2006 Virginia Volleyball Season Outlook
Aug. 22, 2006
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Over the past three seasons, the Virginia volleyball team has recorded 64 victories, but despite all those wins, an NCAA bid has alluded UVa. The experience-laden Cavaliers’ goal for the 2006 season is quite simple: to capture an NCAA Championship bid. With all seven starters returning, Virginia’s goal of earning the program’s third NCAA bid is very attainable.
Virginia finished the 2005 season with a 20-11 overall record and a 15-7 mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference to finish fourth in the standings. It marked UVa’s third consecutive winning season. In addition to returning every starter, 12th-year head coach Melissa Aldrich Shelton’s roster boasts 11 letterwinners, including 10 players with starting experience. “Our 2005 season was filled with highs and lows,” said Shelton. “I was proud of our girls for weathering through a rocky non-conference start and then pulling it together to finish fourth in the conference. We were one or two matches away from earning a NCAA bid and everyone was disappointed we didn’t get one. That left everyone with a hunger and a goal of earning one this year. “Returning all of our starters happened by default since Kristin Chaney was probably going to be a starter and got injured during her senior year,” said Shelton. “I believe we are going to be a lot stronger team in 2006. We are a very cohesive group on the court and the players really worked hard in the spring to improve their weaknesses. Also, our first-years have the experience and skill to challenge for court time right away. Teams that think they know us from last season will be surprised by the difference in our team in 2006.” The goal of reaching the NCAAs is very attainable for the Cavaliers, but the team has to perform up to their capabilities. In addition to playing well in conference, Virginia needs to play well in its non-conference schedule and a quality out-of-conference victory is one thing UVa lacked in 2005. “I believe finishing in the top three in the ACC will get us a NCAA bid,” said Shelton. “Both as a program and a conference we need to do a better job of getting out-of-conference victories. Last year in the ACC there were no significant out-of-conference wins and that hurt the ACC’s final RPI. This year the ACC needs to knock off some people in the pre-conference schedule to earn more respect nationally and thus more bids to the NCAA Championship.”
The Cavaliers have a plethora of options at the pins and will be led by 2005 honorable mention All-American Sarah Kirkwood. As many as seven players could be used at outside hitter in 2006. “Outside hitter is our strongest position by far,” Shelton said. “We have a lot of depth, strength, and experience across both the front and back row spots in the outside position.” Kirkwood, a third-year, will lead the charge on the left side. The 2006 captain is coming off a tremendous 2005 season in which she earned first-team All-ACC honors and was an AVCA All-East Region selection, in addition to earning All-America honors. Last season, Kirkwood became the first sophomore in ACC history to amass 1,000 career kills and also became the first UVa player with 500 kills in two seasons. Kirkwood tallied 531 kills (4.43 per game) while hitting a respectable .296. She notched 69 service aces (0.58 per game) and led all ACC players in service aces per game. Kirkwood, who started 30 of 31 matches and played in all 120 games, set the school record with nine service aces against Appalachian State. “Sarah really improved her shots this spring and changed her mental outlook on defense. She is now a player who refuses to let the ball drop on our side and is determined to find a way to put it down on the other. I expect her to have another great season.” Another veteran returning to the left side is fourth-year captain Lindsay Osco. She is serving as a team captain for the second consecutive season. Osco has been a starter for Virginia throughout her career and is just one of 11 Cavaliers to register 1,000 career kills. Osco has slammed more than 300 kills in each of her first three seasons at UVa. Osco was second on the team with her 352 kills (2.93 per game) while hitting .202, and also tallied 38 service aces, 180 digs and 45 blocks. “Lindsay is just a workhorse and our best blocker on that pin,” said Shelton. “She is one of our leaders because she does things the right way and never lays up. She has worked hard to improve her hitting percentage and has become a lot craftier with the ball.” Third-year Beth Shelton is coming off a good 2005 season. After redshirting the 2004 campaign, Shelton finished last season with 270 kills and was the only player to start all 31 matches. Shelton was second on the team with 295 digs (2.57 per game) and also totaled 36 service aces and 45 blocks. “Beth is coming back for her second season of competition and could really do some damage on the court. Beth has to prove she is one of our best passers day-in and day-out as well as prove she can stay mentally strong the whole match,” said Shelton. A new addition to the outside hitters is fourth-year Stephanie Everett. After redshirting the 2003 season, Everett played middle the past two seasons. In 2005, she played in 48 games during 19 matches and made three starts. Everett had 60 kills and 25 blocks. “We’ve shifted Stephanie Everett over to the right side to hit on that pin,” Shelton said. “She offers us a huge block, which was something were lacking last year. Stephanie is working hard to improve her offense. If she can help us improve our blocking stats, handle a few balls each game and hit at a high percentage, it is going to give us a completely different look on the right side.” The two new additions to the team and to the outside hitting corps are first-years Lauren Dickson and Tara Hester, who both will play on the left side. Both players are coming off tremendous senior high school seasons and extremely strong club seasons. “Lauren and Tara both played on the left side for teams that finished in the top 15 in the country in the club season,” Shelton said. “Both were go-to hitters for their teams and also played six rotations. They are really going to raise the level in our gym right away. Either one could end up seeing a lot of playing time for us if they can handle the transition to the college game.”
