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The Ultimate Utility Player
Most major league baseball teams carry a utility player on their active rosters. This valuable individual is a veritable "jack of all trades," possessing the ability to play nearly any position on the diamond. If such a role existed in the game of volleyball, sophomore Nicki Scripko would be an ideal fit. Her versatility and uncommon ability have played an important role in the recent revitalization of the Liberty volleyball program.
The comparison between the Fayetteville, N.C., native and a baseball utility player is not completely accurate, though. A utility player's contributions are commendable, but such players rarely garner major awards and recognition. Conversely, Scripko is quickly filling up her dorm room with a myriad of plaques and certificates.
Last season, Scripko captured the Big South Freshman of the Year award and was a first-team All-Big South selection. She was also tabbed an honorable mention AVCA All-East Region honoree, becoming one of only nine freshmen in the nation to be recognized by the AVCA. These honors came as a result of her stellar play at right-side hitter, where the 6-1 athlete racked up 393 kills and a .302 attack percentage.
Most importantly, Scripko's efforts helped the Lady Flames experience a rapid reversal of fortune on the volleyball hardwood. The team, which had gone 11-18 the previous season, boosted its record to 27-9 during Scripko's freshman campaign. Liberty, which set a program Division I record for victories in the year, claimed its first Big South Conference title since 2001.
With Scripko and five other starters set to return for the 2008 season, head coach Shane Pinder did not have much to worry about during the offseason, right? Not quite. Despite Scripko's success on the right side of the net, Pinder believed his team would be even better with her at outside hitter.
"Nicki is arguably our best attacker, and matches are won and lost on the outside. So, we decided to move our top attacker outside," explained Pinder, the reigning Big South and VaSID State Coach of the Year. "When our offense breaks down, her ability to score from that position is huge. Nicki will provide leadership and be a force at the net, as well as giving us a nice back-row attack option."
When asked about her transition to outside hitter, Scripko responded, "It has been a tough adjustment. It's a totally different set at that position. Outside hitter is definitely my favorite position to play, though."
If the initial returns are any indication of things to come, Pinder's decision appears to be a wise one. Scripko has helped Liberty open its season with a 6-0 record for the first time since the Lady Flames moved to the Division I level in 1988. The sophomore, who made the all-tournament team at both the VCU Third Degree Sportswear Invitational and the Patriot Invitational, helped the Lady Flames defeat a pair of ACC foes in Maryland and N.C. State.
Scripko's successful move to outside hitter is just the latest example of her versatility. When Pinder was recruiting the high school All-American at Fayetteville Christian School, he saw her play every position except libero. Then, his checklist was completed this past spring, when Scripko donned the different-colored libero uniform top during Liberty's spring tournaments. If that were not enough, Scripko also sang the national anthem prior to several home matches as a freshman.
"Nicki is truly a team player," Pinder explained. "She's not focused on personal accolades. For her, it's all about the team, and that makes her special. Nicki grew up around the game, and she just makes the game look easy."
Scripko learned the game of volleyball early on, as her mother, Kim Fowler, began coaching when Scripko was in first grade. Thirteen years later, her mother is still there with husband, Wade, at nearly every match.
"I'm very blessed to have my parents as my number one fans," stated Scripko. "They have adopted the whole team. They are always bringing us stuff and are always there cheering us on."
A Biblical studies major, Scripko hopes to be a source of encouragement to youth in her future occupation. She spent the summer interning as children's pastor at Ridgeview Baptist Church in Stuarts Draft, Va.
"It was an awesome experience," exclaimed Scripko. "I taught the children on Sunday and Wednesday and helped plan events for them. I grew a lot in my personal walk with Christ through the experience."
"The internship also helped to confirm that I definitely want to be involved in ministry. I just don't know exactly where God wants me yet."
For the time being, Scripko will focus on working together with her 14 teammates and the Lady Flames' coaching staff. Her response when questioned about the best part of her freshman volleyball season was quite telling about the sophomore's personality. Scripko could have talked about winning the Big South title, attracting record crowds to the Vines Center or capturing many personal accolades. Yet, here's how she answered the inquiry, without a moment's hesitation.
"The thing I will cherish the most about my freshman season was the relationships we made," admitted Scripko. "It was awesome to see God work through us all."
Scripko did follow up her statement quickly by acknowledging that ending Winthrop's 63-match Big South winning streak in front of 1,583 screaming fans at the Vines Center on Oct. 27, 2007 was "amazing. I don't think I'll ever forget that match."
The streak-ending triumph over the Eagles may have signaled a shift in the balance of Big South Conference volleyball power. Liberty went on to sweep its way to the conference tournament title three weeks later and was voted nearly unanimously to repeat as Big South champion in 2008.
How has the team's outlook changed due to loftier expectations? "We're not thinking about it at all," Scripko responded. "We just need to focus on our side of the net. There definitely will be a target on our backs, but I think it's a good thing."
Beyond conference aspirations, the Lady Flames have also established a team goal of winning a match in the NCAA Tournament, after taking a set from Final Four qualifier California in their NCAA first-round tilt last season. Scripko has already shown the willingness to play any role necessary to help the team accomplish its goals.
So, fans attending Liberty's nine home volleyball matches this season will never be sure what they might see number 13 doing next. Whether she sings the national anthem or runs a slide play and pounds a powerful spike through the middle of the unsuspecting defense, though, the ultimate utility player will be continuing to raise the Liberty volleyball team to new heights.
Written by Paul Carmany
Assistant Athletics Communications Director