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July 28, 1998

When Melissa Aldrich Shelton took over the reigns as head coach of the UVa volleyball program in 1995, she had one thing in mind. To get Virginia to the top. After laying down the foundation in order to build a winning program at Virginia during her first season, Shelton has watched UVa make the strides necessary to get to where she wants Virginia volleyball to be. She has guided the Cavaliers to consecutive winning seasons in 1996 and 1997, with Virginia posting a record of 42-27 during that span. With a cast of several experienced letterwinners, a solid nucleus of depth and a talented recruiting class ready to take the court, Virginia is geared to take another step forward in 1998.

“We have been fortunate enough to build back-to-back winning seasons the past two years, and I would love for this class to go out with a winning record,” says head coach Melissa Aldrich Shelton. “All three of our fourth-year players (Folga, Shulman and Wells) walked-on to this team and earned scholarships. They began their careers at Virginia the same time I started mine. Where we started from then, and where we are now is a whole other level of play. They have grown as much with me as I have grown with them. It’s going to be sad to see them move on, but they can be so proud of what they have accomplished and what they have done for the Virginia program”, says Shelton.

It’s obvious that Shelton understands the importance that experienced players have on a team. In 1998, the Cavaliers will be without the services of Amy Mitchell and Shannon Wahlers. Both graduates were huge contributors in Virginia’s climb to the top. Mitchell became just the third Cavalier to appear on both the 1,000 kill and 1,000 digs list, and the fourth player in Virginia volleyball history to reach the 1,000 kill mark. Wahlers provided UVa with consistent play day in, and day out. However, the cabinets are far from being bare, as the Cavaliers return four starters and 10 letterwinners from last years 18-16 squad.

Joining Shelton on the coaching staff in 1998 is Kelly Sheffield. He looks to make a significant impact on the team, as he brings a new book of knowledge on volleyball skills, drills and attitude to the UVa program. It should be a refreshing addition in the gym for the returning players, and an asset for the newcomers on the team to adjust and develop under Sheffield.

“Kelly’s knowledge of offense and the coaching ability that he demonstrated during the spring was just incredible. I was really pleased to see how well the team responded to him. I’m really looking forward to letting him have his say in the gym, to teach us some new things and give the team a new face this season,” says Aldrich Shelton.

The offense will once again be centered around the stellar setting of Mary Frances Scott. As she enters her third season at Virginia, Scott already ranks third all-time in assists at UVa. She needs just 106 assists to become Virginia’s all-time assists leader.

“When we started the rebuilding process here at UVa, the first thing we needed was a quality setter. Mary stepped right in and that’s what she has done,” says Shelton. Scott has been near the top of the conference in assists for two consecutive seasons, and she will be expected to finish at the top of that list once again. “We’ve worked on mixing her game up a little bit this year, trying to help her read the other team a little better before she decides who to set. She should be able to run the offense more efficiently with the wisdom she has gained being a third-year player,” says Shelton.

Joining Scott on the outside will be returning players Whitney Bilger, Andrea Fischer, Claire Folga, Katie Jones, Tamara Shulman and Kristi Winters.

Bilger was hampered throughout the 1997 season with mononucleosis, which really took it’s toll on her health and her game. After getting back on track at the end of last season, she’s put together a strong spring and looks ready to make a push for a starting position in 1998.

“Whitney is our hardest working practice player day in and day out. She is really knocking on the door for a starting position. She has been working very hard in the weight room this spring, and is going to push some of our returning starters for a position,” says Shelton.

“We are hoping that Andrea capitalizes on last seasons success and becomes a dominate hitter for us. God put thunder in her arm and she manages to transfer it to the ball. Even as a first-year, she hit the hardest on the team,” says Shelton.

Fischer worked hard this spring on her defense, passing and blocking. Shelton feels that if she upgrades those three areas on the court this fall, she will be a consistent part of the line-up. Look for Fischer to rise to the occasion.

Folga is one of UVa’s most physical players. Virginia will look for her to be one of the team leaders in 1998. With her power, explosiveness and skill, she is one of the best all-around players to have suited up for the Cavaliers. She has consistently been able to put the ball away for Virginia on the outside, but knee injuries have hindered her court time.

“The key for Claire this year is to stay healthy. She could be one of the best outside hitters in the conference if she stays healthy. We look for her to lead us in digs in the backcourt and lead us in hitting percentage and kills in the front row,” says Shelton.

Look for Folga to be one of the top outside hitters in the ACC.

Jones will see a good deal of time on the court this season due to her versatility and the improvements in her game she has made. If she’s able to picks up where she left off from her freshman campaign, Jones could spend some time at outside hitter. Shelton also looks for her consistency level to rise in 1998. “If Katie doesn’t see time in the front row, then she will see time in the back row as a defensive specialist. She’s a great competitor and she loves to get the ball. Katie loves to win, and she really pushes everyone in practice and it makes her that much better everyday,” says Aldrich Shelton.

Winters looks to solidify a spot in the back row, where she flourished as the season wore on last year.

“Kristi is a little fire-ball, we really missed her last season in the ACC Tournament when she was out with an illness. Count on her to get some back row time and push for front row time.” Winters has been working her way back into shape from a devastating ankle injury in high school, hoping to gather some playing time in the front row. “She has shown the competitiveness and that she wants the ball in tight situations. You can count on Kristi to get it over the net or to make a play. We are really looking forward to working with her this season,” says Shelton.

