By ZACH GILLELAND
When choosing a college, SU junior outside hitter Nicole Venturelli knew she wanted to stay close to home.
Nearly three seasons and 898 kills later, Salisbury has become home for the Eldersburg, Md. native. For a player that spent two years waiting in the shadow of some all-time SU greats, the 2017 season marked an opportunity for the junior to be a leader on and off the court.
“This year especially since I’m an upperclassman there’s a lot of pressure to continue to do my best,” Venturelli said. “Coach [Turco] has really worked on our weaknesses, so I obviously owe it to coach and all the drills he has run at practice that have really helped us develop.”
Venturelli currently leads the Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) with 368 kills and is second in the conference with 4.29 kills-per-set. The outside hitter has recorded double-digit kills in every game so far this season.
From the time she stepped on the court for the first time as a freshman, SU women’s volleyball Head Coach Justin Turco praised the junior’s ability to learn all facets of the game.
“She has done a really good job at learning and being willing to learn the game, both the physical aspect and the mental aspect,” Turco said. “Her patience as an outside hitter has grown, she has definitely become stronger, more skilled but she is a lot smarter right now.”
Sitting at a 15-8 record, the Sea Gulls are positioned near the top of the CAC once again. But it is the family aspect that drives the team on the court, a family made up of 15 that Venturelli says are all best friends.
That family atmosphere has helped Venturelli blossom into one of the CAC’s brightest stars.
“I think the team is just an encouraging team, it is a good combination of really nice people, really competitive people and supportive people,” Turco said. “It does not matter who is in, we have 15 strong willing us to win. I think it is just being in a good culture and a good atmosphere helps her and her progression.”
Playing the outside hitter position, Venturelli is the go-to player to score points on offense. But even with the torrid pace that the junior is on, there are others on the team closing in on milestones.
Setters Rachel Dubbs and Alexis Howatt, who help feed the ball to the outside and middle hitters, have combined for 737 of the team’s 846 assists. The sophomore Dubbs just reached 1,000 career assists, while the senior is close to 1,500 in her career.
There is a competitive nature on this Sea Gull team, a program that has won 20 or more games in each of their past 15 seasons. That competitive nature contributes to the atmosphere and culture at Salisbury.
“Our team is really close and very competitive,” Venturelli said. “Every practice we play each other and it is always a great atmosphere, always super competitive and we are best friends at the end of the day. But when we are at practice and playing we are competing hard, it really prepares us well for any game.”
Turco said that fitting into the culture is vital for any perspective student-athlete at Salisbury University. When looking at potential recruits, the fifth-year head coach said a player must be competitive and help the team on and off the court.
Venturelli checks all the boxes.
“They need to be able to compete and help us on the court,” Turco said. “But they also need to be a good teammate off the court. We spend a lot of time training and playing and you have to be able to fit in our culture, be positive, but also be really competitive and have that drive to win.”
Passing the torch
The beginning of the 2017 season saw a new-look Salisbury team that took the court for the first time. Gone were the five Sea Gull seniors that graduated and combined for 95 wins in four seasons.
One player that left a considerable mark in the program was fellow outside hitter Katie Stouffer, a four-time All-CAC performer and All-American whose career 4,328 kills are the most in school history.
Although graduated, Stouffer remains in the Salisbury area and is roommates with Venturelli. The junior had a chance to play with Stouffer for two seasons, combining for a duo that registered 709 kills in the 2016 season.
Venturelli said she often goes to Stouffer for advice and questions on how to improve her game.
“Her work ethic has been something I have tried to match this year,” Venturelli said. “We had a strong senior class last year and we were able to learn a lot.”
The Sea Gull family has helped shaped Venturelli into the player she has become today. And on her way to becoming one of the top players in the conference, her love for the maroon and gold is apparent.
“I definitely love the school but I love the team so much,” Venturelli said. “That’s why I ultimately ended up coming here.”