Virginia is very strong in the middle position, but not very deep. The Cavaliers are strong in the sense that both starters, third-year Katie Oakes and second-year Shannon Davis return. The concern is that they are the only players who will train exclusively at middle. “We are going to rely on our returning starters Shannon Davis and Katie Oakes,” said Shelton. “Both are still young in the world of middles, but are very good players, very good athletes, and extremely competitive. They improved their blocking skills tremendously this spring. Even though we are not the biggest in the middle in the conference, I’d say we are one of the most athletic. Their ability to get up quickly is due to their fast feet, balance, and agility. We are looking forward to Katie and Shannon stepping up their game this fall.” Oakes is coming off an extremely productive 2005 season in which she was a constant in the line-up. She was third on the team with 304 kills (2.90 per game) while hitting a team-best .308. Oakes topped the Cavaliers in blocks with 108 for an average of 1.03 per game. Davis had an equally impressive season as she earned 2005 ACC All-Freshmen Team accolades. Davis started 27 of the 29 matches she appeared in and was fourth on the team with 301 kills (2.69 per game) while posting a .292 hitting percentage. She was also second behind Oakes in blocks with 91 (0.81 per game). “If we were to experience some adversity, Everett could go back in the middle,” Shelton said. “Also don’t rule out Emily Perilli. She is small, but mighty in the middle. She is very crafty and works hard. She will take some reps in the middle so she is ready if we need her. In fact, Emily will be doing just about a little bit of everything for us this fall as a senior. She will be one of our backup right sides, one of our backup middles, challenging Melissa Caldwell for the libero spot, and a defensive specialist as well. She’s mentally tough enough to put on any hat at the drop of a notice. She can do it, there’s no doubt.” Perilli gained some experience in the middle last year when Oakes and Davis were out with injuries. She came in and did a great job, hit at a high percentage, and helped UVa beat NC State.
The Cavaliers have a great situation at setter. UVa returns a three-year starter as well as a second-year that gained valuable experience in 2005. Emily Kirkwood is the returning starter, while Marlow Bruneau will be pushing hard for playing time. Kirkwood, one of the most underrated players in the ACC, stands second on Virginia’s all-time assists list with 4,077. Kirkwood played in all 31 matches a year ago and started 30 times while playing in 118 games. She established a career high with 1,492 assists (12.64 per game) in 2005, which ranks fourth on UVa’s all-time single season assists list. Kirkwood was second on the team with 47 service aces and also added 209 digs, 59 kills and 35 blocks. “Emily Kirkwood has been leading us for three years so she is going into her fourth year with a ton of experience,” Shelton said. “We really feel she is one of the top few setters in the conference. Our team was always in the top two in hitting percentage and kills per game and she was always in the top two in assists per game. I find it hard-pressed for people to say she is not one of the top two setters in the conference. We worked a lot on her game during the spring. She’s still battling chronic injuries and does really well pushing through that pain. We are hoping she has a great senior year.” Backing up Kirkwood is Marlow Bruneau, who played in 23 matches last season. She earned her first collegiate start against Liberty on Sept. 17. Bruneau, 6-foot lefty, tallied 95 assists, 15 kills and 15 blocks while appearing in 36 games as a first-year. “With Marlow in the line-up we become a much bigger team at the net,” said Shelton. “Also, with Marlow’s ability to attack the second ball with her left hand she is able to hold a blocker and create opportunities for our hitters. Both of these attributes will help us against some of the bigger teams we see this fall. Marlow has worked extremely hard to raise her setting ability and we plan to capitalize on her strengths more this season.”
