Hepburn, Stuart experiencing success in pro volleyball in Europe

The regular season has ended for Bahamian professional volleyball player Shonari Hepburn, and Eugene Stuart’s season is winding down.

Hepburn is the more seasoned of the two, playing in his fourth season as a professional in Europe. He joined the pros after playing for Niagara College in Ontario, Canada. Currently, Hepburn plays for Lindaren Volley Luzern in the Swiss National Liga A – the top professional volleyball league in Switzerland.

This is Stuart’s inaugural season on the professional circuit, having played for the University of Charleston collegiately. He is currently employed by the club Karelian Hurmos and plays in the Mestaruusliiga – the highest volleyball league in Finland.

Currently, Hepburn, a 6’7” middle blocker, and his team are in the midst of a nine-match winning streak. They ended the regular season with seven straight wins dating back to December 22, 2019.

In their last league victory, Luzern took down Lutry-Lavaux in three straight sets; they won 25-17, 25-11 and 25-19. Hepburn scored 10 points for his team.

Four years into his professional career, Hepburn says he feels like a veteran.

“This season has taught me how to be more of a leader,” he said. “This is the first season where I have been one of the most experienced and oldest players on the team; I am used to having guys I can get advice from, but this season I found myself being the one mentoring and giving advice to my teammates.”

They ended regular season play in third position and will be preparing for the playoffs that get underway this coming Saturday.

Through 16 games, they ended with an 11-5 win-loss record. Ahead of them, in second place, is Schonenwerd (12-4) and Amriswil (14-2) won the regular season pennant.

One of the team’s biggest wins this season happened when they took down the two-time defending champions Lausanne on February 1 in straight sets – 25-20, 26-24 and 28-26. The Bahamian finished tied with Dominik Fort with a team-high 14 points.

Over in Finland, Stuart is looking to play in the playoffs in his rookie season as his team sits in the eighth and final playoff spot with an 11-16 record on the season. They have won three of their last five matches, including their last match.

Eugene Stuart prepares to deliver a kill for Karelian Hurmos in the Mestaruusliiga – the highest volleyball league in Finland. EUGENE STUART

In Karelian Hurmos’ last match, they won three sets to one over Raision Loimu. Stuart and company dropped the first set 25-20. However, they were able to storm back to win the match, 20-25, 25-19, 25-22 and 25-23.

In that game, Stuart was tied with Ville Louhela with a team-high 13 points apiece. The two teams will have a rematch on Saturday and their regular season will end in March.

“If my team was to make it to playoffs and win the title, that would be an amazing feeling,” Stuart said. “I know that we would have to do a lot of hard work to get there. We would have to maintain our strategies and maintain a lot of game plans, but at the same time, it will be a breathtaking feeling seeing that we are considered the underdogs of the league.”

Last season was not kind to Hepburn as he spent a large portion of the season rehabbing an ankle injury. The former Bahamas Academy student said he has been given more freedom to push his limits and develop different aspects of his game this season.

“Last year was the team’s first [time] being a top-four club,” Hepburn said. “The club has never won a medal or made it to the finals, so making it to the finals alone would be an historic feat for the club and for the city.”

For Stuart, he said he has learnt a new serve and improved on his vertical leap that came with a lot of hard work.

The former St. Augustine’s College (SAC) student said playing in the pros is a lot different from playing in the collegiate ranks.

“The one thing that I have learnt so far in terms of my journey is to keep myself accountable,” Stuart said. “It is not like college where you have people to say let’s get in the gym or let’s do something. Now you have to make sure that you’re staying on top of your ‘A’ game in terms of your physical aspects – making sure you are eating right, going to bed on time and taking care of your body as a pro athlete.”

The rookie said he is very grateful for the opportunity to be able to play overseas. He added that it gets very overwhelming, but it feels good to be a role model to some young athlete who wants to play at the professional level.

Although it has been an up-and-down season for Hepburn, he said his team has collectively handled the situations that were thrown at them.

In the off-season, Hepburn will look to work on consistency in his game, particularly with his serves, making it a weapon that he can add to his arsenal. He also wants to get stronger and faster.

Next up for him and his Luzern team will be action in the Mobiliar Volley Cup. They will play in the semifinals against Amriswil on Sunday, February 23.

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Simba French

Simba joined The Nassau Guardian in 2012 as a technical producer for Guardian Radio 96.9 FM. He joined the Editorial Department as a sports reporter in 2018. Simba has covered a wide range of sports stories, including the 2018 CARIFTA in Nassau, Bahamas. Education: College of the Bahamas, BA Media Journalism

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