By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — To Simone Asque, practice provides a daily reminder of how much has changed in UVa’s volleyball program.
“We have so many more players,” said Asque, a junior from Chicago. “We have 15.”
With a full complement of players, Virginia is much deeper than in 2009, when injuries devastated Lee Maes’ team. The Cavaliers are also more talented, thanks to the addition of a six-player recruiting class ranked among the nation’s best.
“I like it much better,” Asque said. “It requires me to meet a challenge every day in practice. So in a game, it’s either the same or easier.
“In the past, if we scrimmaged, the starters would walk over the non-starters.”
That’s no longer the case. And that’s why Asque and others in the program believe a breakthrough is imminent for the Wahoos. Most of the key players on this year’s team will be back in 2011.
“This year I think it’ll be like, ‘Hello, we’re Virginia,’ ” Asque said with a smile. “Next year it’ll be, ‘Watch out, we’re coming back!’ ”
This is Lee Maes’ third season as UVa’s coach. The ‘Hoos went 17-15 in 2008 and 12-19 last year. During that span, Virginia’s record in ACC play was 16-24. But a well-regarded recruiting class joined the program in 2009, followed by another this year, and Virginia now has the size and athleticism to compete with the ACC’s top teams.
“This is absolutely the most talented group of players at one time that we’ve had,” Maes said. “We have more talent specifically in the outside-hitter position, which is pretty much what we lacked the past two years. And the outside-hitter position is the premier position in volleyball, because of their responsibility of having to pass at a very high level and score as an attacker.”
Asque is UVa’s top outside hitter. As a sophomore, she made the all-ACC team, and she sparkled in Virginia’s first three matches this season, totaling 67 kills and 42 digs.
Since enrolling at UVa, Asque has shown huge “growth in terms of her skill development, growth in terms of her mentality, growth in terms of her leadership, and growth in terms of just her maturity,” Maes said.
“We feel she’s one of the top attackers in the country. She had to carry a big load last year offensively for us, with all the injuries that we incurred. But I think by her having to carry such a big load offensively, that’s really helped her gain a lot of confidence, knowing that now she’s going to be surrounded by a lot of players who can help balance our offensive attack.”
After leading UVa to a 3-0 record in the Temple Invitational in Philly, Asque made the all-tournament team. Another Virginia standout, sophomore Jessica O’Shoney, was named all-tourney as well.
O’Shoney is 6-1, and as a freshman she looked up to only one only one Cavalier — classmate Tobi Farrar, who stands 6-3.
A year later, UVa’s roster includes 6-4 Nika Šimenc, 6-3 Mallory Woolridge and 6-3 McKenzie Adams, all freshmen.
Suddenly, Asque noted, “I’m one of the shorter players on the team. I’m 5-10, and in real life that’s tall. In volleyball, that’s short. It’s different to be in the gym and looking up [at teammates].”
Maes said: “If you looked at the makeup of our squad the last two years, our physical size and our athleticism did not match up well with a number of the top ACC teams. So we addressed our ability to physically compete against some of the top teams in the nation.”
It’s inevitable, Maes noted, that inexperience will result in errors by his first-year players. But their talent will offset some of those mistakes, he said, and “they have been tremendous in their aptitude and their attitude, and that’s really helped them develop in the short term here.”
In early August, on the eve of the start of preseason practice, Maes lost assistant coach Jill Kramer, whom West Virginia hired as head coach. Maes filled the vacancy on his staff with Jenny Andrew, who, like UVa’s other assistant, Ted Wade, is a graduate of the University of Texas.
Andrew joined a program that has only three seniors: Sydney Hill, A.J. Cushman and Kendahl Voelker. The newcomers consist of five freshmen — Adams, Šimenc, Woolridge, 5-8 Emily Rottman and 6-0 Rachel Clark — and 5-9 sophomore Beth Wildermuth, a transfer from Notre Dame.
Rottman was named ACC freshman of the week on Monday. Wildermuth is one of UVa’s starting setters, along with sophomore Rachel Gray.
Next up for UVa (3-0) is the Holiday Inn Jefferson Cup at Memorial Gymnasium this weekend. On Friday, Virginia meets North Florida at 1 p.m. and Liberty at 7 p.m. The ‘Hoos host George Washington at 3 p.m. Saturday.
In the ACC, Virginia was picked to finish seventh. UVa opens conference play Sept. 17 against Virginia Tech at Mem Gym.
The way Asque see its, the rest of league underestimates Virginia. That’s fine with her. She knows the University doesn’t have a rich tradition in volleyball. She chose UVa, first and foremost, because of its academic reputation, but she’s determined to be part of the turnaround in volleyball.
“I came in thinking, ‘We may not be real good now, but I can be a part of improving this team,’ ” Asque said, “which is what I feel is happening now.”