BALTIMORE – Although the UMBC volleyball team has made a school-record five consecutive trips to the America East Championships, the Retrievers are not content. Getting to the dance is nice, but the ultimate goal of winning the league and reaching the NCAA Tournament has still not been obtained since 1998. With this firmly in mind, the 2013 Retrievers look to take that next step and have built the team and program in this fashion.
With a pre-conference schedule that include foes from the ACC, Big XII, and SEC among others, ninth-year head coach Ian Blanchard believes the challenge will serve his squad well.
"Our primary goal is to play at a high level and to push ourselves in the early going," said Blanchard, who has led the Black and Gold to the conference tournament seven times and to the title match twice. "We will be battle-tested by the time we get to conference play and will have seen a lot of things to get us ready."
And while these contests against opponents from around the nation will provide Blanchard and his staff a chance to see varying styles of play and tactics, the pre-conference slate will also offer them an opportunity to try new combinations and test the veteran team.
"These early matches will allow us to figure out what type of team we will be," Blanchard said. "We're going to look at different lineups and combinations and evaluate who gives us the best chance of winning."
UMBC returns five starters and a total of 12 letter-winners from last year's team which posted an 8-4 record in the America East, a school-best since joining the league in 2003. In addition, the roster features six seniors who know what it takes to succeed. Overall, Blanchard likes the team chemistry that the squad has built since last November, which he believes will help propel the Retrievers to new heights.
"The chemistry and dynamics of the team right now are the best since 2010 when Sabrina [Hoeks] and Bianca [Sande] were here," Blanchard said. "The leadership that our captains Hallie Carter, Robbin Lee, and Mallory McIntyre, have shown and exemplified has put us in a great spot.
"We have a great returning group of veterans this year and they're excited to get back on the court to play against another team, iron out some issues, and compete for a championship."
An experienced Retriever team starts at the setter position where all three setters return for UMBC including 2012 America East Co-Setter of the Year Mallory McIntyre (Winnipeg, Manitoba/St. Mary's Academy). In her first season as the main setter, McIntyre battled through an early season injury to lead the conference in assists, dishing them out at a 9.78 per set clip. As a junior, she earned conference Setter of the Week honors twice and then was named to the All-Conference First Team following the regular season.
"We have some great depth at setter, especially with Mallory coming back for us," Blanchard said. "I feel very confident in her ability to run the offense and she knows our conference opponents well."
Behind McIntyre, Blanchard has two experienced setters waiting in the wings in senior Rebecca Garrigues (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif./Rancho Cucamonga) and sophomore Paige Miller (Reading, Pa./Schuylkill Valley). Garrigues has seen action in 35 matches since coming to Baltimore while Miller stepped into the setting vacancy last year and excelled, notching three double-doubles and handing out a career-high 46 assists as the Retrievers pushed Colorado the distance.
"All of our setters have been working hard to create a nice competition at the position," said Blanchard. "Becca has worked tremendously and wants to contribute to the team in any way possible."
The outside appears to be a strength as well for the Retrievers as both junior Hannah Schmidt (Catonsville, Md./Mount de Sales) and sophomore Sherelle Walker (New Freedom, Pa./Susquehannock) return for the Retrievers. Last season the pair led UMBC is attacking, combining for 598 kills. Schmidt also paced the conference in serving, averaging 0.43 aces per set, while Walker finished third with a .252 hitting efficiency.
"We have a lot of players vying for a spot on the outside, which serves our team well," Blanchard said. "Hannah and Sherelle have talent and experience that makes our team better and more explosive."
Blanchard's depth comes in a variety of forms with senior Ali Goc (Oshawa, Ontario/R.S. McLaughlin) possibly returning to a hitting spot after two years as the team's libero, senior Emily Witsaman (Medina, Ohio/Medina) rehabbing from an injury, and incoming freshman Zoya Trendafilova (Sophia, Bulgaria/Elisaveta Bgryana) joining the team. As a freshman in 2010, Goc finished second on the team with 214 kills, but has since been used as a steadying influence on defense and last year became the 13th athlete in program history to record 400+ digs in a single season.
"Ali is really a baller," said Blanchard. "She is smart player on the court and she just wants to win. She's competitive and will do anything to help our team achieve its goals."
Up the middle, Blanchard is looking for redshirt-sophomore Krystal Mlemchukwu (Baltimore, Md./Western Tech) to continue her progression as one of the best blockers in the conference. Last season, Mlemchukwu broke onto the scene, finishing fourth in the league in hitting percentage (.245) and fifth in blocks per set (0.85).
"Krystal had a great rookie campaign for us both offensively and defensively," Blanchard said. "We're expecting her to take another step for us this year and if she does, it will make us that much better."
Witsaman also factors into the Retrievers' equation at the middle blocker spot and brings great leadership to the position. Though she was limited in game time last year due to injuries, Blanchard notes the senior's work ethic as a positive influence for the entire team.
"Emily has worked unbelievably hard this offseason to make herself ready for her senior season," Blanchard said. "She has continually made contributions to our team and watching her transformation from freshman year is incredible."
Behind Mlemchukwu and Witsaman, Blanchard is hoping redshirt-sophomore Kristin Cooper (Davidsonville, Md./South River) and incoming freshman Ivana Kostic (Belgrade, Serbia) can step in and provide more firepower.
"Kristin has been getting stronger since last season and has worked hard to earn a chance to play," said Blanchard. "And even though Ivana is coming into a completely new system from Bulgaria, at 6-2 she brings legitimate size and I foresee her contributing as a freshman."
At libero and defensive specialist, the Retrievers have their two most seasoned veterans of all. Between Goc and senior captain Hallie Carter (Huntington Beach, Calif./Edison), the pair have played in every match since arriving in Baltimore in 2010, missing only one set along the way. More so than the numbers they have put up in their careers, Blanchard likes the leadership and intangibles that the senior duo gives to the team.
"Hallie is a special young woman and I have enjoyed coaching her the past three seasons," Blanchard said. "She's had an outstanding offseason and preseason and her passing and defense has been tremendous.
"Ali has done very well for us the last two years and is more than capable of holding down the position again."
Both veterans have been pushed this preseason as freshman Casey Griffith (King of Prussia, Pa./Upper Merion) tries to crack the lineup. Coming from one of the top clubs on the East Coast, Synergy Volleyball, Griffith has already showed in preseason that she can help the 2013 Retrievers.
"Casey is a tough and gritty player," Blanchard remarked. "She has some great experience and has already stepped in and challenged for a spot on the court."
UMBC gets its 2013 season started on Friday, Aug. 30 at the GW/Nike Invitational when the Retrievers take on SEC foe Ole Miss in Washington, D.C. The Black and Gold returns the very next day to take on the host Colonials before facing Maryland for the first time since 2009. The Retrievers will also take on local rivals George Mason, Towson, and American in non-conference action before hosting America East rival Stony Brook on Sept. 27 at the RAC Arena.