Experienced Virginia Volleyball Squad Looks to Return to Winning Form
Aug. 30, 2002
One of the good things about young teams is that they get older. With age comes experience and maturity, which is the case with the 2002 Virginia volleyball team. Eighth-year head coach Melissa Aldrich Shelton has a more experienced and mature squad in 2002 as six of the 13-member squad are juniors and seniors. Youth got the better of the Cavaliers last season with just four upperclassmen on the team. In addition to having the services of six upperclassmen, the Cavaliers return four starters and 10 letterwinners in 2002.
A young UVa team had a disappointing 2001 season in which it finished with a 9-18 overall record and a 3-13 mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Virginia had its program best five-consecutive winning seasons streak snapped and finished under .500 in ACC play for the first time since 1997. The Cavaliers lost three letterwinners from last season, starters Jenny Harmon and Abby Whittenburg and key reserve Andrea Fischer. In 2001, Harmon led the team in kills (248) and service aces (30) and was second in digs (196), while Whittenburg led the team in assists (533). Fischer graduates as UVa’s all-time service aces leader with 154.
“I believe youth definitely hurt us, especially going into a new scoring system. We had 14 players on the team and only had four upperclassmen. Two of those four had never really seen significant court time. So it was tough and we were a lot younger than I thought last year. I learned a lot about coaching and just how valuable experience is,” said Shelton.
Leading the way for Virginia on the left side is third-year Paige Davis, a two-year returning starter. “Paige will be asked to do a lot in terms of every single skill on the court. She will be asked to pass, be one of our leading diggers, and one of our leading attackers. It is a big load and Paige got better at handling it during the spring. We are hoping she can carry it through the fall.” In 2001, Davis played in all 27 matches with 20 starts and was third on the team with 207 kills (2.3 kills per game). Davis, a 2000 All-ACC Rookie team selection, was also second on squad with 29 service aces and third in digs with 188. She reached double figures in kills in 12 matches last season.
Second-year Celeste Laborde spent her high school and club career in the middle, but has now become accustomed to playing the left side. Laborde appeared in 22 matches and a total of 56 games last year and also made three starts. In limited action, she tallied 58 digs, 10 kills and six service aces. “Celeste was able to have some great performances in the spring and we are hoping she can keep building on that. She is a very powerful, dynamic hitter and when she gets her timing right, she is capable of hitting over some very big blocks.”
The Cavaliers will also look to 6-0 first-year Kristin Chaney to play outside hitter. Like Laborde, Chaney played middle hitter both in high school and for her club team. “Kristin played middle most of her life, but she is an extremely good passer and defender. She is going to need some work hitting against the bigger block on the left side, but could see plenty of court time once she gets it down. Kristin might also see time across the back row to utilize her strong defensive and passing skills.”
A fourth player who could see time on the left side is first-year Lisa Krowlikowski. Krowlikowski, 5-10, is also a candidate for playing time on the right side. “We are not really sure where Lisa is going to fit into our team at this point. We need to get her in the gym, see what her strengths are and see where she can fill a niche for us. The vast majority of Lisa’s experience is on the right side. “Although we have two very talented players on the right side already, she might see some time out there. We are just going to have to wait and see what she can do.”
On the right side, Virginia has two veterans returning, fourth-year Kiersten Kaufman and third-year Katie Synan. Kaufman, the lone fourth-year among UVa’s outside hitters, is coming off a great spring season. “Kiersten put up some really amazing blocking performances and her offense is steadily getting more solid. She is able to hit more shots, becoming more of a terminator and making fewer mistakes. If she is able to continue to do that she is going to see more court time. We need her to hit at a high percentage and she needs to be the best blocker on our team.” Kaufman started one of the 14 matches she appeared in last season.
The Cavaliers returning starter on the right side is lefty Katie Synan, who is an extremely athletic player. In 2001, Synan started 18 of the 26 matches she appeared in and played in 88 games. She was fourth on the team with 159 kills and also totaled 66 digs, 29 blocks, 22 assists and 11 aces. “Katie is probably our most potent offensive weapon on the right side, but has struggled in the blocking category. She’ll have to put numbers up in both categories to secure the starting spot.”
“We don’t have a lot of depth in the left side position, but we do have a lot of power and athleticism. On the right side, between Kiersten and Katie we should be able to have a different look based on what our team needs at the time. I am really hoping one of them steps up and takes over that starting role so we can solidify what is going on out there.”
“We are extremely excited about our middles – it is definitely the position we are most talented in,” said Shelton. The talent Shelton is referring to is the trio of returning players, fourth-year Simona Kuipers, third-year Shannon Boyle and second-year Alexis Geocaris. “Between Shannon, Alexis and Simona we have just above every look imaginable to our middles. They are able to hit at a very high percentage and improved their shot selection over the spring. If we can get them the ball, they will be our go-to hitters. They are also blocking very well, which should make us one of the better blocking teams in the ACC. Again, the question is can we pass and dig to target enough to get our middles the ball.”
