As the new school year begins and students return to campus, the USF volleyball team has been hard at work for the past two weeks, preparing to defend its Conference USA Championship. The Bulls, who reached the NCAA Tournament last season, will need to build on last year?s experience and mesh with new talent to have another successful season.
Last year, the team surprised many by posting a 15-1 conference record and 28-6 overall mark. The season was highlighted by a 20-match winning streak, which gave the USF one of the best records in school history. The Bulls won the regular season championship, which earned them a birth in the NCAA Tournament.
Coach Nancy Mueller, the 2000 Conference USA Coach of the Year, said last year?s squad learned a lot through their run into the Tournament.
?It was a great learning experience, playing in the conference final with such young players,? she said. ?Playing in the NCAA Championship gave us a taste of the next level.?
A first round loss in the NCAA Championships to Cal Poly ignited the team?s dedication to improve and to become tournament contenders. With the success of last year?s team, the expectations for this season are high.
This year?s team consists of blend of experience and young talent. Coming into this season, the team lost three starters, including first team All-Conference USA middle blocker Rachelle Paul and second team All-Conference USA setter Melanie Mueller. Key returning players are, junior Michelle Collier, the reigning C-USA Player of the Year and current C-USA Preseason Player of the Year and senior Kelly Mathiasmeier. The team reloaded with talented freshmen middle blockers Rachel Jobes and Shameka Mitchell. Also new to the team are transfers Alessandra Domingos, a setter from Brazil and outside hitter Jolene Patton from Tampa.
Collier and Mathiasmeier look to be the leaders on and off the court. As senior veterans, they will be counted on to set a good example by constantly working to improve. Everyone on the team, according to Collier, is very self motivated and not content to rest on last year?s success.
?There are always room for improvement. We have very high goals, the older players need to be the ones who are consistent and help the new players,? said Collier.
The new players will get a chance to challenge for starting positions right away and Mueller expects highly competitive practices for starting positions. Domingos looks to replace the departed Mueller at setter.
?She [Alessandra] is a dynamic setter, we expect her to challenge for the starting position right away,? says coach Mueller.
According to Mathiasmeier, the influx of new talent has blended well with the veteran players already in place.
?We are very excited about the incoming players, they are very competitive and athletic. They will fit in well with our system. The older players will need to lead my example, work hard, and help the incoming players mold into a cohesive unit,? Mathiasmeir said.
Mueller said the points to focus on this year are improving team blocking, service reception and overall defense. Mueller said she would like to see the team be more physical and feels team chemistry will be the key to the season.
?It is hard to predict how we will do, with such a young team. The primary focus of preparation will be getting the new players comfortable with the returnees,? Mueller said.
The Bulls looks to establish themselves early in the season in order to be playing their best when the conference schedule begins. The goals of the team are to once again win the regular season conference title and also to win the C-USA Tournament. A win at the conference post-season tourney would ensure them of a high seed going into the NCAA Tournament.
?The key matches on our schedule are going to be against Ohio State, Louisville, Cincinnati, and DePaul,? said Mueller.
USF hopes to establish itself as one of elite programs in the country and experience against the nation?s elite teams will prove invaluable to the growth of the program. The Bull?s recent success has attracted high caliber players to the program. Mueller believes the increase in talent will take the Bulls to the next level, by increasing competition for positions.
?The returning players will need to set the expectations for the younger players, they will help the younger players find their roles, and set the tempo,? Mueller said.
The upcoming season will be an exciting one for the volleyball team. With established stars such as Collier and talented new players, the team now takes on the challenge of repeating last year?s success and establishing itself as one of the nation?s elite programs.