Morehouse volleyball's inaugural season begins Saturday, Feb. 5 after a two-year process of building the program and giving one athlete an unexpected opportunity to play college volleyball.
After 35 years on the job, Gwendolyn Rouse continued to thrive as the women’s volleyball coach at her alma mater, Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina. The Tigers remained competitive, and despite the pandemic wiping out the team’s 2020 season, Rouse kept her players motivated for 2021 and beyond.
Life sometimes brings exciting new challenges, and for Rouse that came in the form of starting a men’s volleyball program at Benedict, a member of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC). While the pandemic delayed the start date, 2022 sees that team in action for its inaugural season thanks to grants to six HBCUs from USA Volleyball and First Point Volleyball Foundation.
“The most challenging part of building a men’s team at Benedict was recruiting players that already had experience,” Rouse said. “Since I’ve been coaching women so long, I have connections in the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Bahamas. So, I reached out to my connections.
“I went to the Bahamas in July, and I was able to get four kids. My connections in the Virgin Islands sent me some videos (resulting in three players). Also, I had two different trials at the school, and with the trials I was able to pull three kids.”
At 6-foot-6, sophomore Ras Jesse Delancy from the Bahamas said people always ask him if he’s a basketball player. It’s not that he doesn’t like playing hoops, but he loves volleyball, especially the fast pace.
Playing college volleyball in the U.S. was a dream he didn’t really have because to his knowledge, men’s college volleyball opportunities were scarce. A friend of his from the Bahamas who was attending Benedict on an academic scholarship heard about the plan to start a men’s volleyball team and told Rouse about Delancy, who played in the Bahamas’ version of club volleyball, “night league” (because they play at night).
“I have a craving to play volleyball at the highest level, and I feel this is a step up from my club volleyball back home that is going to get me to where I want to be,” said Delancy, an outside hitter/middle blocker.
He appreciates the supportive environment of an HBCU, especially from the faculty. Helping create a new program is amazing, complicated and exciting. Delancy and his teammates are determined to make a good impression.
“I’m proud of how much we’ve grown since the start of the season,” he said.
There are many similarities in coaching women’s and men’s team, but a key difference with the men, said Rouse, is “You can tell some of the men haven’t had as much experience as the women. Boys grow up wanting to play basketball and football, but once they get introduced to volleyball, they love it. Girls start out with volleyball at 8 or 9 years old, but with the guys they start much later.
“Most of them are so athletic. Especially if they were basketball players, it’s easy for them to transition to volleyball. They’re able to jump; they just need match experience.”
Delancy, who is studying sports management, said the level of play is a step up from night league. His goal is to continue to improve and play professionally after college. He was named the SIAC Volleyball Offensive Player of the Week April 4. In a three-set win over Kentucky State, he recorded eight kills (.400) with a season-high eight service aces and nine digs. In a loss to Central State, he recorded a season-high 23 kills (.526) and tied his season high of three solo blocks. Benedict is currently fourth in the SIAC standings.
Camaraderie between the Benedict men’s and women’s teams has been strong. The women practice from either 4-6 p.m. or 5-7 p.m., and the men practice after that. Delancy said the women’s team has been incredibly supportive, even attending a match two hours away.
“There were like 10 of them in the crowd, so it felt like a home game,” Delancy said.
Rouse, meanwhile, is undaunted by the additional hours and being in competition mode year-round.
“It makes me feel good that I’m able to continue doing what I love doing,” she said. “I’m able to help these young people accomplish the dream of coming to college, playing volleyball and getting their degrees.”
Follow Benedict College on Instagram and Twitter. For more stories on HBCUs who received the USAV/First Point grant, listen to the USA Volleyball Show, episode 26 (Central State) and episode 28 (Kentucky State), and read our story on Morehouse College.
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