Georgian Court Breaks Past Win Record

The Lions' Shana Rayside, who starred at Lakewood, soars for a point. (Photo courtesy GCU)

LAKEWOOD – Put a winning season into the books for the Georgian Court University women’s volleyball team.

The Lions were 22-10 overall, including 12-4 at home. They were 16-3 in the seven-team Central Atlantic Athletic Conference South Division for a tie for second place with Thomas Jefferson University.

GCU’s 16 CACC wins were the program’s most since 2009. Its 22 overall wins are the most in a single season since 2009.

The Lions finished the 2018 season with the third highest overall wins total in the 14-team conference. They fell to Post University 3-1 in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference Tournament semifinals.

“Overall, we are generally happy with the season,” seventh-year Georgian Court coach Dan Sempkowski said. “However, our expectation was to win the conference championship. We knew we were an improved team from last year just from the fact we did not have any seniors in 2017. Our team at minimum was a year more experienced in addition to the hard work everyone put in and some key additions through recruitment.”

Earlier this season, the Lions topped host Post 3-0.

“I am not sure I would say we under achieved,” Sempkowski said. “We just did not win the biggest matches when we needed to.”

Sempkowski said this year’s team was strong in several phases of the sport.

“Passing and defense were the keys as well as balancing our offense out,” he said. “We were an extremely well-rounded team that hoped to run all of its hitters as opposed to focusing on either one or two hitters. Passing and ball control helped us do that. The team worked hard.”

The Lions’ Jessica Sipili, a Lakewood resident who played for Donovan Catholic, provided the team with leadership. (Photo courtesy GCU)

The Lions’ 5-foot-10 Amy Bruno, a junior right side hitter-middle blocker from Barnegat High School, earned first team all-conference honors. She was fifth on the Lions in points with 224 and added 170 kills, 80 blocks and 16 digs.

“Amy comes into every volleyball season in the best shape of her life,” Sempkowski said. “She is physically among the most dominant athletes on the floor in every match. She had some knee and shoulder issues, mostly tendinitis, as well for 2018. Both were minimal issues this year because of all of the rehabilitation work she did all year. Blocking and hitting are always Amy’s strong points.

“Amy is on the quiet side. She is someone who is a doer as opposed to talking about it.”

Sempkowski said he saw Bruno compete at the club and high school levels.

“We felt her physicality would translate to our level (NCAA Division II),” he said. “Fortunately, we were correct. She was recruited to play right side, but filled in at middle blocker due to the team’s need in 2017. She had such a great year that we kept her there for 2018. We hope Amy continues to improve on her consistency as well as in the flexibility to play multiple positions.”

Shana Rayside, a 6-foot-1 junior right side hitter from Lakewood, paced the Lions in blocks (81) and was second on the team in kills (244). She added 49 digs and was third on the team in points with 290. She scored 10 kills in the semifinals.

“Shana took the biggest jump forward of any of our returning athletes,” said Sempkowski, a former Ramapo College men’s standout and ex-assistant men’s coach at the NCAA Division III school. “On the court, she became much more consistent and helped us win many games. Off the court, she stepped up and took a role in our leadership core. Hitting and blocking are her strong points. She was the leading blocker in our conference at her position.

“Shana came into this year in the best shape of her life. Her on the court experience is really starting to take over. We expect her to be the best right side in the conference in 2019.”

Georgian Court’s Jaime Sweeney makes a set. She played for Toms River East. (Photo courtesy GCU)

Former Toms River East player Jaime Sweeney, a 5-foot-6 sophomore setter, was second in the CACC with 336 assists and added 151 digs. She handed out 15 assists in the semifinals.

“Her setting abilities helped us to run our offense and have as much success as we did,” Sempkowski said. “Whether she was either starting or coming off the bench, she did a great job of bringing some consistency to the team and the offense. Her experience and being around the program certainly helped.”

Senior outside hitter-right side hitter Jessica Sipili, a Lakewood resident who played for Monsignor Donovan (now Donovan Catholic), posted 11 kills and 26 digs. She’s 5-foot-10.

“Jessica was a returning captain and one of the biggest leaders in our leadership core,” Sempkowski said. “She is also one of our brightest athletes who truly gets the job done in the classroom. She is simply a role model in everything she does.”

Sophomore outside hitter Aubrey Binkley, a Toms River North product, was third on the team in digs (249) and kills (241) and second on the club in points (309 1/2). She added 21 assists. The 5-foot-10 Binkley notched 10 kills in the semifinals.

“Aubrey is an all-around strong athlete who rarely gets rattled by the situation,” Sempkowski said. “When she is on, she helps us win in every way. When one aspect of her game is off, she still helps us win by being able to do so much more – hitting, blocking, passing, defense and serving tough. She played in 114 sets this year because she can simply help us in so many ways. She took a bigger role on the offensive side this year than she did last year.”

Senior outside hitter-right side hitter Peggy Rosario, who hails from Puerto Rico, was an all-conference second-team selection. She paced the Lions in points (356), kills (298) and digs (255) and added 15 blocks. She led the Lions in kills each season. She’s 5-foot-10.

“Her on the court contributions cannot be ignored,” Sempkowski said. “She ended her career among our statistical leaders in kills, digs and aces. She was in great shape this year. She clearly worked hard all summer. Her consistency improved this year.”

The team’s captains were Rosario, Sipili, Rayside, Binkley and freshman Grace Fenn, a 6-foot middle blocker-right side from Phoenix, Az.

Georgian Court’s Amy Bruno, who competed for the Barnegat Bengals, earned all-conference honors. (Photo courtesy GCU)

“We ran a leadership core which was a little different, but with the hope of building more leaders for future teams,” Sempkowski said.

While on the recruiting trail, Sempowski looks for several qualities in athletes.

“The obvious things are the player’s volleyball skills, potential and general athletic abilities,” he said. “Other important pieces to us are strong academics, leadership qualities and other off the court intangibles. At the end of the day, we want athletes who love volleyball. Few people love early morning workouts, but if you love volleyball and see where those workouts will take you, then you’ll have on the court success and volleyball won’t seem like a job when you get to college.

“In general, the team consists of a great group of athletes who come into the gym to work hard every day. They love volleyball and love winning.”

The assistant coach is Jason Ulrich, who completed his sixth season. The former Brick Township athlete began the Jackson Memorial girls team and coaches the Jaguars’ boys team.

“He has turned the boys team into a Shore Conference top four team,” Sempkowski said. “His love of volleyball helps all of his athletes.”

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Chris Christopher covers sports for Micromedia Publications Inc. with knowledge, pride and passion. His beats are the high school, college, professional, youth and recreational scenes. A three-time New Jersey Press Association award winner for sports writing, Christopher was inducted into the Shore Football Coaches Foundation Hall of Fame in 2015 for his work in the media. The Lakewood resident enjoys taking walks in Ocean County Park and on the boardwalks in Ocean and Monmouth counties and rooting for the New York Mets.