Many teams would consider opening their season against a top-10 team a daunting task. Today, the South Florida volleyball team faces not one, but two top-10 teams as part of the SunTrust Invitational at Gainesville.
At noon, the Bulls will take on the sixth-ranked Arizona Wildcats, the defending Pacific 10 Conference champs.
In the nightcap, the Bulls will return to the O?Connell Dome floor to take on the host Florida Gators. The Gators are ninth in the country according to the USA Today preseason poll and are the defending Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament champions.
?This match is good for us to get a little feeling what it?s like to be on the level of those teams,? preseason Player of the Year Michelle Collier said. ?That?s where we want to be.?
USF is coming off an impressive season in their own right having won the Conference USA regular season title, as well as tying a school record with 28 wins last year.
?These teams will show us what it?s going to take of us to be on the next level,? Collier said.
Arizona may be the best team USF faces all season. The Wildcats return four starters from a squad that advanced to the Elite Eight of the 2000 NCAA Tournament. Led by All-American setter Dana Burkholder, the Wildcats will have to replace two All-Conference players if they are to equal their 28-5 mark of a year ago.
Burkholder, last season?s Pac-10 Player of the Year, holds Arizona school records for assists in a game, season and career.
With Burkholder setting the table, the Wildcats had a NCAA best .320 attack percentage during the 2000 season.
Not only did that mark lead the nation, but it was also an Arizona school record and the second best percentage in Pac-10 history.
?Arizona plays in a power conference,? said USF coach Nancy Mueller. ?That means every single weekend they?re playing top notch teams. They?re a great offensive team who keeps the ball in play and makes very few errors. We played them two years ago at Nebraska. It was the first game after we lost Michelle to her knee injury, and we played fairly well, but lost in three games.?
Florida is no less potent coming off a 29-5 campaign that saw them go undefeated in SEC play (14-0). The Gators have won 84 straight home SEC matches nearing the NCAA record. UF advanced to the Sweet Sixteen of the 2000 NCAA Tournament before bowing out to the University of Southern California in three games. The host squad won the SunTrust Invitational in 1996, 1997 and 2000.
?Florida is really going to test our blocking and athleticism,? Mueller said. ?I know that we?ll get blocked, but we need to be able to do the same thing against them.?
The Bulls will not only be battling the Wildcats and the Gators this weekend, but they?re fighting a losing battle with injuries as well. Junior Alessandra Domingos will have to wait to make her USF debut due to a pulled quadriceps muscle, and Maryann Mooney?s ankle injury has her on crutches and will keep the junior outside hitter out of action indefinitely.
?I can?t tell you what?s wrong with her (Mooney),? Mueller said. ?I know she has a bad ankle, but we?re still trying to figure out what?s wrong with it.?
With all of the injuries jumbling the starting lineup, Mueller said, ?I?m pretty sure I?m going to end up starting a freshman. All of the players will get in except Alessandra and Maryann.?
If Mueller is indeed going to start a freshman, middle blockers Rachel Jobes or Shameka Mitchell will get the call.
?As a team, I think that we?ll pull together, but it?s going to be difficult for me personally because it?s my first time playing at this level,? Mitchell said. ?The collegiate game goes a lot faster and is played at a different level of intensity.?
The Bulls will catch a break Saturday as their final opponent in the SunTrust Invitational is Marshall. The Thundering Herd is coming off a four-win season after making the NCAAs from 1997-99.
?Being optimistic, it?d be great if we swept this weekend,? Mueller said. ?However, we just want to get our feet wet. The expectations are high and just taking a game from Arizona or Florida would be a confidence boost.
?To play at that level is a huge accomplishment and that?s what we?re trying to find out,” Mueller said. ” I just wish we had everyone healthy so we could give them everything we have.?
Anthony Gagliano covers volleyball and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org