MILLBROOK – If it seems like Millbrook High School coach Shawn Stoliker somehow has another talented volleyball player jump up from out of nowhere each season, your suspicions aren’t too far off.
That’s how the Blazers found Megan Fergus, a first-year player whose explosive potential in the opening week of preseason has drawn the attention of her veteran teammates, who know a thing or two about volleyball talent following back-to-back trips to the state final four.
“I was jumping in gym class and I touched the basketball hoop,” said Fergus, a junior who stands around 5-foot-9.
Stoliker, a physical education teacher, took notice.
“He was like, ‘Hey, you should play volleyball,’ ” she said.
Fergus had trained as a gymnast since she was 2 years old, and, until early this year, competed with Pleasant Valley’s Gold Star Gymnastics, reaching Level 9 status. That vertical leap didn’t just happen; it came at the cost of countless hours of practice.
However, she realized that she was outgrowing the sport, literally.
Plus, there were the injuries: a broken ankle, a fractured knee cap, fractured growth plates (yes, plural), tendinitis … the list goes on. It puts Greg Oden to shame.
“All put together, (it was) just time for me to stop,” she said. “It was all a combined mess.”
Meanwhile, Stoliker, she said, was persistent.
“It took a good three months to convince me to play volleyball,” she said. “And finally, I was like, ‘OK, I’ll give it a try.’ And I just loved it from there.”
When Stoliker tells the story, he leaves out the part where he spent three months lobbying, and skips right to her loving the sport. His new middle hitter thinks that’s a mistake.
“It was definitely a key part of why I’m playing.”
How much she plays this season is yet to be seen. While Millbrook needs to replace both its middles, 2014 graduates Brittany Keenan and Alex Worthington, Stoliker is quick to point out how tight the competition has been in the preseason between Fergus and two experienced members of last year’s varsity team, Liz Halpin and Marisa Horton.
The coach referred to Fergus as a “project” during Wednesday’s practice, explaining how far she has to go in terms to fundamentals and technique. But, he also raved about her talent and raw possibilities.
“She’s very athletic. Very powerful,” he said. “She reminds me a lot of Liv Fraser, to be honest with you. The build, the long legs, the athleticism.”
All Fraser did was collect 555 kills before graduating from Millbrook in 2008 and starring collegiately for Division II Eckerd.
Once Fergus decided to pursue the sport of volleyball, she attacked it with the commitment of a gymnast. She has weekly private coaching sessions at West Point and attended multiple summer training camps, including the Gold Medal Squared “elite volleyball training” camp with her teammates.
Late in Wednesday’s practice, after Fergus failed to make a block with a towering leap but her arms straight up in the air, Stoliker stopped to remind her to angle her arms forward to get directly above a hit.
Shortly after, she did just that to reject senior outside hitter Cassie Weaver, the Blazers’ expected top offensive weapon this season.
“That feels so good,” Fergus said with a wide smile, “because she’s been playing for so long and for me to jump up and block her and just have it come straight down feels so good.”
“She’s awesome,” Weaver said of Fergus. “She is definitely, probably, one of the new secret weapons that we have.”
Sorry, Cassie. The secret’s out.
On a team with senior outside hitters, a nationally-recognized setter and depth at her position, Fergus will have ample time to figure out how to evolve those hard-earned gymnastics attributes for volleyball use. Already, she’s fallen in love with a fundamental difference between her two worlds.
“I love that we’re all a team. I’ve been doing gymnastics for so long, and it’s such an individual sport,” Fergus said. “This is just, you have to communicate, you have to work together and connect with all your teammates. That’s what I love and I love this sport.”
And to think, it took a basketball hoop for a gymnast to become a middle hitter.
Sideline Talk, written by Poughkeepsie Journal sports writers, discusses local and national issues each Friday. Mike Benischek: firstname.lastname@example.org, 845-437-4722, Twitter: @BenischekPJ
Millbrook enters season as two-time defending volleyball champs with questions still to answer