WILMINGTON – As almost everyone who has made the transition from high-school athletics to the collegiate level will tell you, while the fundamentals of the game remain intact, there is a huge difference in the level of competition but that hasn’t deterred three of this area’s talented female athletes from doing well as members of the Cape Fear Community College Lady Sea Devils’ volleyball team.
Pender’s Jenna Baranowski and Meg Knoerzer are sophomores at Cape Fear, and they have not only experienced the challenges of moving from high school to college, both academically and athletically, but they have also had to endure a coaching change from the coach that recruited them to a new coach in their second year in the program.
Dixon’s Kara Peterson is in her freshman year and she is finding out just how different it is to live on your own, attend and adjust to college courses and classes, adjust to the differences between high-school and college volleyball, and mix work into the equation.
As a young athlete in her freshman and sophomore years at Pender, the taller of the three girls, Knoerzer, often found herself floundering as her size, and athletic ability, and mental abilities to mesh took time to come together.
Former Pender Coach Ray Horton once told Knoerzer she reminded him of, “A calf just learning to walk and gain balance.” But as her junior year came into focus she began to make the transition from a marginal player into a contributor, especially in her blocking abilities at the net. By her senior year, Knoerzer was approaching equal stardom on a team that was loaded with a plethora of talent, and a team that won back-to-back (2009 & 2010) NCHSAA 1A state championships.
That earned Knoerzer a partial volleyball scholarship at Cape Fear under then-coach Ali Pomperani. Along with some other problems in her family life, namely a heroic battle by her mother Melinda Knoerzer who was undergoing treatments for cancer, Knoerzer had to adjust to college academics and to volleyball on a higher level.
“I chose Cape Fear because I wanted to stay close to home because of my mother’s illness, and because they offered me the partial scholarship to play volleyball,” Knoerzer said. “I tried out at Brunswick Community College and Cape Fear, and I just felt Cape Fear was a better fit”
Knoerzer admits it was quite an adjustment for a couple of reasons.
“In high school the girls took basically the same courses and we all lived close and we spent a lot of time together establishing camaraderie and relationships,” Knoerzer said. “But here it’s more difficult to hang out and do things together because some girls live on campus, some (like Knoezer and Baranowski) commute, classes are more staggered depending on your course of study, and some of the girls work.
“Also it’s a lot tougher competitively. In high school you saw mostly teams with one or two, or sometimes three really good players. Now, here and on the other teams, all the girls are good. You have to work harder to earn your spot on the team and in the lineup.”
Then there is the exit of the coach that recruited you.
“In a way switching the head coach was like going back to Phase I,” Knoerzer said. “We were looking forward to taking the next step with Coach Ali and then she was gone.
“But (new CFCC Tabitha) Coach Turner made the transition a little easier. She has different coaching skills and ways of doing things so we had to adjust but she is very good coach, both of them are good coaches, and we’re moving forward.”
Turner, who is originally from Greensboro and who player her college volleyball at Campbell, said it was a challenge coming in to a team that had largely been recruited by the former coach but the girls in the program made it relatively easy.
“It was a challenge at first, you set a tone and sell a program and you want everyone to buy in,” Turner said. “But we had some very good players coming back and the former coach did a good job of recruiting new talent, and the girls have bought into what we are trying to do.”
Turner is high on Knoerzer’s abilities.
“Meg is the heart of the team, she is a dear,” Turner said. Everyone loves and respects her. She’s awesome and one of the most pleasant kids I’ve been around.
“She is very coachable and has improved tremendously since I’ve been here, and I know she will continue to improve because of her work ethic.”
This will probably be Knoerzer’s last year of competitive volleyball as a player. She plans to stay at Cape Fear in the nursing program before hopefully heading to UNC-Wilmington to complete her four-year degree.
Knoerzer volunteers at the New Hanover Medical Center’s Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit, and that is where she would eventually like to wind up.
“I always wanted to be a nurse since seeing what they do and after seeing how much they care in attending to my mom, it just made me that much more determined,” Meg said.
