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Seniors Set Standard for Cavalier Volleyball

By Caitlin Mangum, Athletics Media Relations

The 2006 season marked one of the most successful campaigns in the Virginia volleyball program’s history, the Cavaliers securing more ACC wins than ever before. Disappointingly however, Virginia was not extended a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Through the experience and guidance of the team’s four veteran seniors, the Cavaliers hope to reverse last year’s outcome and earn a postseason bid.

The squad’s fourth years Sarah Kirkwood, Melissa Caldwell, Katie Oakes and Taylor Russo lead the team, not only through their statistics, but their dedication and leadership. Each one plays a unique and integral role on the court. Their diversification serves to heighten their unity and respect for one another.

“Everybody brings a different dynamic to the team with the skills that we have on the court,” Oakes said. “We’ve all been together for four years, all in the same positions. We’re able to lean on each other because we know what the others are going to do.”

It is this understanding that has allowed each to flourish on and off the court.

This season the Cavaliers elected Kirkwood and Russo as team captains. Four years ago, the two shared the same honor at Plant High School in Tampa, Fla., where they helped lead their team to its third-consecutive state championship. Kirkwood holds nothing but admiration for her longtime teammate and friend.

“I think that we can all agree that Taylor plays an extremely critical role on our team everyday in practice,” Kirkwood said. “She is definitely an inspiration for all of us as far as her work ethic and attitude that she brings to practice every day. It’s really inspiring and that is reflected in everyone voting her as captain.”

Russo, who was a recruited walk-on, has proven herself to be a vital asset to the team. Her hard work and dedication have solidified her as a driving member of the Cavaliers’ effort. Like Kirkwood, Russo holds a similar respect for her fellow captain.

“I’ve played with (Kirkwood) since middle school,” Russo said. “For me, I’m not ever surprised by anything she does. I always expect her to do great in everything. If you would have asked me five years ago, I would have known that she was going to be this successful. She’s really motivated, really wants to win, and is really competitive.”

Kirkwood has proven herself both on the court and in the classroom. In addition to an AVCA All-American Honorable Mention honor in 2005, Kirkwood has secured ESPN The Magazine Academic All-America honors twice. She also was selected to live in a Lawn room for her fourth year, a prestigious honor at the University.

Last year Kirkwood led the team in service aces (56) and kills per game (3.80). At Virginia’s September 7 match against Oklahoma, she became the school record holder for career kills. Nonetheless, Kirkwood unselfishly cites auspiciousness as the root of her success.

“I think statistics like that (the all-time kills record) have a lot to do with the role you were given when you come onto the team,” Kirkwood said. “I had the opportunity to start my freshman year, and other than when I was out with mono (junior year), I’ve had the chance to start every game. It takes a lot of things to fall into place to get a record like that, and I have been fortunate for that to happen. The record is definitely a reflection of not only my setters, but the situation that I have been in for the past four years.”

Like her teammate, Caldwell also has secured her names in Virginia’s record books. She currently holds the season record for digs per game (4.366) and is in pursuit of the career digs record, where she currently is second all-time. As the starting libero for the past four years, Caldwell is consistently counted on her for support and energy by her teammates.

“Being a libero requires a different sort of personality and mentality on the court than other positions where you have the immediate gratification of getting a kill or a block,” Caldwell said. “Your focus is on one thing, and that is to set up the rest of the players on the team.”

Oakes, the fourth Cavalier senior, provides the final element to the 2007 team’s dynamic. On the heels of an outstanding junior year, Oakes continues to play with the same passion and zeal on the court time and again. Last season, the veteran middle was first on the squad in blocks (163; 28 solo, 135 assist) and second in kills (339), earning AVCA honorable mention All-America honors. Oakes is hoping the All-America success of herself and Kirkwood will garner attention for future teammates.

“You work hard for three years, and it is as though someone says thanks’ basically for what you do,” Oakes said. “Being only the fifth All-American in program history just sets a higher standard for the committee to look at our girls. A lot of great players came through UVa that did not get the recognition that Sarah, Emily (Kirkwood) and I got.”

The Cavaliers are also hoping to inspire recognition for the team with an ACC championship and subsequent bid to the NCAA Tournament. With the conclusion of their nonconference schedule, the Cavaliers are excited to begin ACC play. However, this brings the beginning of a series of lasts for the seniors.

“With the end of preseason tournaments, there are definitely mixed feelings,” Kirkwood said. “There are going to be a lot of lasts this year, and I’m not looking forward to that. Even so, I’m really excited to start ACC play.”

While Kirkwood is thinking about playing professional beach volleyball after college, Russo acknowledges that her volleyball career is rapidly coming to a close.

“I think that coming into preseason this year and saying that everything is our last our last first day of preseason, our last last day of preseason it’s pretty sad. I think it’s bittersweet. This is the end of it for me.”

These seniors, who have leaned on each other since the beginning, are rapidly approaching the end of their volleyball career. Nonetheless, each one of them has left a lasting impact on the program, whether through their unmistakable talent, indisputable statistics or legendary leadership. Through tears and sweat, these four individuals have personified the meaning of teamwork.

While each senior is a standout in her own right, it is their cohesion and mutual determination that sets them apart. Although naturally the thoughts of graduation, farewells and the real world are on every fourth year’s mind, the squad’s seniors are unwaveringly focused on their team’s success and paving the framework for the future of Virginia volleyball.

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