Monday, March 12, 2012

Epenesa was outstanding for Tigers in 2011

Though Sam Epenesa and Kayla Fitterer only spent one year together on the Edwardsville volleyball team, it was enough time to change the program's direction over the next three seasons.

As a bright-eyed freshman, Epenesa entered EHS with unknowing expectations of playing team volleyball after playing on the club circuit throughout middle school. One of the first upperclassmen she would play alongside was Fitterer, who was putting the finishes touches on a stellar prep career.

It was that 2008 season that helped Epenesa claim her second straight Intelligencer Female Athlete of the Fall Season.

"My freshman year was such a change. You play on the club teams that are the same age but you get to high school and you are playing with girls that are older than you and have played longer," said Epenesa. "The seniors were such a good example to look up to. Kayla set the standard and it was someone I wanted to be like. I wanted to play all six rotations.

"Megan Sharpe wanted everything to be perfect and Julie (Honegger) was always doing the covering and running forward and backwards. They set a standard for us."

Edwardsville coach Jami Parker knew she had something special in Epenesa even as a freshman.

"She was such an athlete. She was a little raw but she had so much power to her, though a little out of control. You knew that because she was such an athlete and that she had a great head on her shoulders that she would figure it out. She did," said Parker.

And Epenesa's friendship with Fitterer helped her achieve the best that she could be in the orange and black.

"She and Kayla were buddies and I think that was one of the best partnerships that could have occurred. Kayla gave her a lot of insight into playing at the higher level," said Parker. "Her freshman year was the first year that she played for a school team. I think that Kayla was really good for Sam and that class had such high expectations that they set the tone for Sam's class."

Now, Epenesa has wrapped up her career and like Fitterer (Alabama) and Megan Sharpe (Truman State), she has accepted a scholarship to Purdue University to continue her volleyball career at the next level.

And like Fitterer did during her two seasons with EHS, Epenesa shattered multiple records and helped guide the team to places unseen before in the program's history.

Prior to Epenesa's arrival at EHS, the Tigers had one 30-win season and one sectional championship in 1998. Over the last four years, they have compiled 122 wins, including a 34-6 record this year. Epenesa led them to four Southwestern Conference, four regional, three sectional and one super-sectional title. EHS took third place at state during her junior year.

As for individual accolades, she had already shattered the kills record at Edwardsville with 904 prior to her senior year and after accumulating 346 this season, she sits at 1,250. Emily Harrison is second with 816 and Fitterer is third at 766.

Epenesa is second on the career list in aces (184) and third in assisted blocks (151).

As a senior, she led the Tigers in kills (346) and aces (66). She was third in digs (249) and fourth in total blocks (63).

"There is always that feeling of wishing you could have gone further but I am just so proud to be a part of Edwardsville volleyball. I came and watched as a little girl and the program has definitely changed," said Epenesa. "We have taken steps forward. From my freshman year to this year, it is pretty cool that we set records. We did things that other EHS teams did not do. To be a part of that is pretty cool."

But the climb to stardom was not easy, especially after the departure of Fitterer.

During her sophomore season, the Tigers started the season 3-6 and looked like a team trying to find a new identity.

EHS and Epenesa rebounded enough to claim a 23-15 record and a league title, before losing to O'Fallon in the sectional semifinals.

"Once Kayla and that class left it fell back on the younger kids and they started it their sophomore year. They had to learn it the hard way and they pushed the bar higher. They did it bigger and better," said Parker.

The best came during Epenesa's junior year when the Tigers took third place at state. It was the program's first appearance at the state finals since starting in 1974. Epenesa led the Tigers with kills (406) and aces (68).

And with all the success that she has encountered at EHS, Epenesa points to the expectations of the senior class during her freshman year that kept her motivated to achieve more.

"Each year we had to take two steps to keep up," said Epenesa. "The underclassmen are stepping right with us and we step up together."

Parker added that, "(Epenesa) is never wanting to settle and she is very determined. You can see it in matches if we were losing, you could see it in her face that we were going to win. She pushed the people around her to want to achieve with her," said Parker. "She made everybody around her better."

Epenesa did have an advantage at EHS that not many premier hitters have by playing alongside setter Lexi Gober all four seasons.

Gober, who finished her prep career with a school-record and IHSA fourth-best 2,860 assists, became Edwardsville's setter midway through her freshman year. With Gober entrenched at the position, a bond occurred between setter and outside hitter.

"They had four years together and that is enough said. Lexi was the setter that Sam spent the most time with her in her career. They got to know each other and they knew their patterns and I think that one made the other better and vice versa. They pushed each other," said Parker.

Not only did Epenesa and Gober push each other but they pushed the team to new heights. And after losing Fitterer and a talented senior class in 2008, Parker was not sure if she would have another player come through the program like Fitterer.

"I have been very blessed with the players that have gone through here. You do not achieve all this without having the players with a great work ethic that are willing to learn," said Parker.

Now she does not know if she will get the chance to coach a player with the limitless talent of Epenesa.

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