Coach Turner said, even after her playing eligibility expires, there could be a place for Meg in the program if she chooses.
“I understand she will be continuing her education here and while her eligibility will be up, if she wanted to coach I’d be receptive to having her on the staff.”
Baranowski came to Cape Fear because she felt it was a good fit, and because they offered some help via a partial volleyball scholarship.
“I felt it was a good fit, I felt I wasn’t really ready for a four-year school, and I felt this would be a good place to start,” Jenna said. “At the beginning it felt like it was our freshman year in high school, starting out and not knowing what you were getting yourself into. In high school you had four years to prove what you could do and here you were starting all over again.
“Then we switched coaches and it was weird because it came so close to the beginning of the season, and here we were, starting all over again. Every year you have to work hard because there is always someone in the wings waiting to take your job, but here we were again, having to prove ourselves to another new coach. It was tough.”
Baranowski had an outstanding freshman year but coming into this year she has run into a bit of a medical problem with snapping-hip syndrome, where the tendons on the hip are irritated and swollen. Jenna said it is curable with ice and a lot of stretching exercises, and she is again off to a very good year.
Unlike Knoerzer, Baranowski, who is currently majoring in the arts, wants to continue playing volleyball at a four-year school while majoring in psychology.
“I definitely want to play at the next level and I’m starting the recruiting process again,” Jenna said. “I have already looked into High Point and UNC-Greensboro and I’ve made a list of schools to send E-mails to.”
One of the things that held the hard-hitting Baranowski back was a lack of height that so many bigger schools look for. But Jenna said she has used that as an incentive rather than looking at it as a problem.
“I feel like I’ve used it to my advantage because it made me work harder and made me a better athlete,” Baranowski said. “Of course I’d like to be 6-foot-1 or bigger but when I play I feel like I’m seven-feet tall,”
Turner definitely feels she has a future at the next level.
“She’s great, she’s probably one of the most competitive kids I’ve ever had in a gym,” Turner said. “She brings a lot of fire to the program. She is a coaches’ dream because she works hard and she wants to learn. I definitely think she has the ability to move on, she’s a very good athlete.”
Peterson is a freshman out of Dixon High School, and she is finding the adjustment trying at times.
“I came to Cape Fear because I liked Coach Ali and because it was closer to home and that was a big factor,” Peterson said. “And Coach Turner is awesome. She knows what she is talking about. I had no idea what to expect. I went to camp at UNCW and she was one of the instructors, and she pushes us a lot. She’s already had a huge impact on me and on the program.
“But I have to admit it’s been tough at times. I have missed a lot of practice due to some of my classes and there is so much talent here she (Turner) has a lot of options. It’s a big adjustment going from a player who is on the court all the time to a player that sees limited opportunities but I’m learning and I think I’m getting better, and I know the playing time will come with hard work.”
Peterson is living in an apartment with two roommates, is taking courses in Radiography, and works at Andy’s on Gordon Road part time to help pay the rent. She attends classes from 8:00 a. m. to 3:30 p. m., or sometimes later, goes to practice from 3:30-5:30, and works two or three nights a week. She then gets home, studies, goes to sleep, and starts over again
“It’s a challenge but there are a lot of challenges in life so I look at it as just one step along the way,” Peterson said.
“She is taking Radiography at CFCC and hopefully will be transferring to a bigger school to major in Nuclear Medicine.
“It was something that just jumped out at me,” Peterson said. “I had to do a portfolio in high school and I liked what I saw in the field so I applied to get in the program and I was accepted so I guess it was meant to be.’
Turner like Peterson’s potential and sees a bright future for her in the Sea Devils’ program.
“Kara is full of potential,” Turner said. “We’ve had to kind of break her down a little and rebuild her up. She’s quick and I thing she will develop into a very good player. She has a great upside.
“But she, like so many other athletes making the transition from high school to college, has to realize it’s a huge transition. I hope she understands that and she’s patient because I think she’s going to be a heck of a player.”
All this adds up to a successful past and a bright future for three special young ladies. Just shows you what hard work and determination can do for you.