TOWNSEND — When you attend a volleyball game, most often you see powerful outside and middle hitters smashing the ball all over the place.
If you attend a North Middlesex girls volleyball game, you see that mostly with Dani (Danielle) Croft, but the senior brings much more than that to the table. Her style of play can be compared to a doctor, someone with smooth hands, but, more importantly, someone who has the intelligence to get the job done day in and day out.
After a thrilling 3-1 Oct. 10 win over returning Division 2 state champion Groton-Dunstable and Tuesday’s 3-0 sweep of Leominster, Croft and the Patriots are off to their best start in almost 15 years, sporting a 12-2 overall record, while trailing Nashoba Regional in the standings of the Mid-Wach B conference. The 12 wins have already surpassed last year’s total, when the team was eliminated in the first round of the Central Mass. Division 2 tournament by Nashoba to finish 11-10. Now, a year later and with seven other experienced seniors on the team, Croft is leading the way and having yet another fantastic season.
“She is a rare player, so when kids like Dani walk through the door you are just blessed as a coach,” said North Middlesex head coach Mark Roy. “She is unselfish and she is always ready to go when practice comes. She sets the tone at practice and games. If we have dull moments, you can just see it and she will do her thing (to get the team back on track). She will either hit the ball hard, or make a great play, or just walk over and encourage a teammate.
“All of that makes my job as a coach really easy, because she does all of those things, she really does. It’s rare and you don’t normally get athletes like that, especially high school athletes. I’ve coached for almost 20 years and I’ll tell you that she is just a rare athlete.”
Last year as a junior, Croft was a Lowell Sun All-Star after she registered 51 aces, 137 kills, 56 digs and had a serving rate of 85%.
Through 14 games this season, she has 16 aces, 100 kills, 58 digs and has a serving rate of 83%. She plays as an outside hitter and is known for her ability to get high in the air to not only get to the ball, but also knowing where to place it, which is extremely difficult in high school.
“Her stats are a little bit different than last year because, if you want to talk about a team player, she shares the ball with everybody,” said Roy. “People like Dani are rare. She could be recognized in a different way, but here we distribute the ball around to everyone, but when it’s go-time, we go to Dani. When you have someone like that who can just pick people up and take over a game by being able to read what defenses are doing and are able to place the ball where they are not, (that’s extremely rare).”
In last week’s 3-1 win over G-D, Croft really displayed her talents. She had four aces and 12 kills and was everywhere on the court, said Roy.
“She put on a clinic. Groton had placed their outside back in the spot that Dani typically would hit — every kid has their spot where they hit it — and she was hitting the ball all around that kid,” he said. “You could see the frustration in her eyes. Dani was putting it at her feet, she was putting it high, and when she saw the line, she went to the line. It’s rare, but she also has a great team around her. Obviously she doesn’t do it alone and she is getting great sets from our setter — we have excellent blockers in the middle — but Dani set the tone for that win, right out of the gate, she really did.
“She could have just swung away and with a lot of kids that’s all they can do, but she’s able to read the defense. She does it quick. There are times when she is in the air (about to hit the ball) and I have to take a half of a second and say, ‘Oh my gosh, is she really that high off the net?’ She really can (get) up there.
“A lot of high school players just swing at the ball, but the really gifted players can place the ball. They are able to see what the defense is doing ahead of time, have that court awareness, and place the ball. And it’s great to be able to see it, but you also have to place the ball and execute it. It is just a gift. And she is able to do that over and over again.”
Croft — whose parents, Tim and Judy, were both athletes, and whose older sister, Jess, played softball, while younger brother Zach plays drums in the school band — was asked about having the ability to place the ball basically anywhere she wants.
“It depends on how the defense (lines up),” she said. “If they are setting up to play my hits, I’ll go and tip and try to go to the floor, but if not, I’ll just swing to a spot.”
Croft, who is also a four-year catcher on the North Middlesex softball team, started playing volleyball when she was in sixth grade, along with most of the current senior group that includes Bianca Premo, Alissa Olmsted, Sofia Dawson, Katie Kleeman, Sara Murphy, Brenna Adams and Alex Bellemare.
“Most of us have played together for a long time,” said Croft. “We’re all just really good friends and there’s a lot of team chemistry. I expected us to do well and go far, but I didn’t expect to start out (12-2).”
Beating both G-D and Wachusett was big for the Patriots, and Friday will feature a contest against Nashoba.
“When we play nervous, we play better,” she said. “We came in nervous against Groton-Dunstable, we came in swinging and we came in with the mindset that we wanted to win. For the seniors, this was the last time we would be playing (Groton-Dunstable), and ever since we started, I have always wanted to beat them. This was the first time we beat them since I’ve been with the team.”
After she graduates in June, Croft said she would like to become a pediatric nurse and work with children. Until then, she wants to work with her current teammates and continue to pile up the wins on the volleyball court.
“We’re a year older, a year wiser and we definitely have more team chemistry this year,” she said. “There are eight seniors, and we’re all really good friends. It’s a really awesome team.”