CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa – It was the stuff of dreams for Kubasaki girls volleyball. A sixth straight Okinawa island title on coach Mike Hogen’s six-season watch. A school-first Far East Division I Tournament title. A Most Valuable Player award for team centerpiece Kelsey Rogers.
But it almost didn’t happen for Rogers. Six months before the start of the season, the senior outside hitter took an extended break from the sport, saying she instead wanted to prepare for life after high school.
The break did more than that, Rogers and Hogen said – it helped prepare her to be a better leader, able to lift up her teammates, after she had a change of heart and decided to play for the Dragons after all.
“She came out as a senior and she was an incredible leader. She turned it around. I’ve never seen a bigger turnaround in my entire life in sports, ever,” said Hogen, adding that in past seasons, Rogers often being her own worst critic “held her back.”
“She’s somebody that a coach can talk to … about higher-level, strategic things, telling her, ‘I’m not on the floor, this is what you have to do to keep the team moving forward.’ If I don’t have that, then I have two timeouts. But she saved those by keeping things together on the floor all the time.”
Rogers has been named Stars and Stripes’ Pacific girls volleyball Athlete of the Year, a first for a Kubasaki spiker.
Thinking about her future, college and life after high school in general, helped transform Rogers into that leader, she said.
“It helped me relate to people empathetically and understand them more, therefore allowing me to become a better leader,” Rogers said.
One thing that lured Rogers back to volleyball was when her teammates, playing as the private Shisa Volleyball Club, made their summer trip to the Philippines and Taiwan for matches with international schools.
“Seeing the pictures (from the trip), I definitely regretted it (not going),” she said. “I regretted not playing. And by playing this season (for Kubasaki), I wanted to make up for the lost time. And I’m very happy I did.”
Another Shisa trip to Tokyo to play three international schools, made Kubasaki realize it could compete at Far East, Rogers said.
Shisa beat Seisen International and Christian Academy Japan to open the trip Oct. 17-18, then had three-time Far East D-I champion American School In Japan on the ropes, leading 14-11 before dropping the fifth and deciding set 18-16.
“That was definitely the turning point of the season,” Rogers said, acknowledging that ASIJ was viewed as the “gold standard” and the Pacific’s “premier program. When we went there and we squared up pretty well against them, we were (saying) we could do this.”
And along came Nov. 6 at Yokota, where Rogers and the Dragons cleared that final hurdle, downing the Mustangs in four sets, 13-25, 29-27, 27-25, 26-24 for the school’s first D-I title.
“Being able to compare ourselves to them, it was inspiring and it definitely motivated us become a better team,” Rogers said. “And it worked. We did it.”
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