Some are meeting for the first time, while others know each other from their heated pasts.
The rank the USF volleyball team was picked to finish in its inaugural year in the Big East. A place the Bulls feel is underrated and almost an insult.
They are taking it with stride, though, and with a brand new motto to help them through the three-month season.
“Why not?” printed on gray Nike shirts the players wear for practice. And it begs the question, why not what?
“Us,” coach Claire Lessinger said. “Why not? Why not USF volleyball? It’s our motto this year and it means a lot of things, in terms of when you talk about volleyball and what we can accomplish in the Big East.”
After a disappointing 9-20 finale in Conference USA in 2004, it seems like a question, said with a shrug of the shoulder, that everyone will be asking through the season. With the upcoming year in an expanded conference, and with Louisville running away with 12 first place votes in the preseason poll, it could be a tough question to answer.
“I like to be realistic,” said Lessigner, now in her second year as head coach. “We were preseason ranked 10th in our conference, so we made it our immediate goal to beat that. We want to beat what everyone else expects us to do. I think we’re going to come into a lot of our matches in an underdog role, and I like that.”
Underdogs as an understatement might be in store for the Bulls, but perhaps “why not” may become a “what if?”
What if things had been different last season?
What if returning sophomore starter Kristina Fabris wasn’t Conference USA Freshman of the Year?
What if the record had been different?
What if USF exceeds its expectations unlike everyone thinks it won’t?
“I think we set high expectations for ourselves, but they’re realistic ones,” senior Kelsi Andrew-Wasylik said. “We’re ranked somewhere in the middle of our conference and that’s a pretty place for us to be, so hopefully we can go out and surprise some of the big teams, make a name for ourselves in this new conference.”
But more than high expectations, more the past seasons, the team is having fun and putting the new motto into every practice and every drill they have in their repertoire.
“Why not USF volleyball? Why not us?” sophomore Michelle Stalbaum asked. “Why can’t Kelsi be an All-American center this year?”
Added Andrew-Wasylik with a laugh, “Why can’t Michelle be first team all-conference?”
Why not this and why not that aren’t excuses, and the players know that. They also know – for a team losing no starters and averaged 14.6 kills and 15.5 digs a game – this season is going to be completely different.
Why shouldn’t it be?
“You could look at our whole schedule and there are highlights all over the place,” Lessigner said. “But when we play, we just have to worry match-to-match and take care of ourselves. If we can get our side clicking, we’ll see what happens on the other side with our opponent.”
Stalbaum, however, is looking for a little redemption.
“A personal goal of mine is to have a better season than we did last year,” Stalbaum said. “It’s a tougher conference, but I think our team is actually better. Just be more competitive.”
But there is also something she is personally looking forward to.
“Personally, I’m looking forward to Notre Dame,” Stalbaum, a Gainesville native, said. “There’s a couple of club players that I used to play with and I would love to pull a huge upset against them.”
Redemption is best served with a side of revenge, though.
“We have some revenge against Cincinnati from last year,” Stalbaum said.
Added Andrew-Wasylik, “Yeah, (The Corral) is going to be a madhouse. The noisiest it’s probably ever been.”
The Bulls dropped a match 3-0 on Oct. 9, 2004, to the Bearcats, in which USF put up its second-best hitting performance of the season, with a .211 hitting percentage and 35 kills. Cincinnati, however, had 57 kills and a .420 hitting percentage. The first game of the match featured 12 ties and eight lead changes, but the Bulls still faltered.
Now, the team is different: six new players, a new motto and new plays.
“We’re the team that might be upsetting,” Lessinger said. “We’re not necessarily the target on everyone’s back, but we’re in a position to come in and play our hearts out.”
So, why not?
Everything seems to be coming together for the Bulls.
“We’re all getting along real well, and everyone is bonding on and off the court,” Andrew-Wasylik said. “Which really promotes ‘new team, new attitude’ that we have. It’s a whole new thing. Why not us?”