By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE – If subpar facilities have hindered the University of Virginia volleyball program over the years, that shouldn’t be the case any longer. The Cavaliers’ new coach, Dennis Hohenshelt, and his players marvel at the improvements made this year to the locker room, lights and sound system at Memorial Gymnasium, and they’re not the only ones.

“The alumni’s response has been overwhelming,” Hohenshelt said this week at University Hall. “I sent some stuff out to them with some pictures and video, and to hear their responses was unbelievable. They’re writing me back telling me about how they were sharing the general locker room in the bottom of Mem Gym when they played in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Or they were using the U-Hall bathroom when they were playing in here at some point.

“That’s the neat part about it, to see all the alumni excited.”

Hohenshelt (pronounced HO-en-shelt) spent 16 seasons as a Penn State assistant – the first 10 with the men’s team – before leaving in late January to become head coach at UVa.

At Penn State, Hohenshelt was part of teams that won NCAA women’s titles in 2007, ’08, ’09 and ’10. At Virginia, he took over a program that in four seasons under his predecessor, Lee Maes, went 28-52 in ACC play and 53-70 overall.

After going 1-2 last weekend at the Rocky Mountain Invite in Fort Collins, Colo, where they defeated Rhode Island and lost to Colorado State and Denver, the Wahoos are ready to make their 2012 debut at Mem Gym.

UVa will play three matches in the Holiday Inn Jefferson Cup: one Friday (Western Kentucky at 7 p.m.) and two Saturday (Lehigh at 1 p.m. and Delaware at 7 p.m.).

Admission to Virginia’s match with Delaware is free for fans who bring their ticket stubs from the football game at Scott Stadium earlier that day.

For a team whose starters include four freshmen — Natalie Bausback, Amanda Barnes, Kayla Sears and Vivian Burcescu – opening on the road, 1,600 miles from Charlottesville, figured to be a challenge, and it was. But that’s what Hohenshelt wanted when he accepted an invitation to the Colorado tournament.

“I thought it was important that we just go somewhere, because I think even in the traveling there’s a learning process,” he said. “Because I have ways we’re going to do things, scouting reports and stuff like that, so I thought it was better to teach them right off the bat. Now they know what the pattern for when we go on trips is going to be. Now we’re not learning it Week 3. So that’s out of the way.”

Hohenshelt saw things he liked, things he didn’t like and things he expected from his players in Fort Collins.

“Here’s what I’m encouraged about: The things that I thought we really focused on [during] preseason, that I thought we had to be better at to be competitive at this point, I thought we were good at,” he said.

“I think it’s a little bit of an attitude, and I’m talking about how you play the game — not being mean, but maybe a little bit of competitiveness. I thought that was good. I thought we ball-handled, passed, played defense well. We’ve spent a lot of time passing the ball and defending, digging the ball, because I thought we were very insufficient in those areas. We’re a pretty tough defensive team right now, which is exciting. There has be a starting point, and if this is our starting point, I think we’re going to be a really good defensive team for the rest of the year.”

That said, the ‘Hoos “weren’t very good blocking,” Hohenshelt noted. “We’ll get better at that. I think blocking’s a very tough skill. We’ll just have to spend more time on it. That was probably further down the line [in preseason]. I knew we weren’t going to be great at it, so therefore I accepted that we weren’t going to be great at it. Part of that’s on me, because we didn’t maybe spend a lot of time on it. But I also thought we had a lot of other priorities we had to be better at.”

Finally, Hohenshelt was disappointed in the Cavaliers’ lack of fire in their last match. Denver won in three sets: 25-16, 25-22, 25-15. “We were blah,” he said, and at times the players had a “deer-in-the-headlights look.”

That probably wasn’t surprising, Hohenshelt realizes, given UVa’s inexperience. In addition to the four freshmen, regulars include sophomores Tori Janowski and Morgan Blair. Of the Cavaliers’ upperclassmen, only junior Emily Rottman and seniors Jessica O’Shoney and Rachel Gray played major roles last weekend.

One of the team’s best players, 6-foot-3 junior Mallory Woolridge, is redshirting this season while recovering from shoulder surgery.

“I tell the girls all the time, ‘Our goal is to win,’ ” Hohenshelt said. “But I also know there’s a process to this right now. I understand what’s going on. I’m in the gym every day seeing them get better. I don’t think there was a day during preseason that I came away and went, ‘Man, there is no hope to this.’ Every day I’d come away, and I tried to look at the bright side of things. I’m not a happy-go-lucky guy. I understand that there are things that we’re not good at, and that’s our job as a staff, to fix those, or to figure out a way to make ‘em better. I don’t know if you always fix everything.”

That doesn’t he mean he’s discouraged.

“I’m very encouraged,” Hohenshelt said. “I’m very encouraged where we’re going and what we’re doing, and I wouldn’t trade this group of girls for anyone.”

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