Fast Start By Niemer Keying Bearcats' Success|
Sept. 20, 2010
By Shawn Sell
Stephanie Niemer is not an unknown commodity and in fact the target on her back from opposing defenses has never been bigger. But that has not stopped UC's star outside hitter from posting some gaudy numbers early in the 2010 season, while helping her team take a seat in the national spotlight along the way.
After arriving on the Cincinnati campus in 2007 from just across the river in Erlanger, Kentucky, Niemer burst right onto the scene, winning BIG EAST Freshman of the Year honors and earning her first of three all-conference accolades. A first team All-BIG EAST honor followed in each of the next two seasons, with last year also producing an honorable mention All-America award. All of that parlayed into a preseason BIG EAST Player of the Year citing for Niemer and she has done little to hurt that billing through the first 13 matches of the season. To date, Niemer is averaging a BIG EAST leading 5.19 kills per set, along with 2.79 digs and 0.81 blocks and hitting .325, all career-highs. And she has done that with a big target on her back.
"With her experience, she is seeing the court well," head coach Reed Sunahara says. "She has worked hard and it's not like this came natural to her. She was a middle (blocker) in high school and from day one; we switched her to the outside. It has taken awhile for her to make the adjustment and see the court better. But she has worked hard, has watched tape and is trying to do all the right things to be the best she can be."
"I feel like I still have a lot of things to work on and that I am not the best at everything I do by any means," Niemer adds. "I think my skills have gotten better over the years, but I could get a lot better in pretty much every skill. When I first came in, I was just trying to hammer balls every game and hit it as hard as I could. But as time went on, I realized that doesn't work. (So) I had to change the way I hit. Blocking was a big difference too. I've gotten better with that too just learning what Reed has been teaching me and practicing it every day."
Along with the reputation Niemer has earned as one of the BIG EAST's best players, she has also had to step up even more following the recent injury to fellow outside hitter Missy Harpenau. And step up she has done, as after dropping two straight without Harpenau in the line-up, Niemer has led UC to three consecutive victories, including, a match Sunahara labeled "the single biggest win in program history," a thriller over No. 5 Illinois last Friday. In those three matches, Niemer has gone for 30, 28 and a UC three-set record 32 kills, while hitting a stout .371. Her play has earned her two straight BIG EAST Player of the Week awards.
"It was great (to beat Illinois)," she says. "It was one of those games where nobody expected us to win except us and our coaches. I don't think anybody else expected us to pull off a win over Illinois, but we believed we could and we were proud of ourselves the way we fought against them. Then to follow it up with such a consistent match against Purdue, it was great for us to not just let (winning) the Illinois match get in our heads."
"Without her, I don't know if we would have been as successful as we were," Sunahara adds. "She put up some unbelievable numbers and was probably the best player in the gym. I believe that numbers don't lie and she had a phenomenal weekend."
While the individual attention has been plentiful, Niemer, a co-captain along with fellow senior Annie Fesl, is more interested in helping UC build on its newly-received national ranking. On the strength of the Illinois win and a follow-up sweep of a solid Purdue team, the Bearcats cracked the national rankings at No. 25 for the first time since the 2003 season. Despite the absence of an important piece in Harpenau, Sunahara is confident his team won't miss a beat.
"Stephanie is the getting the majority of the swings right now and our other players need to step up," the Bearcats' 11th year head coach says. "Instead of being so one dimensional, we need to be a more well balanced team for a couple of reasons. One being so that she can swing the whole season because if we give her too much too early, it's tough on her too. The second thing is if we are well-balanced, we are a lot harder to stop."
One important factor in Niemer's success this season is the chemistry developed over four years on the court together with Fesl, UC's starting setter since both players arrived on campus together.
"In our bigger games especially, Annie will give me this look and I know she is going to give me the ball," Niemer says of her fellow senior. "We both have this thing where we will look at each other and know it's time for us to step up and finish the game. We have both played since we were freshmen and are big leaders for our team and we want to lead by example."
With over half of the season still to play, Niemer finds herself in fourth place on UC's career kills list with 1,593, just 43 behind third-place Cathy Guye. Another 251 kills from her current total will bring her to second place, trailing only Julie DuPont, one of the greats in program history. More importantly to Niemer, she is also trying to match an accomplishment enjoyed by DuPont; helping her team win two conference championships. Regardless of who is on the court with her or who isn't, Niemer is confident in the Bearcats as they march towards their dreams.
"We know what we need to do," she says. "Whether Harp comes back (full strength) or not, we all need to make adjustments and figure out what our role on the team is to help us win."