Wednesday, May 27

Starting middle blockers improve through competition with each other

Junior middle blockers Claire Felix and Jennie Frager have both found starting roles for the Bruins this year. Coach Michael Sealy said the two help elevate each other's games with their work in practice. (Aubrey Yeo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

On paper, Jennie and Claire were the perfect freshman roommates. They both had the same extracurricular in high school. They both ended up being sociology majors. They were probably two of the only girls taller than 6-foot-4 on campus.

But that was just on paper.

“They probably drove each other crazy early on because they weren’t similar in any way,” said women’s volleyball coach Michael Sealy. “They weren’t going to be the ones they wanted to call and go see a movie. They were not the best of friends. … They wouldn’t naturally probably come together in a social atmosphere. I think early on they saw that as a weakness.”

The UCLA women’s volleyball program recruited junior middle blockers Jennie Frager and Claire Felix in the hope they would reach the point they’re at today – the pair of starting middles occupy the two top spots on the team in both blocks per set and hitting percentage.

But that master plan took a couple tough years to materialize.

“It was hard on our friendship a little bit our freshman year just because we were competing for a spot,” Frager said “(Felix) always pushed me to work harder. I think it was good that we had each other, because we were thrown into everything together.”

During their freshman year in 2013, both starting middle positions were taken by Zoë Nightingale and Mariana Aquino, giving Frager limited playing time. Felix, however, found her way into the starting rotation as an outside hitter.

In their sophomore year, Aquino had graduated, but Nightingale still had a firm grasp on her spot.

“I knew it was going to be a battle when I committed because Zoë Nightingale was like the best middle in the country at that time,” Frager said. “She was only two years older than me so I knew I had a good amount of time that I’d be competing with her.”

Nightingale’s presence created a situation in which Frager and Felix were fighting for just one spot.

“It was a complete competition every day in practice,” Felix said. “Jennie’s a predominantly 2-foot hitter, and I’m a predominantly 1-foot hitter, and Zoë could kind of do both, so it was like we were all competing against each other all the time. I feel like our gym last year in the middle position was just an all-out brawl.”

Felix ended up winning the job, but to no fault of Frager’s. Sealy’s choice was dictated by how Nightingale was performing. Since Nightingale was doing better off of 2 feet than she was off of 1 foot, he opted to start Felix, who excels as a 1-foot middle.

“Statistically, (Frager) was probably the best middle,” Sealy said. “But personnel-wise with those three, (starting Felix) just seemed to be what worked best. I’m sure it was a big challenge, but (Frager’s) always been a really, really level-headed good teammate, big-picture kind of kid. I think a lot of kids would have been disgruntled and really bummed out about it, and I thought she was pretty mature about it, and used it as fuel.”

Eventually, Nightingale graduated. Frager and Felix took over, just as the program expected when they began recruiting them as high school freshmen.

“Now that they both have a starting position, they’re free to relax a little bit and use each other for competition,” Sealy said. “Instead of it being a cutthroat, you’re-the-enemy competition, it’s the true sense of teamwork and actually trying to be your best for the sake of the program.”

As practice has become less hostile, so has their friendship.

“I think our relationship has matured a lot,” said Felix. “I think we used to butt heads a little more and now we’re really good friends and I love her to death.”

With an improved relationship both on and off the court, the two have provided stability in a lineup that is otherwise yet to be finalized. Sealy said after Nov. 15’s win over Oregon State that he didn’t know what a starting seven looked like, but Felix and Frager have consistently started at middle all year long.

“They learned to respect each other,” Sealy said. “I think as they grew and matured, they understood that, as a program, it’s all of our collective differences that make us a real team and strong. So they stuff each other in practice, they block balls, they have to hit around each other the whole time, but if they didn’t have that ability for each other, to raise the bar for themselves, then they wouldn’t be half as good as they are now.”

And for those wondering, no, they’re not roommates anymore.

Gottlieb joined the Bruin as a freshman in 2014 and contributed until he graduated in 2018. He was the Sports editor for the 2017-2018 academic year, an assistant Sports editor for the 2016-2017 academic year and spent time on the football, men's basketball, baseball, softball, women's volleyball, men's golf and women's golf beats.

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