The road to consecutive regular season Conference USA titles begins Saturday for the USF volleyball team. The Bulls (5-3) open their conference season on the road against Southern Mississippi and continue on to New Orleans Sunday.
?Every game, every match counts,? USF coach Nancy Mueller said. ?Our main goal is to win the conference; do that and there?s a good chance that the NCAA committee won?t say ?no? to you.?
USM (5-4) is coming off consecutive defeats sandwiched between a 10-day layoff. The terrorist attacks canceled the Missouri-Kansas City Tournament during which Southern Miss had four matches scheduled. The Bulls had their own 10-day layoff, but returned strong with a four-game victory vs. Florida State Tuesday. The Golden Eagles last played Tuesday as well, when they dropped a five-game heartbreaker to Mississippi State.
?They have some good returning players in Kelly Tribble and Crystal Zane, their setter,? Mueller said. ?They?re hungry to play us, and then we have New Orleans, who beat Tulane earlier this year.?
Tribble and Zane are the two catalysts of the Eagles? attack. Zane is setting 10.44 balls a game, while Tribble is striking at a clip of four kills per game. To shut down the Eagles? attack, Mueller and the Bulls will look for big production out of their four middle blockers. A pair of freshmen, Rachel Jobes and Shameka Mitchell, as well as Bonnye Glover and Kristen Richardson have each played extensive minutes in the middle for USF.
?My middle blocker needs to have consistency,? Mueller said. ?Right now, we don?t have anyone who?s real consistent. One day, it?s one player, the next day it?s another. I don?t keep them out there if they?re making errors because there?s someone else right behind them.?
The luxury of having four potential starters at one position has allowed Mueller to tailor her lineup to match up with any opponent.
?Bonnye Glover is our best blocker and our most physical player,? Mueller said. ?Jobes is strong off one foot and Shameka is great in transition and very quick. Kristen has a great arm swing and can hit in front or behind the setter. Every middle has their strengths, yet every middle has their weaknesses. Depending on who we?re playing, maybe one middle?s better than another one.?
Jobes and Mitchell both hit 5 of 13 against FSU for a .308 percentage, and Jobes has attacked higher than .300 in three of her last four matches. In Chicago, Jobes recorded eight kills vs. Loyola and a .545 attack percentage against Evansville.
?We push each other real hard in practice and we?re all about equal,? Jobes said about the competition in the middle. ?If one of us is having a hard time in the game, somebody else can go in and get the job done.?
The Bulls got the job done against the Eagles last season, winning 15-2, 15-5, 15-6 in slightly more than an hour. The Bulls finished the 2000 campaign with a 28-6 overall record, 15-1 in C-USA. That mark was the league?s best, while the Golden Eagles were 10th in the conference at 4-12.
?We?re not focusing on last year?s team,? senior Kelly Mathiasmeier said. ?This team has the potential to be better than last year?s team. But, if we always keep looking back at last season, we?re never going to be able to move forward.?
Anthony Gagliano covers volleyball and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org