Kuipers was a starter 16 times last season and played in 25 of 27 matches. She was second on the team with 77 blocks and added 146 kills and 94 digs, all of which are career bests. Kuipers notched a career-high 18 kills while hitting .406 against N.C. State on September 21, then followed it up with a 14-kill and career-best 17-dig performance against Maryland on September 25.
Boyle was the only player to appear in all 98 of the Cavaliers’ games and started 26 of 27 matches last season. She led the team in blocks with 79, including 12 solo stuffs, and was second to Jenny Harmon in kills with 239. Boyle, who led UVa with a .282 hitting percentage, also collected 105 digs after recording only 11 in her first season, and had 16 service aces. She posted a pair of 17-kill matches, which established a career-high in that category.
After getting off to a slow start at the beginning of her rookie campaign, Geocaris turned things on in the second half of the season. After recording only four kills in the team’s first 14 matches, she posted 51 kills in the final 13 contests of the season. Geocaris showed a glimpse of her potential by hitting .522 with 13 kills and seven blocks against Clemson on November 10. Geocaris played in 21 matches with one start as a freshman. She notched 55 kills, hit. 264, and was fourth on the team with 41 blocks.
Last season Shelton anticipated a tremendous battle for the starting setter position between returning starter Abby Whittenburg and highly touted recruit Lily Phillips. However, that competition never materialized because of preseason injuries to Phillips. Phillips will assume the starting role at setter in 2002 with the departure of Whittenburg.
Phillips, a second-year, was selected to the 2001 ACC All-Freshman team. She missed the first four matches of the season and then appeared in the final 23 while starting 11. Phillips dished out 493 assists and led the team with 6.49 assists per game. She also added 134 digs. “Lily is a beautiful setter to watch. She is extremely talented and has really improved her ability to make good sets from bad passes and find the middle on a bad pass this year. Her blocking and defense have also improved. Lily is ready to lead this team.”
LIBERO / DEFENSIVE SPECIALIST
One major change that will take place in collegiate volleyball in 2002 is the use of a libero, which is a designated back-row player, intended to be used as a ball-control specialist. “It’s a huge plus for our team to get the libero. I wish we would have gotten it sooner. Our number one libero will be Whitney Ashcraft. She has been our top defensive specialist for the past two years. She was born for this position. She is a leader, she’s feisty, understands volleyball very well and has played for a long time. Whitney will be our leader at the libero and we are excited have her be able to pass and play defense six rotations. Her ball control will help us get the ball to our middles.”
Ashcraft, who is a third-year, led the team with 200 digs while playing in 26 matches last season. She started 18 matches and also added 23 kills and 18 service aces. Ashcraft is also a reserve outside hitter for the Cavaliers.
Ashcraft missed the spring season with an injury, which allowed second-year Annie Hylton to gain a lot of valuable experience at the libero position. Hylton, who joined the team as a walk-on prior to the start of the 2001 season, played in 10 matches as a freshman. “Annie got a lot of time at the libero position this spring and did very well. Her game has stepped up a lot. She is much more comfortable on the court and is slowly finding the court personality that we need her to have. She will see time as a defensive specialist and if something happens with Whitney she will be the leading candidate to step in.”
Second-year Ruth Selby rounds out the Cavaliers’ defensive specialists. She joined the team in the spring of 2002 after playing on the UVa club volleyball team. “Ruth has the perfect personality for a defensive specialist. She played libero for the club team here, so she actually has a lot of experience, more so than the other players on the team do. Once she gets to the point where she can perform at a consistent level she has a chance to take that position as well.”
“We are going to be very balanced offensively. Every single hitter across the net will be able to terminate. While I believe our middles are our go-to hitters, I think our outsides will have an equal share of the offensive load. If our ball control stays strong it will be devastating to the other team because they will not know who to focus on and what to do. That is really our goal, to have a nice balanced offense.” Another of UVa’s strengths is blocking. “We are huge at the net and very athletic and quick. It is exciting to know we are one of the best blocking teams in the ACC.”
The Cavaliers also have some weaknesses to improve upon which could impact their offense. “Our passing has been a weakness. We have to be able to take care of the ball – whether it is the pass or the dig, it has to be able to get to target so our setter can run the offense and utilize our strengths.”
“We need to find a way to recapture our desire and motivation to win. We played our best ball at the end of the season in 2001, but sometimes it was still uninspired. We need to be able close out teams when we get a lead and have the confidence to know we can play with absolutely anyone at any time. We just need to decide to get it done.”