The Cavaliers are nearly as deep at libero/defensive specialist as they are at outside hitter. Virginia has several players who will see playing time along the back row. “We are really deep on the defensive end of things. It was our emphasis all spring and everybody improved in their mechanics and attitudes,” said Shelton. Leading the way for UVa is third-year Melissa Caldwell, who has been the Cavaliers’ starting libero the past two seasons. In 2005, she led Virginia with 497 digs for an average of 4.14 per game. Her career average of 4.78 digs per game is the highest in school history and her 1,108 career digs ranks seventh all-time at UVa. In addition to her defensive ability, Caldwell registered 24 service aces last year. “We feel Melissa Caldwell is one of the best liberos in the conference,” said Shelton. “Right now she has the nod for the starting spot because she is our best passer out of all the candidates. She’s working hard to improve her defense and we look for her to really start taking charge in the back row.” Pushing Caldwell for playing time at libero will be fourth-year Emily Perilli. Perilli played several different positions last season and could do so again in 2006. She played in all 120 games in 2005 and started 15 of 31 matches. Perilli was third on the team with 276 digs (2.30 per game) and had 30 service aces. She also added 25 kills, 21 assists and 15 blocks. “Emily Perilli is our feistiest player and really wants the libero spot. If her passing levels out, she can definitely earn it,” said Shelton. A third candidate for playing time along the back row is third-year Taylor Russo. Russo appeared in 24 games during 14 matches last season and had 23 digs, four service aces and four assists. “Taylor Russo pushes everybody for time across the back row,” Shelton said. “If Taylor can get her serve down to where it is a weapon, she could easily play across the back row for somebody. She has a knack for coming up with big plays.” Several of UVa’s outside hitters could be used across the back row. Beth Shelton will be looked at for that role in addition to her role as an outside hitter. The Cavaliers’ two newcomers, Tara Hester and Lauren Dickson, are also proven back row players and good passers, who could push for playing time across the back row as they adjust to the college game.
Virginia will face a challenging slate of opponents in 2006. The Cavaliers will play in tournaments at Tennessee and Michigan, sandwiched around a home tournament, before ACC play begins. “Our schedule definitely challenges us before we start ACC play and the challenge will only increase as we head into the conference slate,” said Shelton. “I love that we are playing a final four team from the 2005 season with Tennessee. I know that is going to be a great experience for our girls.” “In the Jefferson Cup, we face Georgetown, Wright State and East Carolina. Each team will challenge us and make sure we are on top of our game for three matches. “Our final preseason tournament is at Michigan and we play Pacific, which has been to every NCAA Tournament but one and has a new coach,” said Shelton. “We play Michigan and they have been in the tournament the last few years, as well as Marquette, another good team. “If we can pick some of those teams off, the NCAA committee will have to look not only at ourselves, but our conference in a new way and give us some more bids.”
The elements are all there for the Virginia volleyball team in 2006 – an experienced team that returns all seven starters, and a team that is hungry for a postseason bid after falling only a match or two short in 2005.
“We are setting our goals high. Our 2006 goal is to win the ACC Championship and bring home UVa’s first ever volleyball conference championship,” said Shelton. “I know we have the depth, the experience and the skill to do it this year and we are looking forward to the challenge. It takes a little luck in staying healthy, but the girls have worked hard and we are ready. It’s up to the coaches to put together the game plans and manage the season and it’s up to the players to stay determined and focused the whole season. We are going for it.”