Wildcat glides from terror to tranquility

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
Jasper’s Shelby Merder has starred in the Wildcat volleyball lineup for four years, though these days, she operates with more calmness compared to earlier in her career when she feared making mistakes. Tonight at 7:30 EDT, Merder will lead the Wildcats into a single-match regional battle at Mount Vernon.

By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer

JASPER — When Shelby Merder thinks of the perfect point in volleyball, everything gets shhhh.

She sees the tough serve buzzing toward the back line. A flawless pass from the second row to the setter, who then lofts the ball into Merder’s wheelhouse, giving the 6-foot-2 middle hitter ample time to decide on placement.

Then the volume wanes.

“Once the set is in the air, the gym kind of gets a little quiet,” Merder said. “You hear (the quieting) kind of, a little bit. And when the hit happens, it’s just … explosive.”

But the sequence is not over. The ball thunders to the ground. She turns to see the original passer. Then the setter. And soon enough, the group shares in the jubilance. Each component of the series feeling a sense of ownership over the point.

And for Merder, who has emerged as Jasper’s foundation, its rock, at middle hitter over the past couple seasons, that’s the most enjoyable thing about volleyball: the interdependency.

Perhaps that’s also the most noticeable change for Merder, who helped the Wildcats seize their third sectional crown in her four-year varsity career by grossing 28 kills and 13 blocks in Saturday’s championship against Heritage Hills.

Stepping onto the court now presents opportunity to rejoice, the prospect of success. It’s a far cry from the angst and fear of failure the tournament caused her freshman year.

“Oh, my gosh, I was a nervous wreck. I remember the feeling. I was so scared. Any mistake, I beat myself up over because I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m ruining these seniors’ careers,’” recalled Merder, who credits then-seniors Kyla Stenftenagel and Jaymee Wenzel for helping her change that mindset. “Definitely now, I’m like, ‘If they mess up, yes, I’m disappointed with our effort if we don’t give 100 percent during a game. But if we give (that) effort, that’s all I can ask for. And I understand that now.”

The timid newcomer turned composed veteran, who now recognizes effort over outcome, has the Wildcats (28-8) ready for a clash against Mount Vernon (29-3) in the Class 3A single-match regional today at 7:30 p.m. EDT at Mount Vernon. Merder expects her team’s composure to make a difference.

“Our team is a very, very calm team. Our captains are calm, everyone is just calm,” said Merder, whose musical taste of contemporary artists like Mumford and Sons fits the bill for relaxation. “And it’s surprising because we have played really close matches. And even when we’re playing a team, say in tournaments, that we know (is) better than us, we’re just calm. We don’t panic. And I think that can be a huge factor in the outcome of the games. Because other teams panic when they get down. And we’re just kind of like, ‘All right, we got this. Let’s just get it back.’”

The Wildcats have won seven matches this season in which they’ve trailed at some point, including the sectional championship, which brought Jasper’s season within a set of ending.

The Zen mentality is what Merder attributes last season’s tournament success to as well, when Jasper earned the 17th regional title in program history.

Wildcat coach Deborah Giesler saw Merder come into her own last season. The physical progression she’s seen from the player she referred to as a “gangly deer” as a freshman has been expected.

Less certain was how Merder would adapt following the graduation of fellow middle hitter Megan Sternberg, not only from a positional standpoint, but in assuming the role of a vocal leader.

“We kind of didn’t know. We were like, ‘Shelby’s not had to take all that pressure on herself in the middle.’ So we were kind of curious to see ‘What’s it going to be like? Is she going to crumble under the pressure? Is she going to be able to do it?’” Giesler said. “And all season long, she has been consistent. She has been a vocal leader. Just all the things we had hoped she would do.”

Furthermore, the Wildcat coach feels Merder hasn’t stopped progressing. In fact, Giesler felt she played her best volleyball in this year’s sectional. Merder amassed 57 kills and 21 blocks in the three matches at Cabby O’Neill Gymnasium last week, and Giesler said it was the most excited she’s ever seen the senior.

One word to describe the hitter? Smart, Giesler said. Fitting, considering Merder hails from a team with more students who qualify for academic all-state honors than any other during Giesler’s five-year tenure.

Invisible in a stat line is Merder’s effect on her teammates. Just as her height forced Sternberg to improvise and expand her offensive repertoire when facing the leggy centerpiece in practice, so too has it obliged junior middle hitter Tori Sermersheim to acclimate this season.

Accepting the challenge is easier said than done.

“It’s frustrating in practice to have to go up against Shelby every day,” Giesler said. “And I tell Tori, I’m like, ‘You know what, this is making you better. Not every team has a Shelby, so the fact that you have to find a way to score against her is just going to make you better.’”

And just as Sternberg did, Sermersheim has adopted and embraced the slide spike maneuver, making her a deadly option on the Wildcat frontline as well.

Merder’s effect isn’t constrained to this single facet, though. She embraces the role of instructor, something Giesler saw from her even as a freshman at the team’s youth camp.

“She’s such a good teacher, such a good role model for all these kids,” the coach said. “And she’s always been like that. As a freshman, I remember her coming into our camp and teaching these little kids. And she had no problem going up to little kids, towering over them and teaching them how to do something. … Little kids like that.”

Merder claims “just communicating with people” as one of her passions. Fittingly, she plans to study communications or speech pathology next year at Ball State, where she’ll play basketball, but room with a volleyball player. As for the ideal profession, Merder has become increasingly interested in practicing speech pathology in the medical field, but the communication school in Muncie is enticing all the same. Decisions, decisions.

With volleyball, the enthusiasm to communicate, teach and assist comes full circle.

“I know where they’re coming from. I was there,” Merder said of her role toward younger players. “I’ve walked in their shoes, so it would be almost hypocritical of me to treat them differently than how I was treated.”

Contact Joe Jasinski at jjasinski@dcherald.com.

 




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