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Canisius' Podlesh digs her new role

For three years, Sarah Podlesh waited her turn.

She did everything that Canisius volleyball coach Cathy Hummel asked as Podlesh, a natural libero, played behind three-time conference Defensive Player of the Year Jessica Stackhouse.

Now, the patience has paid off for Podlesh, who earned the starting defensive specialist spot this year.

She is one of four seniors blending the old and the new as the Golden Griffins again look to make their mark on the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

The Griffs are 9-6 overall and 4-2 in the MAAC, tied for third with Iona.

This weekend they face off against Iona at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Koessler Center while on Saturday they host fifth-place Manhattan (3-3) in matches that could allow the Griffs some breathing room as the top four teams qualify for the conference's postseason tournament.

Anchoring the defense will be Podlesh, who, in case that name sounds familiar, is the younger sister of Adam Podlesh, the punter for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"When I have a bad practice I'll call him," Podlesh said of her relationship with her brother. "He's always there for me. I'll call him after a road trip and we'll talk about our games -- was this a good weekend for the Podleshes or a bad weekend for the Podleshes?"

There have been some pretty good weekends for Sarah recently.

The Pittsford native has played well all season, amassing 267 digs. Three times in the last five matches she set a personal record for digs, the most recent a 32-dig performance in a win at Saint Peter's on Saturday.

"Sarah is one of the top two or three liberos in the conference," Hummel said. "She always worked hard, accepted her role, challenged every year verbally and physically. [This year] we changed our defense a bit to funnel more balls to her. She's an all-out player. She leaves it all on the court. For the last six matches you look around and she was the one who gave 100 percent to the game plan."

The key for the Griffs in large part has been the team's ability to accept roles. There is no standout on the roster. Instead a mix of five freshmen and four seniors has blended with a handful of sophomores and juniors to create an effective team chemistry.

"The freshmen are probably the best freshmen class we've had in terms of talent," Hummel said. "The secret is trying to get them to repeat their successes. Hopefully we can figure that out and hold on to it. The contribution of the parts is significant this year. We've got unselfishness from seniors who have been starters for three years but their roles have been minimized. No one has to be the superstar and it reduces any pressure."

Meanwhile, Niagara volleyball has recovered from a woeful 0-9 start to be 3-3 in the MAAC and 8-11 overall.

The Purple Eagles are the youngest team in Division I this year with only sophomores and freshmen on their roster, according to second-year Niagara coach Susan Clements.

That's why the team had some growing pains in the beginning.

"We started off playing some really top competition," Clements said. "I wanted to put them in a position where they were challenged right from the start. I was confident in the kids I brought in. They want to win and compete so as long as I kept them focused on why we were playing a tough schedule, I knew they would buy into it and wouldn't focus on loss after loss."

Freshman setter Michelle James has started to take command of the team on the floor -- a role needed from the setter's position but one that can be difficult to assume as a rookie.

Clements also noted the development of freshman libero Samantha Morgan, who is starting to take control of the back row defense, and middle blocker Lauren Costello, who as a sophomore brings experience to the Purple Eagles.

Niagara plays Iona at 2 p.m. Saturday and Manhattan at 1 p.m. Sunday in the Gallagher Center.

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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