By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In retrospect, Lee Maes says, the schedule was probably too ambitious for such an inexperienced group.
In early September, UVa’s volleyball team traveled to the West Coast for three matches against nationally ranked opponents. None went well for the Cavaliers, who lost in three sets to No. 25 San Diego, three sets to No. 8 Southern California and three sets to No. 23 Long Beach State.
“I feel like if we played them now, it would be different,” Maes, Virginia’s third-year coach, said this week.
Maes’ lineup routinely includes three freshmen and two sophomores, and early in the season, setter Beth Wildermuth said, the Wahoos “weren’t playing the same way we were practicing.
“I wish we didn’t to go to California so early. I wish we could go now.”
That’s understandable. After several rough patches, the ‘Hoos are finally playing the way Maes believed they could. Virginia (6-7 ACC, 12-11 overall) has won six of its past nine matches, including a five-set upset of then-No. 25 Florida State last weekend at Memorial Gymnasium.
“It’s been a process, because our players are improving individually in terms of their skills,” Maes said. “As a collective group, they have a better understanding of how to execute our systems, and we’re just starting, I think, to figure things out in terms of how we work together and play this game together.”
The victory over FSU was the Cavaliers’ first over a ranked foe in more than 14 years.
During the first half of the season, Maes said, his players often had good moments within matches. They struggled, though, to string them together.
“We just haven’t been good at the same time, and we haven’t been good at the right times, and we just haven’t been good for a long enough time,” Maes said. “And so now it’s good to see the results, the fruits of their labor.”
The Cavaliers will close the regular season with five straight road matches. First, though, UVa has two more matches at Mem Gym, Friday against Maryland (7-6, 16-9) and Saturday against Boston College (0-13, 8-18).
Both matches will start at 7 p.m.
UVa already has beaten each team, and Maes’ players are hungry for more success. The ‘Hoos have only three seniors — A.J. Cushman, Sydney Hill and Kendahl Voelker — so Maes will not have to start over in 2011, as he effectively had to this year. His juniors include outside hitter Simone Asque, the only Cavalier to be named all-ACC in 2009.
“We want to be able to take what we’ve learned and build momentum for next season,” Maes said. “We just know we’ll have a year under our belt to be able to move forward and take advantage of the experience we’ve gained to start off the season on a great note.”
Virginia’s roster includes five freshmen — McKenzie Adams, Rachel Clark, Nika Šimenc, Mallory Woolridge and Emily Rottman. This is also Wildermuth’s first season with the Cavaliers.
She began her college career at Notre Dame, but headed home to San Clemente, Calif., after her freshman year in South Bend, Ind.
“I just wasn’t happy,” Wildermuth said. “With the time commitment that volleyball takes, you’ve just got to love it, and I wasn’t loving it.”
She spent the fall of 2009 at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif., then transferred to UVa in January. Her club coach, Michael Soylular, and Maes and are friends, and the chance to help build something in Charlottesville appealed to Wildermuth.
Notre Dame has made 17 trips to the NCAA tournament. Virginia, by contrast, has advanced to the NCAAs only twice, in 1998 and ’99.
“I wanted to be part of a program and help change it around,” said Wildermuth, an art-history major who’s a redshirt sophomore athletically. “I wanted to have some influence in that.”
She’s already had an impact. Her teammates chose her to be one of the Cavaliers’ captains.
“Beth does a wonderful job in keeping our team on the floor with composure,” Maes said. “She has a wonderful engaging personality that her teammates respond to. She’s very positive. She brings a lot of energy, and our players feed off of that very well. And because of that, she’s really stable out on the court. You know what to expect from her, and that’s been the biggest thing for Beth.”
In her native California, Wildermuth regularly played before large crowds in high school. In this part of the country, volleyball isn’t as popular. That’s OK, Wildermuth said.
“I couldn’t be happier,” she said. “I’m just excited to be playing again.”