These are high times for East Tennessee State volleyball and the family at the center of it.
The Bucs have become the team to beat in the Atlantic Sun Conference with coach Lindsey Devine calling the shots, and her daughter Megan frequently delivering them.
It’s been a collaboration that has paid off with the program’s first Atlantic Sun Conference championship a year ago and now the inside track toward another. With only one loss in the league, the Bucs can clinch the regular-season title in Brooks Gym with a win over North Florida tonight and another over Jacksonville on Saturday.
“In previous years we kind of had to wait and see how things unfolded,” said Lindsey Devine. “This year we’re in control of our own fate, and that’s all you can ask. This group is mentally tough and has such a strong will to win … there’s just a special energy there.”
At the center of it all is Megan Devine, the 5-foot-11 outside hitter, who seems to thrive in pressure situations.
She was the best player on the best team in the A-Sun last season, and she returned as the lone senior for the defending champions. The Bucs are currently 21-7, with winning streaks of nine and eight matches — including a win at Tennessee — as they seek a second NCAA tournament appearance.
Devine is expected to be named player of the year again.
“I’ve been able to deal with everything pretty well,” she said Thursday. “I think I’ve improved from playing in Europe for two weeks last summer. Being player of the year last year, I know what to do to lead this team.
“It’s an amazing group of girls, with lots of talent, and I feel proud to have been part of it.”
Of course, not all the pressure is on the court when you’re the coach’s kid. Megan has learned how to walk that fine line between daughter and player since back in her middle-school days in Kingsport.
“We have our ups and our downs, like you might expect,” she said. “My mom’s an amazing coach, and she and my dad are my greatest supporters. They wouldn’t have gotten to see me play very much if I’d gone somewhere else. So it’s good.”
Asked how her teammates handle that relationship, Devine says it hasn’t been a problem with this ETSU team.
“I think everybody understands that the coach is my mom, but I’m the team captain and they can come to me about anything and it won’t go any further,” she said. “There’s a great amount of trust on this team.”
Devine has already set the school record for career kills (1,897 and counting) and ranks second in that category among all active Division I players. She had 28 in a five-set win over Lipscomb a week ago.
Lindsey Devine is in her 11th season at ETSU and is the program’s all-time winningest coach. Her team’s fortunes have certainly risen as her daughter’s skills have come to bear.
The Bucs are 85-45 over the last four seasons, with Megan playing in all but two of the possible 130 matches.
“She has a great group around her, and her team and her family keeps her grounded,” said Lindsey. “She understands what is expected of her and knows how her performance impacts the team. She’s been able to handle that very well.
“To see how much she’s grown as a person and a player is so rewarding. Having a small hand as a parent in guiding her through this college experience has been special.”
Making the journey even more special for the team is the wealth of local talent. The Bucs often have five players on the court at the same time who were groomed to excel at ETSU.
Besides Devine, there are two other former Dobyns-Bennett stars, Meredith Hardy and Jamie Rutledge, and the Rice sisters from Science Hill, Ivey and Renzie.
“They’re all like my kids,” said the coach. “I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in their lives from an early age. How we’ve approached this is that we’re a family, and they let me coach and I let them play. Hopefully we bring out the best in each other.”
While Megan Devine has been the centerpiece of the team, it has also been a record-breaking season for Hardy. The 6-1 junior recently became the A-Sun’s all-time leader in blocks, with 451, and has at least one in 90 straight matches.
Hardy goes back a ways with the Devines.
“She and Megan started playing soccer together back in fifth grade,” said Lindsey, “so there’s a real connection there. She’s such a force at the net for us. She has that calm demeanor and really elevates her game in key situations.”
The team is now focused on getting back to the NCAA tournament for just the second time ever. And the schedule, which sent the Bucs on the road for 16 of their first 17 matches, has turned in their favor.
They will end the regular season with seven of their last nine matches at home, where they’ve won 14 straight. Now they’re down to just two, and the last one is much-anticipated.
Jacksonville, with a gaudy 25-3 overall record, is 14-2 in the conference and the only team to defeat ETSU. That was a 3-2 decision in Florida almost a month ago.
The Bucs have reeled off eight straight wins since, but it hasn’t been easy. Half of those matches have gone to five sets.
“We know we’re going to get everyone’s best game,” said Megan Devine, “but we definitely have the talent to repeat if we’re on our game. We’re very excited about this weekend. I hope we can get a lot of people out to support us.”
Tonight’s match against North Florida begins at 7, and the Jacksonville match is set for Saturday at 3. The latter has been designated Fan Appreciation Day at Brooks Gym.
Seeing Jacksonville again, hopefully with a title on the line, will be plenty of motivation for the ETSU players.
“We definitely want to see them again,” said Megan Devine. “We didn’t have our best game down there and they beat us. We’d like to make up for that here on our home floor.”
Of course, the season ultimately comes down to the conference tournament. The winner next weekend at Kennesaw State gets the automatic NCAA bid.
The Bucs won last season as the 3—seed, with Devine being named the most valuable player.
However this season plays out, she will move on with her volleyball career. The Global Challenge tournament last summer in Croatia only brought the possibilities into clearer focus.
“I definitely want to get in contact with some scouts when I’m finished playing here and hopefully go overseas and see what the future holds for me,” she said. “I don’t want to quit playing.”