Shelton hopes to relieve Shulman from all her middle blocking duties, in order to move her to the right side. She is one of the best natural blockers Shelton has ever worked with, and Shulman could have an outstanding season if she is able to solidify the position.

“We will be training Tamara as a right side player. She has been rehabilitating all year from ACL surgery that she had a while ago. She’s finally healthy and we are glad to have her back. We are looking for her to be our leading blocker and to be our motivator on the court. No one plays better in a match than Tamara Shulman,” says Shelton.

Patrolling the middle of the Cavaliers front line will be the rotation of Jessica Parsons and Deanna Zwarich.

Look for Parsons to be one of Virginia’s leaders in 1998 as well. She has played a vital role in UVa’s recent success. Expect Parson’s to be more effective in her play with the boost of surrounding support and aid from her teammates in 1998. Always a focus of the opposing team, look for Parsons to be even more of a factor in 1998.

“Jessica will be our number one middle, our go to middle. We expect her to get a lot of kills for us again this season. Hopefully, with the rest of the team developing around her, she will become even more effective for us this season. She has made great strides in her blocking and her offense is top notch. She works really hard in the strength room and is our strongest player,” says Shelton.

Fischer and Zwarich made the 1997 ACC All-Rookie team last season. During the spring, they both worked on rounding out their games. They will look to incorporate the new phases of the games that Shelton has worked with them on during the spring, to help strengthen and improve their overall play.

Zwarich is one of the most athletic players to ever suit up in blue and orange. “Deanna is an incredible athlete. She’s the quickest, one of the strongest as has one of the best jumps on the team. We are really looking forward to her sophomore season so she can utilize all her previous experience that she gained from her first season, to help her become an even better player,” says Shelton. She loves to compete, she loves to work hard and Shelton is expecting great things from her this season.

Amanda Wells will anchor the Virginia defense, as she returns as the Cavaliers number one defensive specialist in 1998.

“She’s one of the best defensive specialists in the conference. You can always count on her to get the dig. She reads the game extremely well and does a great job of anticipating where the ball is going,” says Shelton. Wells has battled injuries throughout her career at UVa, and looks maintain her health in order to solidify a position on the defensive side of the ball. “We really hope that during her senior campaign, she can just go hard from start to finish.”

Virginia will have four new faces on the 1998 squad. Along with the “new look” these players will bring to UVa, Shelton thinks that Deidre Downs, Jenny Harmon, Blair Miller and Kristin Sherwood will provide a positive impact and will add depth to the team.

Down’s will be learning a new position at UVa. She is a very bright individual and is a great athlete. Expect Downs to focus on playing setter for the Cavaliers.

“I have no doubt that she’s going to be a fantastic setter for us,” says Shelton. Aside from her setting responsibilities, Downs may be seeing time as a right side or outside hitter, positions she has played in the past. With the Cavaliers searching for a right side or and outside hitter to step in and play in 1998, she may see time in those positions. “If she can come in with the kind of versatility we are expecting her to, she might see time on the front line while we train her to set,” says Shelton.

Harmon will be looking to bolster the Cavaliers front line. She brings young legs and a lot of talent to UVa.

“Jenny is going to play middle blocker for us. She jumps very well and has very long arms. She plays more like a 6-1 middle than she does a 5-11 middle. She loves to play and she’s really excited about coming to Virginia. I expect her to work hard everyday, and push our veteran players for time on the court,” says Shelton.

Miller will be looking to learn and provide support for the team right from the start.

“Blair is a tremendous technical player. She has been coached at some of the highest levels and has done very well. She is very competitive and loves to work out. She will probably be in one of the best physical conditions on our team. We are looking for her to come in and challenge for an outside hitting position, as well as come in and contribute with her back row and passing play,” says Shelton.

If Miller is able to do that, she will definitely see her share of court time in 1998.

Although Sherwood has not received a great deal of coaching at an elite level, Shelton recognizes her talent.

“Kristin has a lot of potential and she has the desire to perform at a higher level. We will see a lot of her in practice, and hopefully that will help her improve. We are looking forward to having her here to add more depth and to strengthen our team,” says Shelton.

With Sherwood’s hard work ethic, incorporated with Shelton’s coaching, she can look forward to gathering playing time on the court as her career unfolds.

Look for all four newcomers to be an important part of the team. Having the depth on the bench this year is going to make the team much stronger early in the season, and down the stretch as tournament time nears. Depth is an area that Virginia has been slowly building up the past few seasons.

With the talent and competition level at an all-time high in the ACC, the battle to get to the top of the conference won’t be an easy road for the Cavaliers to travel. The 1998 season looks to be another year were you can’t take any team for granted.

“Having raised our level of play over the past couple seasons, we are a much better team than we were three or four years ago. But we still finished in the bottom third of the conference standings in 1997. Although we vastly improved, all the teams in the ACC have improved a great deal as well. I hope this season, we will move into the middle of the pack or higher in the regular season, and then put together a strong run in the conference tournament,” says Shelton.

Only time will tell how far the Cavaliers will climb in 1998.

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