BY CHRIS MACKOWIAK AND BRANDON STARK
Sports Editor/Staff Writer
Featured photo: Senior outside hitter Nicole Venturelli (center) celebrates a point with her teammates vs. McDaniel College. Sept. 11. Olivia Rowland photo
Senior outside hitter Nicole Venturelli had no idea how close she was to history when the Salisbury University women’s volleyball team faced La Verne University (Calif.) in their season-opening weekend.
“I’m not really a player that follows my stats all the time,” Venturelli said. “I feel like some people would see that as kind of weird, but I like to focus just on what’s ahead of me.”
That focus was tuned in for their second match of the Pacific Coast Classic out in California. After SU fell in their first match in straight sets against Chapman, the Sea Gulls still had a chance to finish the first day of the 2018 campaign with a win.
While all of the Sea Gulls were eager for a positive result, something else was also on their minds as they counted down kill-by-kill until they could celebrate their teammate’s accomplishment. As part of a 3-0 victory over La Verne, Venturelli’s nine kills were enough to put her over 1,000 career kills.
“Sharing that moment with Nicole was super cool,” SU senior outside hitter Gabby Fox said. “We didn’t want to distract from the game. We were super excited to announce it afterwards that a teammate reached that milestone. Nicole made sure [to say], ‘I couldn’t do it without you guys because there’s someone behind the pass; there’s someone behind the set and there’s a stud athlete behind the kill.’”
Immediately following their first win of the season, SU head coach Justin Turco announced the feat to the entire team, which alerted Venturelli to the accomplishment. The Eldersburg, Md., native said that the moment was very exciting.
To one of Venturelli’s best friends, Fox, the achievement perfectly symbolizes how much work Venturelli puts into her craft.
“Nicole is the hardest worker I know,” Fox said. “She dedicates her whole heart and soul to volleyball. Like she said, she just tackles what’s in front of her. In every practice and every match, she goes 100 percent. I think that speaks a lot to her.”
Since that win vs. La Verne to begin the season, Venturelli has continued to produce attacks, now reaching the 1,173-kill mark in the recent victory over Virginia Wesleyan, ranking seventh all-time in program history. She currently leads the Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) in kills and kills-per-set.
The 2017 All-CAC First Teamer completed a career-high 457 kills last season. Despite all of the success, Fox said that her teammate is very humble, evident by the focus on the team goals.
That core mentality of working for each other, rooting for each other and not focusing on individual statistics is not something uncommon recently for SU volleyball. It is something they embrace.
Both Fox and Venturelli said that one of the first words that they heard from the coaching staff as recruits was “family.”
“Coach is really good about who he recruits,” Venturelli said. “I know the first thing that he would tell me when I came as a recruit was, ‘Hey, we’re a family here.’ That was huge because I came from a high school that we were really close at too.”
“I give him a lot of credit for establishing that as a program because he really takes into account the girls he brings in. Not only that they are talented, but also because of their character. I think that has created a really awesome team.”
From the top of the team with Turco, the familial culture of SU volleyball has been established over recent seasons. That culture is reinforced by the other players that he brings in each season to unite the group.
Venturelli and Fox said that the notion of being a family involves just the simple things every day. Both of the Sea Gulls recall visits to the SU Commons as freshmen and now as seniors. Players simply asking each other if they need anything upon getting up from the table displays that love for one another.
That love has produced strong volleyball on the court as well with all five of Turco’s Salisbury teams notching at least 19 wins and at least a spot in the CAC semifinals. For Fox, the family aspect takes the team above just being a “team.”
“Being a team is one thing, but a family is another,” Fox said. “As a team, we get the job done. We’re really great athletes. We work really hard just like any collegiate-level team. Outside of that, we’re like a family. We hang out. We celebrate each other and our victories. It creates this really cool bond and culture that we all love.”
Venturelli notes that through her four-year career, she never remembers any differences in status on the team between being a freshman or a senior. She sees everyone as one equal family with a mutual respect for one another that comes out in moments like in the SU Commons.
“We’re all going towards a common goal,” Venturelli said. “We all want to be successful in our lives and in our sport. I think that alone is very different [than other teams]. That can easily just get passed down.”
As seniors now, both Fox and Venturelli are pursuing their first CAC title with their comrades, but their upperclassman status brings the responsibility to pass down the culture that Turco and former Sea Gulls initially instilled to them.
This season, SU sports a freshmen class of six players on their roster. They are freshmen that are now where Venturelli and Fox once were. Fox said that the team leaders came together looking to lead by example.
“We really wanted to show the rookies that these aren’t rules,” Fox said. “I think that work ethic is much more powerful when it’s show and not tell. When the rookies see these upperclassmen busting their butts and going as hard as they can, it’s only natural that they hold [everyone] accountable to that kind of work ethic and culture.”
On the court, Turco and the team have emphasized communication entering the 2018 conference slate. Despite an early CAC loss at Southern Virginia, SU will face Penn State Harrisburg on Saturday, looking to get into the conference win column.
From their early tournament across the country in California to their most recent win over Virginia Wesleyan, the Sea Gulls (10-6, 0-1 CAC) have prepared for their ultimate test coming in conference play. Part of that preparation has come over the course of the last four years for these seniors off the floor as a family.
Like with Venturelli’s 1,000th kill or junior defensive specialist Hailey Dougherty’s 1,000th dig at SVU, the team will celebrate each other’s personal victories in life, but at the end of the day, the core mission remains to be connected as a team and family to work toward their goals as a group.
“When you are mentally okay and you have people around you that are supporting you, you play well and you are successful as a team,” Venturelli said.