By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The commonwealth of Virginia is not known as a hotbed for volleyball. Then again, neither is Pennsylvania. Yet Penn State’s Nittany Lions are two-time defending NCAA champions in women’s volleyball.
“They recruit nationally,” Lee Maes said last week in his McCue Center office. “That’s why we believe we can get it done here, because we have some very attractive aspects of our university that will allow us to recruit the best players in the country.”
Maes’ second season in charge of the UVa women’s program does not officially begin until Friday, at the Texas A&M Invitational. This afternoon, though, fans are invited to check out the team’s second annual Blue vs. Orange scrimmage at Memorial Gymnasium. It starts at 3 o’clock, and there’s no charge for admission.
The ‘Hoos are coming off a season in which they went 9-11 in the ACC – that earned them ninth place in the league – and 17-15 overall. In voting among the conference’s head coaches, UVa was picked to finish seventh in the ACC this year. The coaches named Virginia’s Simone Asque, a second-year outside hitter, to the preseason all-ACC team.
“Our expectation is to be successful now,” said Maes, who came to UVa from Nebraska, where he was an assistant coach in one of Division I’s premier programs.
“Now, how do we define success? It’s different for everyone. We know that the most important thing we had to do when we first got here was to [establish] the kind of culture we want: how we go about training in the gym, how we go about managing our team, then also being able to allow our players to be in an environment where they’re going to trust, believe and buy in to what we’re doing, and that takes time.”
For now, Maes said, the team needs “to max out what we have, and for us to be able to win the ACC championship and give ourselves an opportunity to earn a postseason berth, we’re going to have to be more skilled. We’re going to have to be very proficient with our execution. We’re going to have to demonstrate a higher volleyball IQ, and we have to be relentless in the effort we put in to make all those things happen.”
The ACC is not considered one of the nation’s top volleyball conferences. Even so, Maes said, many of UVa’s rivals have players who are bigger and more athletic than those in his program.
“We know, in terms of our coaching staff’s ability, that we’re going to make them better volleyball players, and we’re going to be a better team,” said Maes, a Long Beach State graduate. “But at the same time, recruiting’s always the difference-maker in terms of having a competitive advantage in regards to other teams that you’re going to be competing against … and the only way we’re going to be competitive is to recruit the same level of athletes.”
There’s been progress on that front. UVa’s first-year players — Tobi Farrar, Rachel Gray and Jessica O’Shoney — formed a recruiting class ranked No. 15 nationally by PrepVolleyball.com.
“So that’s a great start, because now they’re going to be certainly a foundation that we build upon,” Maes said. “But at the same time our challenge is to be able to nurture and develop them to be able to mix well with the current players we already have. We know that it’s going to be a two-, three-year process, but our expectation is to do everything we possibly can now and let the results take care of themselves.”
Maes can’t publicly discuss players until they sign letters of intent, but the group that has committed to enroll at Virginia next year “will be one of the top 10 recruiting classes in the country,” he said. “Our 2010 class is phenomenal.”
Ultimately, Maes said, his “vision quest is to compete for and win a national championship. We know that’s a process. It starts with recruiting the top athletes that are going to allow us to compete at that level.”
To better understand the challenges facing the program, Maes said, he and his assistants, Jill Kramer and Ted Wade, have spoken to alumni and current players about why they chose U.Va.
The coaches have learned that “volleyball primarily was an avenue for many of them to come to the University of Virginia as a student,” Maes said. “Obviously, the [school’s] academic reputation speaks for itself, but there wasn’t a certain level of priority to the sport itself. We feel now that you don’t have to compromise being a great student and a great athlete. We feel that you can do both without compromising the other.”
Maes also wants to see the Cavaliers build a significant home-court advantage, and he believes they have the perfect venue to do so.
“We love Mem Gym,” he said. “We love Mem Gym for its intimacy. It’s a venue that allows fans to be actually part of the action. You’re literally an arm’s length away from the action, and you can have significant impact because of how loud it gets. It’s just one of those places where, with the atmosphere and environment, it’s an incredible place to be.”
His message to fans: Come see for yourselves this season.