Laurie Whalen sets the right tone at Keene State
KEENE, N.H. 11/3/11- Ask any college coach and they will tell you that recruiting is one of the toughest parts of their job. The days on the road can be long, keeping up with all the new social media can be difficult and the NCAA rulebook reads like an encyclopedia.
Sometimes recruits can be your best recruiters. Tiffani Brooks only played two seasons for the Keene State College women’s volleyball team, but her contribution to the Owl program is still being felt on the court today in the person of Laurie Whalen, the team’s senior setter from Niantic, Conn.
Keene State volleyball coach Bob Weiner will be the first to tell you that he never heard about Laurie Whalen until her name came up in a conversation with Brooks, a recruit from Salem, Conn and East Lyme High school. “She said there’s this great girl on my high school and club team you have to see,” said Weiner. “I don’t think they came as a package deal, but we certainly found out about Laurie through Tiffani.”
It was well worth the drive to East Lyme. In her two years as Keene State’s starting setter, Whalen has set the tone for the Owls’ offense, calmly and deliberately setting balls for KSC hitters to crunch over the net. “Laurie understands the rhythm of the game,” said Weiner. “She sets a great game, uses her hitters, and plays good defense. She’s a leader on the court and is the real deal.”
“Every hitter likes to be set a different way, so I try to be consistent,” said Whalen.
While everyone remembers the crowd-pleasing kill, it’s the fluid passing from the back row to the setter that makes it all possible. “When everyone is doing the job and the ball is coming right to the target, we can run all sorts of plays,” said Whalen.
The nearly flawless ball movement was on display in the final three games of Keene State’s 3-1 Little East Conference tournament quarterfinal win over Rhode Island College on Tuesday. Whalen called the feeling “Awesome. You get so excited and can’t wait for the ball to come to you,” said Whalen, who finished the match against RIC with a season high 58 assists.
Known for making good decision on the court, Whalen said her decision growing up to give up soccer and later basketball to play volleyball didn’t go over well in the Whalen household. “My whole family was distraught,” said Whalen. “They couldn’t understand why I wanted to play volleyball.”
Once they saw her on the court they understood. At home on the volleyball court, Whalen loved the mental aspect of the game. “It’s more technical and I loved strategizing,” she said. “Basketball was fun, but I just fell in love with volleyball.”
Whalen played four years on her East Lyme High volleyball team and also did the club circuit, traveling down to New Haven to practice and play. Well-school in the fundamentals and the mental aspects of the game by Joshua Edmed, the current coach at Conn. College, Whalen help lead her Viking team to the conference championship and a berth in the state tournament semifinals her junior season. Setting season and career assists records, she was named the player of the year and MVP of the conference.
While Weiner was learning about Whalen, Whalen was learning about Keene State. “Tiffani told me she applied to Keene State and I decided to go up there and see why she liked it so much,” said Whalen. “I went up and I fell in love with the school”
Honestly is the best policy. During the recruiting process, Weiner was up front with Whalen telling her she would be playing behind Jordan Pokryfki, the teams’ All-Conference setter. “That was one of the qualities that make her such a special player,” said Weiner about her incoming setter. “Laurie said if she’s that good then I want to play behind someone I can learn from.”
Moved to the back row to work on her defense and serving, Whalen was a member of the first Keene State volleyball team to capture the LEC championship and earn an NCAA tournament berth in 2008. Whalen said she and fellow senior teammate Bridget O’Bryant constantly talk about that special season and even watch the video of the finals. “It was great to play with girls who can play and want to play,” said Whalen about her freshman season.
Taking over as the Owls’ setter was well worth the wait for Whalen. After a brief transition getting her timing down with the Keene State hitters, Whalen was able to hit the court setting. “I love being in control of the game,’ said Whalen, who studies her hitters during warm-up and peeks over to the other side of the net to see miss-matches she might exploit.
Top Owl hitters Ellyse Davis and O’Bryant give Whalen high marks for her setting expertise. “I’ve never seen a setter hustle that hard for a ball,” said Davis. “She’ll do anything to get the ball and the point.”
“She knows how to use her hitters and where to put the ball,” said O’Bryant. “If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be as good as I am.”
Sitting on the bench, Weiner, a former setter, marvels at Whalen’s execution on the court. “It’s a sport unlike any other in that I can’t control what Laurie is going to do,” said the Owls’ sixth-year coach. “She and I are in agreement 99-percent of the time.”
Whalen’s value to the team was never more apparent when she injured her ankle and missed three late-season games. “If you change the setter, you change the whole dynamic of the team,” said Weiner. “We didn’t play the same without her on the floor.”
Now healthy, Whalen and the Owls hope to set the record straight and beat nationally-ranked UMass-Boston in their LEC semifinal match at Plymouth State on Saturday. “I think we can do it,” said Whalen, who holds the KSC match record for assists (62) with Pokryfki. “I have a good feeling.”
A psychology major who also has a minor in management, Whalen hopes to continue to play and coach volleyball when her Keene State career is over. Whalen made a connection with her teammates on and off the court. “All of these girls became my best friends. We always say we’re like a family,” said Whalen. “Playing a sport you love with the girls you love is just awesome.”