By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — After starting 6-0 for the first time since 2003, the University of Virginia volleyball team had reason to believe last season that it might make might only the third NCAA tournament appearance in program history.
It didn’t happen. The Cavaliers stumbled after their fast start, which included a win over an Alabama team that went on to make the NCAA tourney, and never fully regained their momentum.
UVa dropped four of its final seven regular-season matches to finish 10-8 in the ACC and 17-14 overall. Four ACC teams were invited to the NCAA tourney, but Virginia was not among them.
“I don’t think that we were as good as we thought we were,” senior setter Lauren Fuller said this week. “I think we could have been a lot better, but I don’t think we worked as hard as we needed to in order to be the team that we thought we were. It’s not that the pieces weren’t there, it’s just that they didn’t come together a lot of times.”
Particularly damaging for the Wahoos were September tournaments in Evanston, Ill., and Richmond at which they posted a combined record of 1-5. Then, in their final non-conference match, the ‘Hoos lost at Liberty.
“This was a learning experience for all of us in how to deal with success and keep it going forward Ã¢â‚¬” not only [the players], but me,” said Dennis Hohenshelt, who’s in his fourth season as Virginia’s head coach.
Moreover, Hohenshelt said, “I struggled trying to find a way to get them out of that hole when we went into that rut. And to their credit, when we started ACC play, they sort of jumped back out of it.”
On the eve of a new season, Hohenshelt is confident his veterans understand, if nothing else, “how important every match is,” he said. “I think they understand there’s a lot more steps [for the program to take], but the next step is, OK, we have to win the tough matches, but we also have to win the matches we’re supposed to win.”
In 2013, the ‘Hoos finished 11-9 in the ACC and 18-14 overall, and a third straight winning season is a realistic goal for this team. In the ACC preseason poll, Virginia was picked to finish sixth.
“I think it’s pretty fair,” Hohenshelt said. “If you look at it, there’s clearly a group of four that have sort of separated themselves a little bit” Ã¢â‚¬” North Carolina, Duke, Florida State and Miami, all of which advanced to the NCAA tournament last season.
Making up the next tier, Hohenshelt said, are UVa, Virginia Tech, Louisville and Pittsburgh, teams “that have all sort of beaten each other.”
Based on how the Cavaliers fared last season and the players they have back, Fuller said, “I think sixth is fair, but I also think that we’re in the running to do better than sixth. Based off what I’ve seen so far in the gym, it’s a different attitude. If you’re not on one day, someone else is going to take your position.
“The level of competition in the gym is a lot higher, and we’re working very hard.”
The Cavaliers opened preseason practice last Monday. From last year’s team, UVa lost only two players who had significant roles on the court: Tori Janowski and Morgan Blair. The Cavaliers added five new players this summer: freshmen Coral Kazaroff, Anna Walsh, Kat Young and Harley Sebastian, who at 6-4 is the tallest player on the roster, and sophomore Krystal Ejesieme, a transfer from UTEP who is eligible immediately.
From the first practice, Hohenshelt said, it’s been apparent that “the freshmen can play. And Krystal is going to be able to play. They’re still catching on to how I am and what we’re doing, but for sure I think those kids are going to be able to help us this year.”
Virginia’s returning players are seniors Kayla Sears and Natalie Bausback, juniors Haley Kole, Karlie Suber, Jasmine Burton and Lexi Riccolo, sophomores Haley Lind, Alex Thorson, Haley Fauntleroy and Meghan McDowell. And then there are the Fuller twins: Lauren and Manon Fuller.
Manon enrolled at UVa as a freshman in 2012. Lauren arrived a year later after transferring to Virginia from Arizona, where she totaled 539 assists as a freshman.
“I think we needed a year apart,” Lauren said, smiling. “It’s made us grow really close with each other. We have different paths, sort of, and we’ve both learned to accept that.”
As a junior, Lauren Fuller led the ‘Hoos with 1,329 assists and made the All-ACC second team. She can do more, Hohenshelt believes.
“There’s some things she understands that she needs to be better at to help us,” Hohenshelt said. “To me, I think she’s the best pure setter in the ACC. I need her to help us with some other things. I need her to be able to consistently block balls. And I think part of her next step is going to another level in her leadership skills. How does she help the team win, and how does she help the other people on the team to be better? And those are the things we talk about: ‘I know you can set. I know that. The question is, how do you help us win in other ways?’ ”
Burton, an outside hitter who was second on the team in kills last season with 327, is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. She’s practicing on a limited basis, and the Cavaliers hope to have her back by mid-September.
“Which is fine,” Hohenshelt said Monday. “She’s worked very hard in her rehab and she’s done a lot to get ready, so she’s way ahead of schedule. Today she was throwing some balls around and stuff like that. It’s a real good sign. The strength’s there, everything’s there. We’re going to have to figure out some things till she gets back, but that’s OK.”
The 6-1 Bausback returns at middle hitter, and Hohenshelt believes she’s one of the ACC’s most underrated players.
Burton, when healthy, starts on the right side.
On the left, Sears “is a big-time attacker,” Hohenshelt said. “But this is her last go-around, and she has to find some consistency and take what she does from the practice court to the gym, because in the practice gym she’s as good as anyone.”
Kole is a gamer, Hohenshelt said. “She’s not the greatest practice player, and it’s something we’ve tried [to address], and I thought this spring she had the best spring that she’s had, and part of it is because she sort of took that game mentality that she has into the practice gym, and I hope that’s going to carry over into the fall. Because if she does that, she’s a really good volleyball player. And if Kayla and Haley can do those things, I think we have enough weapons to be pretty good.”
There are six Californians on the UVa roster, including the Fuller twins, who are from Manhattan Beach. To say the Fullers are excited about the season’s opening weekend would be an understatement.
UVa’s first match is Aug. 28 against Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles. The next night, Virginia plays at UCLA.
“Those are really big matches for us,” said Lauren, who like Manon graduated from Marymount High School, across the street from UCLA’s campus.
Virginia’s first home match is Sept. 4 against VCU, in the Cavalier Classic at Mem Gym. Also in the tournament are Iowa State and Appalachian State, each of which UVa will face Sept. 5. Iowa State is ranked No. 21.
The ACC sets the Cavaliers’ league schedule. Outside the conference, Hohenshelt said, his team will face “at least one really big challenge every weekend. Every week we’re playing a tournament team from last year, so it’s a little bit challenging. But I think for us the RPI’s a big factor, and everyone will tell you you have to schedule for the RPI.”
This season marks the final opportunity for UVa’s seniors to advance to the NCAA tournament. Lauren Fuller likes what she’s seen from the team this summer.
“In practices I’ve noticed, from just these past four days, it’s a different attitude,” she said Thursday. “It’s not so much spoken. Dennis hasn’t really said anything about it. We didn’t even really have to say anything. It happened, just because we have so many new players on the court, and we have very good competitive people, and we have the right people in the gym right now, I think. It’s a lot more competitive, and it’s not that we consciously changed.”
Fuller smiled. “I’m not entirely sure what’s going on, but it’s good,” she said. “I think it’s a really good thing. It feels different from last year.”