It didn’t take Ocean County College women’s volleyball coach Sandra Stout long to learn she had a solid team on her hands.
“I was not surprised at our success,” she said. “I was very, very excited during the first week of tryouts to see the level of talent we had.”
The Vikings finished with winning records during the regular season.
They were 15-4 overall. They were 12-4 in National Junior College Athletic Association Division III Region XIX. And they were 8-2 in the Garden State Athletic Conference.
“The girls jelled very early and very nicely,” said Stout, assisted by Avery Hodgson-Walters, a former Southern Regional High School athlete who will begin her first season as OCC’s head women’s basketball coach this year. “Except for either two or three players, they played club ball during the off season. They fed off each other and began to blend like a well-oiled machine. I tell the team all of the time, ‘As long as you communicate and work together out there …
“Nobody’s feelings were hurt. The players are all mature. They were all there for the same reason – they wanted to win. None of the players were lazy. They all wanted to throw themselves on the court.”
The Vikings’ captains were sophomore middle hitter Pascal El-Khouri, a former Brick Township High School player, and sophomore libero Gianna Addalli, who competed for the Toms River North Mariners.
El-Khouri put her 6-foot-2 frame to good use and was often the tallest player on the court. She notched 47 blocks during the regular season.
“She was very dominant at the net in terms of blocking and hitting the ball,” Stout said. “She has great eye-hand coordination and follows the ball on the other side of the net quite well.”
El-Khouri is mentally tough.
“She is a very even tempered, controlled player,” Stout said. “She does not become rattled. When she makes mistakes, she just comes back and plays the next ball. She does not get down on herself. She encourages her teammates. She is not hyper. She is very level headed and rational.”
El-Khouri competed for the Vikings last season.
“She substantially improved her game,” Stout said. “She had more confidence. Her timing on the attack has gotten better. Her approach at the net on the attack has enabled her to jump higher.”
Like El-Khouri, Addalli owns strong leadership skills. Both were selected as the team’s leaders by Stout and Hodgson-Walters.
“Gianna is very much a natural leader,” Stout said. “She kind of unifies the team with her leadership during timeouts. She points out our weaknesses.”
Addalli excelled at libero.
“She was very much the heart of the team,” Stout said. “Most of our plays started with her pass. She is a very versatile player. She has a back row hit that is very effective.”
Addalli is also adept at serving, unleashing 46 regular season aces.
“She has a killer serve,” Stout said. “It is low to the net and it drops after it goes over the net. She places the ball well and is confident in her serve.”
Freshman defensive specialist Kirstyn Smith, who hails from Brick Memorial, played a large role in OCC’s success.
“She is fairly new to that position,” Stout said. “She was not in the starting lineup at the beginning of the season. She played next to Gianna quite often and was very open to learning from her in the back row. She worked on her serve. She got better at serving as the season moved along.”
Another tall player was 6-foot-1 freshman middle blocker Taylor Jackson, formerly of Toms River North. She led the team in blocks with 48 during the regular season.
“She was a great addition to the team,” Stout said. “Her height was a big factor. She played in the middle at North and was very comfortable there with us. She has great timing and spacial awareness for blocking and hitting.”
Freshman outside hitter Ashley Stickle, who played for Brick Memorial, blasted home 59 kills in 14 regular season matches en route to a .229 percentage.
“She did fantastic,” Stout said. “She and Smith were not playing together a whole lot at the beginning of the season. One player left the team and we put Ashley up front and placed Smith on the back line. Ashley has great timing and a variety of kill approaches. She can hit the ball hard cross court and off speed. She also hits the ball in the middle of the court.”
Former Toms River North player Samantha Rose led the Vikings in aces with 69 during the regular season from her setter slot.
“She has been setting for quite a while,” Stout said. “She has the natural ability to get the ball to our hottest player with either a back bump set or a back set. She has good spacial awareness as she knows where her teammates are. Even when she runs after a rogue ball that is heading out of bounds, she can get the ball to a playable spot on the court for an attack.
“She also has an outstanding serve. She has a variety of serves and she also has the ability to serve low and hard. She is very consistent with that type of serve. She has a lob serve that catches the defense off guard and is usually not playable. She is very consistent in her serving.”
Freshman outside hitter Jenna Kulinski, who hails from Southern Regional, is strong in the intangibles department. She played for the Rams under legendary girls and boys coach Eric Maxwell, who notched his 1,000th career win–combined at the helm of each team – earlier this season.
“She is very passionate,” Stout said. “She gives it all she’s got all of the time she is out there. She is a big hustler, a team motivator, and she plays all the way around the court. Not only is she strong up front, she is quite accomplished at playing defense on the back row.
Other contributors to the Vikings’ success were opposite hitter Gabriella Figueroa, a freshman from Lakewood; Adriana Acevedo, a freshman setter-defensive specialist from Lakewood, and Michelle DeRiggi, a sophomore defensive specialist from the Ocean County Christian Academy and a Toms River resident.
“Gabriella covers well on the attack,” Stout said. “On the block, she stays very low and picks the ball off the ground. She’s a strong, young player. She digs on the coverage quite well. Adriana and Michelle are great supporting players. They don’t ever stop supporting their teammates. That is what our team needs. They come back day after day despite knowing they probably won’t get into a match.”
Stout looks for several things when recruiting players.
“Experience, coachability, hustle, mental toughness and the ability to communicate,” she said. “That is it. I don’t get to see many high school matches because our matches are played during the high school season. I attend the club matches during the off season. I attend the OCC open houses to try to meet the players who are interested in playing for us.”
Stout attended OCC from 1982-84, winning Most Valuable Player honors in volleyball and women’s basketball. The Lyndhurst, Bergen County, graduate is a school counselor for the Performing Arts Academy at the Ocean County Vocational Technical School at the US Naval Air Engineering Center in Lakehurst.
“Before I came to OCC, I had never played volleyball,” she said. “I played it to get into shape for basketball. I said, ‘Let me see what this volleyball thing is all about.’ That is where it started for me.”