Bulls look for continued growth

USF coach Claire Lessinger described this year for her program as “unique.”

The Bulls, who went 18-10 last year, but missed out on the NCAA tournament, graduated a bunch of seniors and will look to continue their evolution as a program with plenty of new faces.

Lessinger, who enters her seventh year as the program’s head coach, is optimistic despite the youth movement.

“I think anyone can look at it and say they’re rebuilding, but we’re looking at it like we’re kind of reloading,” she said. “The youth is going to be called on a lot. They’re not going to sit back and learn from an experienced veteran in front of them. They have to get out there and get it done.”

The program, which hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament in Lessinger’s tenure, has been steadily growing nonetheless. In 2005 – Lessinger’s second season – USF finished 4-22. Two years later, the team went 19-10 and started to establish themselves in the Big East.

The Bulls, however, graduated six seniors from last year, including All-Big East first-team members Marcela Gurgel, Brittany Castelamare and Alli Arbogast.

Lessinger said the incoming freshmen class is one of the best she’s ever brought in, highlighted by middle blocker Andrea Rodriguez Lopez, who made it to the Junior Olympic Nationals, and Kayla Walton, who competed in the 2009 and 2010 USA Volleyball Junior National Championships.

Right hitter Allie Boaz, who returns for her senior season, was tabbed a preseason All-Big East first teamer.

Expectations fall in line with personnel,” Lessinger said. “But our goal, even through the recruiting process, is that we’re bettering scholarships every year. This year, we still have lofty goals because we have a very talented roster. Our incoming kids are very athletic. We have the ability to play higher above the net than we ever have before.”

“The big weight we have right now is the experience. That’s something you can’t speed up. It’s a matter of how quickly we can put that product together.”

A good measuring stick for the youth will come in the Bulls’ opener against No. 15 Florida on Saturday, part of the Florida State Tournament in Tallahassee.

“They’re filling a lot of voids themselves,” Lessinger said. “Any team you play first in the season is trying to put lots of things together, as are we.”

The Bulls, who tied for fifth in the conference last year, are picked to finish sixth this year. For Lessinger, they’re right where they need to be.

“Last year was a lot to build on as a program,” Lessinger said. “We’ve been going in the right direction for six years. You don’t really want to take a big step back from that.”