020.
“That second playoff game against Indian Hills will always stick out for me because not only was it the best game for me, personally, but it was the best game we’ve ever played as a team. We were facing a team that was just like us and neither of us wanted to give up. The energy in the room was insane, it’s hard to describe. It was unlike any other game I’ve played,” she said. “Getting first-team All-Conference last year and this year was a really big accomplishment that I could never have dreamed of as a freshman. I wouldn’t change how these past four years went. I never thought I would get to this point. We are still such a new program, but we had the goal to let people know what Cedar Creek is all about, that we’re here to win, we’re not messing around, and you’re going to know who we are.”
And as impressed as Beck was with Casselberry’s rise to stardom on the volleyball court, he knows she’ll be an even bigger star in the game of life.
“All of those things she does involve donating time and community service. She puts in a lot of time and is a multi-sport athlete who could probably be a high jumper in college. She’s doing a great job with everything. She’s done what she’s had to do and has made herself better in so many aspects of her life,” he said. “She has a really good head on her shoulders and has a really good support system with her family. It’s a great thing that she was able to come through Cedar Creek, and I’m thankful she made the decision to come here.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
OTHER GIRLS VOLLEYBALL PLAYER OF THE YEAR CANDIDATES:
Kaylin Flukey, Absegami: Flukey had a huge senior season for the Braves. Aside from helping mom, Kerry, win her 200th game, Flukey was a dominant player on the outside, leading the Braves to a 22-3 record, best in the Cape-Atlantic League. She finished with 165 kills and added 100 digs and 59 service aces.
Kailyn Fortis, Absegami: Somebody had to set up all that offense the Braves were putting up all year, and Fortis was one of the best setters in the league, racking up 358 assists. She also finished with 67 digs and 63 service aces.
Yancely Hernandez, Pleasantville: Hernandez, a junior middle blocker, filled up the stat sheet all year for a Greyhounds team that won 18 matches and finished second behind Absegami in the CAL American Conference. She had 163 kills, 17 blocks, 131 digs, 183 service points and 67 aces.
Rosa Gill-Hernandez, Pleasantville: The senior also was no stranger to the box score, as she racked up 158 digs, 318 assists, 136 service points and 41 aces for the Greyhounds.
Angelina Cox, Cedar Creek: Cox played the role of assisting Nina Casselberry’s tremendous season perfectly, as the senior setter tallied 400 assists. She also chipped in 58 kills, 100 digs, 137 service points and 37 aces.
Samantha Dangler, ACIT: Still just a junior, Dangler has been one of the top setters in the league the past couple of years, and this fall was no different. She piled up 298 assists and also was outstanding on the service line, recording 86 aces for a team that went 17-8.