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Sept. 17, 2014

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — The UVa volleyball team, after bolting to its best start in 11 years, saw its record drop from 6-0 to 6-3 in a span of about 36 hours.

At the Wildcat Classic in Evanston, Ill., Virginia lost 3-2 to Loyola Chicago, 3-2 to Youngstown State and, finally, 3-0 to host Northwestern last weekend.

“It felt like we were playing in mud the whole time,” said Dennis Hohenshelt, the Cavaliers’ third-year coach. “We just couldn’t get anything going. We’d get it going for a little bit, and just give it right back. I wish I had an explanation for it, but I’m not real sure I do. We just weren’t really good.”

The Wahoos are coming off a season in which they finished 18-14 — their first winning record since 2008. This is a program with only two NCAA tournament appearances — 1998 and ’99 — and the progress Virginia has made under Hohenshelt has not gone unnoticed. That was apparent from opponents’ reactions in Evanston.

“For the first time in some of these kids’ four years [at UVa], they were the hunted team,” Hohenshelt said. “And so there’s gotta be a mental switch flipped where they realize, `Hey, this is what it feels like to now be the team people want to beat.’

“It’s a different feeling, and all of the sudden teams were celebrating when they were beating us, like they had just won the national championship. And that’s what we have to get used to right now as a program. If we’re going to start winning matches, we’ve got to understand that we’re getting everyone’s best shot. And that’s a good thing, you know?”

There were hard lessons learned in Evanston, Hohenshelt said, but his players “are on board with it. At the end of the week, I didn’t yell at them. We talked about what we needed to do to be better, what it felt like for this to happen, and maybe the two-by-four of reality hit us right across the face, but that’s OK.”

On the season’s opening weekend, UVa dominated the Marshall Thunder Invite in Huntington, W.Va., defeating Illinois-Chicago 3-1, Eastern Michigan 3-1, and Marshall 3-0.

Then came the Cavalier Classic, which Virginia hosted at Memorial Gymnasium. The Wahoos beat LIU Brooklyn, Navy and Alabama, each by a score of 3-1, and middle hitter Natalie Bausback was named tournament MVP for the second straight weekend.

“Everyone was excited about the Alabama win, and, hey, the Alabama win was a good win,” Hohenshelt said. “But I also understood that there are still issues. We’re still working our kinks out, and we’re lacking in some areas.

“We’ve fixed a lot of areas in two, two-and-a-half years, and there’s still some areas we need to get better at. And so we try to fix those and move on. I appreciate everyone being excited about the 6-0 start, and it’s exciting for the team, but I also understand there’s weekends we could go 0-3.”

Hohenshelt does not believe his players were overconfident in Evanston.

“It wasn’t that the kids didn’t play hard,” he said. “It’s that we weren’t sharp, and we didn’t take care of the ball.

“We won the first game [against Loyola] and we were OK, and then it just sort of went south real fast. It seemed like we were climbing up the slippery slope the whole time, and we never could just get over it. It was tough, and everything we did was a struggle. We didn’t make anything easy on ourselves.”

In the first game against Northwestern, for example, the teams were tied 16-16, despite UVa’s sloppy play.

“We’re doing nothing, and I say to the kids, `Hey, we’re at 16-16, and we’ve given them five or six points. Control the ball, and we win it,’ ” Hohenshelth recalled. “And then we go out and give them five points, we’re down 21-16, and we never recover.

“Then we’re up 19-12 in the second game, and we let [Northwestern] slowly creep back in. That’s how it was all weekend long. And so I have to do a better job of getting them to play smarter. They have to do a better job of listening and understanding what’s going on.”

Before they open their ACC schedule Sept. 26 against Clemson at Mem Gym, the `Hoos will play four more games, the first three at the VCU Invitational in Richmond.

UVa plays Ball State at 5 p.m. Friday, East Tennessee State at 1 p.m. Saturday, and VCU at 7 p.m. Saturday.

The Cavaliers close non-conference play Tuesday night against Liberty in Lynchburg.

“We’ll fight back,” Hohenshelt said. “We’ve got some fighters on the team.”

What the Cavaliers don’t have is a set lineup. Hohenshelt said he told his team Monday that only one player had her position locked down: Bausback, a 6-1 junior from Carlsbad, Calif., who ranks sixth in the ACC in hitting percentage and fifth in blocks.

“But that’s what the [non-conference matches are] for,” Hohenshelt said. “We have this weekend to lock down some spots.”

The core of Virginia’s 2013 team returned this year, with one significant exception: libero Emily Rottman, who graduated.

“What the kids are finding out and what the staff already knew is Emily Rottman was really good,” Hohenshelt said.

In addition to Bausback, the team’s veterans include senior outside hitter Tori Janowski, an All-ACC third-team selection in 2013, junior setter Lauren Fuller, an All-ACC second-team pick last year, sophomore outside hitter Haley Kole, who made the ACC’s all-freshman team in 2013, and sophomore outside hitter Jasmine Burton, the ACC’s freshman of the year in 2013.

“They’ve been up and down,” Hohenshelt said. “I think Jasmine’s going to be great, but Jasmine has to be great against really good teams. For us to be successful, Jasmine has to be good. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. There’s no choice there.”

“Offensively, we’re a lot better than we were last year at any point. We have a lot of weapons, we can do a lot of good things. We just have to be able to pass. So those back-row people have to step up their game a little bit, and we have to be better at that, and if that happens, we’re going to be really good. I have confidence in those people. I think it was just a bad weekend [in Evanston], and we struggled a little bit with it.”

New to the program are freshmen Haley Lind and Haley Fauntleroy. Lind is a 5-8 defensive specialist from California, and Fauntleroy a 6-3 middle hitter from Illinois.

Lind played well in preseason but then suffered a fracture in her foot, Hohenshelt said, “so now we just have to wait a little while till she can help us.”

Fauntleroy, who had been sidelined with an injury, made her college debut at the Northwestern tournament.

“Literally she practiced two hours last week,” Hohenshelt said. “We were just trying to get her some playing time, get her some reps, get her used to the game a little bit. So she’ll play a little bit more this week [in Richmond].”

With four non-conference matches left, the Cavaliers have an opportunity to show their performance at the Wildcat Classic was an aberration, and to enhance their postseason résumé.

“I’d be pretty happy at 10-3,” Hohenshelt said.

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