By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The UVa volleyball team’s margin for error shrinks with every defeat, and there have been nine of them this season. If they are to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999, the Cavaliers know they cannot afford many more missteps.
They haven’t lost hope.
“Of course not,” outside hitter Tori Janowski said this week.
Janowski, a senior from Flint Hill School in Oakton, is one of UVa’s captains. A 5-10 outside hitter, she’s also the only player to have started every match for the Wahoos this season.
“Making the NCAA tournament has definitely been the goal from Day One of the season,” Janowski said. “And even though we did have those losses, I think that’s still the goal, and all of us are still really trying to work for that.”
This weekend brings an opportunity for the `Hoos (11-9 overall, 4-3 ACC) to improve their position. UVa will host two ACC matches at Memorial Gymnasium: versus NC State (12-7, 1-6) at 7 p.m. Friday, and Notre Dame (5-14, 2-6) at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Virginia opened the season, its third under head coach Dennis Hohenselt, by winning its first six matches, the team’s best start since 2003, and one of the victories was over highly regarded Alabama. But the `Hoos stumbled later in September.
First, they went 0-3 at the Wildcat Challenge in Evanston, Ill. Then, the next weekend, they went 1-2 at the VCU Invitational in Richmond.
“We definitely should have won all of those, except for maybe the Northwestern [match],” Janowski said. “But the Chicago weekend, for sure, all of us were sort of cocky with our 6-0 record. None of us had been 6-0. But I think a positive from that weekend was that we did experience those losses earlier and we were able to bounce back from them faster than maybe we would have if they’d happened later, in ACC play.”
In 2013, the Cavaliers finished 18-14 overall and 11-9 in the ACC, their first winning record in conference play since 2007. As disappointing as UVa’s non-conference record might be this year, there’s “nothing we can do about it now,” Hohenshelt said, and he’s focused on the remaining matches.
In volleyball, the ACC does not hold a conference tournament. So the `Hoos have 11 matches to play before the NCAA tournament selections are made, all against conference rivals. Five of those matches are at Mem Gym, where Virginia is 6-1 this season.
“The opportunity is there, and we’re not out of it,” Hohenshelt said. “But we have to win. We gotta win a lot of these matches here at the end.”
Even with the six non-conference losses last month — Virginia also fell at Liberty — his team’s RPI is better now than it was at the end of last season, Hohenshelt said.
“So we think there’s a shot for us to make a pretty big move here in these next 11 matches,” he said. “It’s all out there for the kids. If we run here a little bit, we’re going to be a borderline NCAA team. The kids understand, hey, we put ourselves in a hole. There’s a way to dig yourselves out of the hole right now.”
Four ACC teams made the NCAA tournament in 2013, including Florida State, which advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.
“The league is a hundred times better [than last year],” Hohenshelt said. “The league is really, really good right now, from top to bottom. It’s a grind right now, and it’s fun, because that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
The core of this team will return in 2015. Of the Cavaliers’ seniors, only Janowski and middle hitter Morgan Blair play regularly. Along with classmates Abbey Welborn and Sydney Shelton, they’ve seen UVa volleyball steadily improve under Hohenshelt, a former Penn State assistant who replaced Lee Maes after the 2011 season.
“I would say that the program that Dennis is trying to create, and the culture that he tried to create from the minute he came to UVa, has been the same,” Janowski said. “It hasn’t changed. He lays it out in black and white, and you either completely buy into it, or you don’t.
“I think the fact that he makes it so clear and simple for the players [at UVa] and the ones he’s recruiting, that’s really beneficial to know what you’re getting into. So that made it really easy to play for him, because you know what you’re going to get.”
Janowski, whose father, Michael, starred in volleyball in his native Poland, was The Washington Post’s All-Metro player of the year as a Flint Hill senior in 2010.
Early in her UVa career, she split time at setter and outside hitter, but she moved to hitter full time last season and feels most comfortable there.
“It’s funny, because I was not good at being a setter at all,” Janowski said, laughing. “I really wasn’t. The coaches were really supportive of me, but they had to be. But I think my natural role has always been being a hitter. So coming back here has been easier, and if that’s what my team needs, I’m all for it.”
With setters Lauren Fuller and Meghan McDowell joining the program in 2013, Hohenshelt said, the `Hoos “needed some experience on that left-side hitter. We needed some dynamic ability, and Tori’s probably one of our most dynamic athletes … We knew the answer was probably for Tori to go to left-side hitter, and that’s where she would be the biggest benefit to us.”
Janowski leads the team in kills, with 241, and rarely leaves the court during matches.
“She’s not the biggest kid in the world, and she’s got to be a little bit faster, a little bit quicker on the ball,” Hohenshelt said, “but she’s figured that out, and I think she’s had a good start to the season. Her biggest thing right now is all the other stuff. She has to pass, she has to defend. We ask her to do a lot for us.”
Janowski isn’t overwhelmed by that responsibility.
“She always has understood the game,” Hohenshelt said. “Her father was a setter on the Polish national team, so she’s been around the game and has a very good understanding of the game, and that’s one of the reasons why she’s on the court for us. She’s just a really good all-around player who understands how to play.”
Janowski, an English major, is in the Modern Literature and Culture program. She’s likely to have opportunities to pursue a pro volleyball career next year, but she may choose to attend graduate school, with the goal of one day working for a professional sports team.
“Right now I have a lot of options, which I feel like is a good place to be,” she said.
Her college years have raced by, Janowski said. “I have no idea where the time went. It feels like I was having my first preseason, and now it’s almost over.”
COME ONE, COME ALL: The first 300 fans on Friday night at Mem Gym will receive pom-poms. The first 150 on Saturday night will receive Virginia Volleyball t-shirts.
Fans who attend UVa’s football game against North Carolina at Scott Stadium on Saturday afternoon will, if they bring their tickets from that game, be admitted for free to that night’s volleyball match against Notre Dame, based on availability.