By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At 7 o’clock Friday night, All-ACC candidate Simone Asque and her UVa volleyball teammates open the season against Western Michigan in the Cavalier Marriott Classic.
In the stands at Memorial Gymnasium will be Asque’s parents, Sandra and Michael, and her older sister, Elizabeth. They won’t be clad in all blue and orange. The family also will be cheering for the youngest of the three Asque sisters, Gillian, a sophomore outside hitter for Western Michigan.
Simone, a senior outside hitter, said she and Gillian have “been smack-talking since we found out about the match,” and the prospect of leaving Mem Gym with a loss tonight holds no appeal for Simone.
“If our team plays really well and their team plays really well and we lose, I can live with that,” she said. “But at the same time, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that doesn’t happen. Big sister’s gotta win. This is bragging rights for the rest of my life.”
Asque is one of 10 returning players for the Cavaliers, who are in their fourth season under coach Lee Maes. Among those who did not return: outside hitter McKenzie Adams, the ACC freshman of the year in 2010.
Adams, who recently withdrew from UVa, did not “adhere to the responsibilities of being a student-athlete our program,” Maes said two weeks ago when news of her departure became public.
“McKenzie was a significant contributor to our program as a volleyball player,” Maes said in his McCue Center office Thursday. “She has tremendous talent. But one player doesn’t make a team, and with her departure from our program we’ve seen some significant changes in terms of our team dynamic, and our players, I think, really understand how to come together and play for each other. They understand that their actions inside the gym and outside the gym have an effect on the team.”
Middle blocker Mallory Woolridge, a sophomore from Henrico County’s Deep Run High, said there’s “a better mood in the gym this season, and that helps a lot. It feels like we’re all in together. Everybody has everybody else’s back. It’s a lot more positive.”
Asque agreed that the team’s chemistry is better than in 2010, when Virginia went 14-16. With an 8-12 conference record, the Wahoos placed 10th in the ACC. They were picked to finish ninth this season, but “I definitely see hope for this team,” Asque said, “especially the way we’ve been training in preseason.”
Maes said: “Our effort has been impressive on a daily basis. The great thing about our environment in the gym has been that we have a great core of returners who have raised the level of our practices in terms of effort, in terms of attitude and their enthusiasm.”
UVa’s rotation includes setters Beth Wildermuth (senior) and Rachel Gray (junior), outside hitters Asque, Emily Rottman (sophomore) and Rachel Clark (sophomore), middle blockers Woolridge and Jessica O’Shoney (junior), right sides Tori Janowski (freshman) and Tobi Farrar (junior), and freshman libero Abbey Welborn.
Woolridge might be the team’s most improved player, said Maes, who expects her to be one of the ACC’s top middle blockers this season. Woolridge has high expectations, too.
“Personally, I feel 10 times more comfortable,” she said.
The 5-11 Asque is probably the team’s most gifted athlete. An All-ACC selection as a sophomore in 2009, she recently was named to the preseason all-conference team. But she’s coming off a season in which her hitting percentage was only .184, and Asque wants to cut down on her errors.
“She’s extremely aware of what her deficiencies are, and she’s taken a lot of pride in making herself a complete player,” Maes said. “She’s always been known as one of the top attackers in the nation, but the most important skill in volleyball is passing, and that’s where she’s continually making growth.”
Only once during Asque’s college career have the Cavaliers finished with a winning record — in 2008, when they went 17-15. She’d love to be named All-ACC and All-America this season — “I’ll take all the awards I can get,” Asque said with a laugh — but she would take more pride in helping the ‘Hoos join the ACC’s elite.
The journey begins this weekend. After opening Friday night against Western Michigan, UVa will play twice Saturday in the Cavalier Marriott Classic, versus USC Upstate at 1 p.m. and Western Carolina at 7 p.m.
“Early on we’ve learned that we’re going to be a very scrappy defensive team,” Maes said. “Our first-years have brought a new energy and effort in terms of our defensive pursuit, and they’ve raised our level of play in the gym because of that effort and relentless defensive intensity.
“We’re always trying to find an identity for each team every year, and every year is different, but we want to take pride in our ability to serve and pass well. We want to be a very efficient team, and we want to be a cohesive team, and we feel that with some of the changes that occurred this summer, team chemistry is going to be one of our strengths.”