By Robert McKinney, Athletics Communications Director, (503) 370-6110
SALEM, Ore. – Sarah Fincher, now a senior on the Bearcat volleyball team, chose to transfer to Willamette University prior to her sophomore year. She was looking for a special place to continue her education and play volleyball. Willamette met her wish list.
“Willamette is a school that you come to for more than an education,” Fincher said. “Professors … they’re concerned with what you’re going to do after you get an education. “
Fincher noted that Willamette is also about interacting with professors, gaining hands-on experience and building friendships. For Fincher, that has happened on and off the court.
On the court, Fincher has recorded 619 kills at Willamette in two seasons since transferring from Southwest Baptist University in Missouri. She earned 334 kills in 2013 and added 285 kills in 2014. She has been named First Team All-Northwest Conference once and Second Team All-Conference once.
“I was really proud of how hard I had to work to get honors both years,” Fincher said. “It just shows that our team is up there with every team in the conference. I’m a part of a great program.”
During her WU career, Fincher has averaged a solid 3.38 kills per set while earning a .194 hitting percentage. She has recorded 406 digs (2.22 avg.) to go along with 77 blocks (0.42 avg.).
“She definitely is our ‘best hitter’ … our go-to person,” Willamette Head Coach Tom Shoji said. “If she has a good match, we’re probably really close to winning.”
As a result, opponents work hard to keep her from being effective.
“Sarah has been very consistent,” Shoji said. “Our opponents focus on her. Our goal in 2015 is to take some of that pressure off of Sarah. With everyone getting another year of experience ... we will put out a very experienced team.”
As the Bearcats increase their attacking options, it should lead to Fincher being more rested at key moments in key matches.
“She has had to be one of our strongest players because of the number of sets (passes to her) that she gets,” Shoji explained. “That’s pretty hard on the body … that gets harder to do.”
Shoji added that Fincher often received 50 sets in a match. “Hopefully, we won’t have to do that this year.”
According to Fincher, the WU volleyball players are great friends and teammates.
“We support each other and encourage each other better than any other team I have ever been on,” Fincher said. “As much as I love being on the court and being the one scoring the points, it means as much to me to have someone else on the team block the shot or get the kill.”
Players who are not starting also stay focused and involved in each match.
“Our bench stands up for pregame and they’re as into the game as we are on the court,” Fincher said. “We have the loudest bench. They’re just so excited and into it.”
During Fincher’s two seasons at Willamette, the Bearcats have defeated traditional national power University of Puget Sound once each year. In 2013, the Bearcats defeated the Loggers 3-0 at Cone Field House. In 2014, Willamette downed UPS 3-1 in Tacoma, Washington.
“Getting those wins was a huge confidence booster for our team,” Fincher said.
When the season ended last year, Fincher helped coach the Capital City Elite club volleyball team of 16-year-olds.
“I became the head coach about one month into the season,” Fincher said, explaining that the head coach of the U-16 team moved due to a new job. “I enjoyed it. You get a different feel for the game. We actually did very well. I was very proud of my girls.”
Even before she began helping coach the club team, Fincher was important to Capital City Elite.
“She helps me run junior tournaments and she runs them to a ‘T’,” said Shoji, who is in charge of Capital City Elite. “She tells me ‘Coach, I’ve go it.’ And she does.”
Shoji has been impressed with Fincher’s quick development as a club team coach.
“If she wanted to become a coach in volleyball, she’s starting off on the right foot with her organization. Her skill as a volleyball player is really translating into being a good teacher … I didn’t have to worry much about her (coaching) by the end of the year.”
Fincher has committed herself to a major in computer science and a minor in mathematics.
I’ve always been one of those people who wanted to know how things work … In computer science, you get to see how things operate.”
One project that she really took pride in was a full-scale computer model of the inside of Cone Field House, where the Bearcats play volleyball and basketball. She was even able to use a design program to include the basketball hoops and other details.
“It was all geometric shapes to build everything,” Fincher explained. When it was completed she found that it was great “having it turn into something that looks like what you imagined.”
After developing friendships in the classroom, Fincher found that many of her classmates would attend home volleyball matches. “They would say, ‘I came to your game last night,’” Fincher said. “That’s cool.”
Other athletic teams have also supported the Bearcats during the volleyball season.
“Last year during a home game, the whole swimming team showed up,” Fincher said. “Knowing you have the support of the other athletes is huge.”
Fincher shows a lot of emotion on the volleyball court. She thinks she’s that way partly because she’s so focused and immobile while attending classes and completing homework.
“It’s easier to be more open on the court because when I’m in class I’m in my own world a little bit … me and a computer. When I’m in class it’s pretty silent. I’m not very good at the silent part.”
Some of Fincher’s top memories so far at Willamette are fun moments with the volleyball team. Among her memories are the times the team members have danced together in the locker room.
“It’s just a way to get a little more pumped up, excited,” Fincher said. “It’s a team bonding thing,”
Another memory involved Fincher’s unofficial job as the team’s Global Positioning System operator on road trips. She typically rides in the same van as Shoji and several team members, providing the head coach with driving directions.
After eating a meal on one road trip, Shoji was ready to return to the hotel, but the team wanted to go to a Sonic drive-in for dessert.
“We were in Texas,” Fincher recalled. “We just all wanted ice cream.”
Shoji said “Let’s get back to the hotel.”
“I gave him directions to Sonic,” Fincher noted. And he said ‘Are you sure this is the way to the hotel?’
“We pulled into Sonic. I was so scared when he first looked at me,” Fincher continued. “Then he smiled and he said ‘OK, let’s go to Sonic.’”
Transferring to Willamette has allowed Fincher to balance a serious interest in computers with a high level of play on the volleyball court. She’s pretty serious about both parts of being a student-athlete. Even so, along the way she’s been able to have fun. And she’s built a lot of friendships … on and off the court.