On a Rolle: Williamstown looks to defend state championship in 2021

Senior is key to the Braves’ defense this volleyball season

MATTHEW SHINKLE/South Jersey Sports Weekly: Williamstown’s Jasmine Rolle is looking towards being a top ten blocks leader in New Jersey by the end of the season. On her way towards making that possible, she also hopes to help the Braves defend its 2019 state championship.

Jasmine Rolle has watched both of her older sisters — Rachel and Jaylah — go through the girls volleyball program at Williamstown High School in recent years. 

Both played significant roles in keeping alive the strong tradition of victorious Braves’ teams for   about two decades. Rachel led the team in assists as a setter in 2018, while Jaylah played alongside Jasmine on varsity two years ago, en route to the team’s most recent state championship in 2019. 

But now that Jasmine is the lone Rolle sister on the Williamstown roster, and a state championship is back in play after last year’s pandemic-shortened season, Jasmine has two things in mind: being among the state’s top blocks leaders and defending Williamstown’s state title.

“I want to defend that championship for sure, since last year we didn’t really have that opportunity,” Rolle said. “After that, I want to end up being a top 10 blocker in the state and be First-Team All-Conference as well.” 

Coach Chris Sheppard, who is also a health and phys-ed teacher at Williamstown Middle School, started with the volleyball program as its first head coach in 1998, and rather quickly turned the program into a state powerhouse. The team has won 15 consecutive conference championships since 2001, four sectional championships since 2010 and four state championships since 2006.

Sheppard got into teaching hoping to eventually coach baseball or boys soccer at Williamstown, his alma mater. While there were no open positions for those sports, the district was starting volleyball teams in the fall and spring. 

Sheppard was reluctant to accept a volleyball role, since he’d never coached the sport and only played it in an intramural league with friends. He agreed to take the position if the district couldn’t find anyone else.

“It honestly wasn’t what I wanted to coach at first,” Sheppard said. “I’d played boys sports, so I was looking for baseball or boys soccer, and on top of that, I didn’t have much experience with volleyball, so I didn’t want to do these kids a disservice if somebody else would do a better job.

“But they said no one else has applied and the sport’s already been approved,” he added, “so this was really my opportunity to get involved like I always said I wanted to.”

After attending a few coaching clinics, working with coaches from other schools and reading as much material as he could, Sheppard worked quickly to prepare himself for volleyball before his first season, guiding both the boys and girls teams for 12 years before eventually focusing solely on the girls.

“I was fortunate in that we had athletic kids early on that wanted to play and were pretty good,” Sheppard said. “Of course, I wanted to be good and make it worth it, so we put in a lot of time and got pretty good pretty quickly. And it’s been that way ever since.

“I kind of fell backwards into something to be honest. It just so happened that the opening coincided with me being early in my career, and here I am 24 years later still doing it,” the coach added with a laugh.

One of the unique aspects of balancing coaching and teaching, according to Sheppard, is that he’s taken that opportunity to get a prolonged look at potential girls volleyball players before reaching Williamstown High School’s halls. Especially in the case of Jasmine, as the youngest Rolle sister, the coach had the opportunity to not only know her through the district but to work with her early on in open gyms and intramural games to prepare her for joining the team.

“I’ve had the opportunity to, a few times now, move up to the high school from our middle school, but I’ve always turned it down to stay, because I get the opportunity while I’m here to find the next great Williamstown volleyball player,” Sheppard said.

“For a while there, not many of our middle-school boys or girls had volleyball experience, and if they were interested in playing and didn’t have anything else going on that season, I would try to get them to join,” he added.

With players like Jasmine Rolle, Sheppard said the team is in good hands. 

“She was a starter for us in 2019 as a sophomore, when we won the state championship, so she’s been on the court and had a huge impact for a long time for us now,” Sheppard said. “I’m looking forward to her continuing to grow for one final year, with her role probably increasing as a senior with the leadership that she has.”