By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — For most of his first season as UVa volleyball coach, Dennis Hohenshelt had about a dozen players available for practice.

When Virginia opened practice Saturday, Hohenshelt looked around Memorial Gymnasium and saw 18 players. There’s strength in numbers, and that’s one reason the Cavaliers expect to show significant improvement in their second season under Hohenshelt.

“It’s so much better,” libero Emily Rottman said Thursday. “The competitive spirit in the gym is way higher with so many more people. It’s way more dynamic having multiple people that can play different positions, and so it takes everything to a higher level.”

Rottman is the only senior on a roster that includes 12 freshmen and sophomores. Seven of those players are new to the University: freshmen Jasmine Burton, Haley Kole, Meghan McDowell, Lexi Riccolo, Karlie Suber and Alex Thorson and sophomore Lauren Fuller, a transfer from Arizona whose twin, Manon Greskovics-Fuller, was already on the team.

“I’ve been really impressed by every single one of them,” Rottman said. “We have some [outside hitters] that can terminate, Lauren has done a great job setting, everyone has really stepped up, and they’re getting better every day, which is all we can really ask for.”

Rottman, who’s from Santa Barbara, Calif., was part of the recruiting class that entered UVa in 2010. Three years later, only Rottman and Mallory Woolridge, who redshirted last season because of a shoulder injury, remain from that five-player group.

“I can say this is the first time that I’ve felt a lot older than the first-years,” said a smiling Rottman, who like Woolridge is 21. “I’m like, `Wow, I’m an old woman.’ ”

In 2012, UVa finished 9-22 overall and 3-17 in ACC play — the first time Hohenshelt, a former Penn State assistant, had been part of a losing team as a college coach. For the Wahoos, it was their fourth consecutive losing season.

“It’s the most frustrating thing in sports, I would say, when you’re coming in the gym, working as hard as you can, and not seeing the results,” Rottman said. “There’s really nothing worse than that. But things are looking good so far [this summer], so we’re excited.”

Had Woolridge, a 6-3 middle hitter from Glen Allen, been healthy, the Cavaliers’ record almost certainly would have been better last year. As a sophomore in 2011, she recorded 166 kills and 81 blocks in 28 starts.

“She’s an experienced player,” Hohenshelt said. “I treat her like she’s a fourth-year, but it’s nice to know I have her for another year, too.”

Woolridge, who didn’t return to practice full time until the spring, said the 2012 season was difficult for her, “because I wanted to be out there with [the rest of the team]. There’s only so much you can do from the outside.”

Rottman and Woolridge are the only players who have already locked up starting jobs, Hohenshelt said. UVa’s other returning players are sophomores Amanda Barnes, Vivian Burcescu, Kayla Sears, Natalie Bausback and Greskovics-Fuller and juniors Sydney Shelton, Abbey Welborn, Tori Janowski and Morgan Blair.

Burcescu, Sears and Bausback each started at least 18 matches apiece last year, and Bausback made the ACC’s all-freshman team.

“We’re in a pretty good spot right now,” Hohenshelt said. “We’re probably further ahead than what I thought we would be [the first week]. There are some things that we need to work on and get better at, but they’re all things that maybe I thought we were going to be behind a little bit in.

“It’s fun to be in the gym with this group. Every day’s fun. I’m probably more pleased than I thought I would be. I knew those [newcomers] were talented, but what we’re doing as a group, as 18 people, I’m extremely excited about.”

Rottman and Woolridge are the team captains, and they take their responsibilities seriously.

“With so many young girls, it’s important that Mallory and I are constantly communicating with them, making sure that they know where to be, they know what to do, and just getting them through day by day,” Rottman said.

Woolridge said she wants her teammates to “know they have someone to talk to if anything is going wrong, just know that we’re there for them, because we’ve been through it and we know how to help them through.”

Like Rottman, Woolridge said the atmosphere at practice has changed dramatically from a year ago. “It’s a fight for every point, and everyone wants to win, everyone wants to get better, everyone’s working really hard. This is a great environment.”

Hohenshelt said: “It’s also nice that the older kids have taken a leadership role and sort of guided this group a little bit right now. And not just Mallory and Emily as captains. The juniors have taken a hold of this and said, `Hey, this is what’s going on. This is how we do it. This is what we’re trying to do.’

“They’re not dumb. They see that this [freshman class is] a pretty talented group, and they understand that they’re going to help us win, the first-years.”

The ‘Hoos are well ahead of where they were at this time last year, Hohenshelt said. “I’m pretty pleased right now with this group, with not only their athletic ability, but their attention to detail has been very, very strong. I haven’t had to get on them really at all. They’ve come in, they’ve been focused, they’ve worked, they’ve done what we asked them to. And then they get out [of the gym], and then they come back and they work and they focus. That’s a really good sign for this group.”

The program’s annual Orange and Blue Scrimmage is Aug. 24 at Mem Gym, starting at 6 p.m. Virginia opens the season by hosting the Jefferson Cup, a two-day event (Aug. 30 and 31) in which JMU, Montana and Marshall also will compete.

“I’m extremely excited,” Hohenshelt said, “knowing full well we still have a lot more work, but knowing this thing’s definitely headed in the right direction.”

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