BALTIMORE – The UMBC volleyball team jumpstarts its 2014 season on Friday, Aug. 29 when it travels to UMES for the first day of the Hawks Holiday Hullabaloo Tournament. The Retrievers open the weekend against South Dakota State at 10 a.m. on Friday, followed by a meeting with Fairleigh Dickinson at 2 p.m. inside the William P. Hytche Athletic Center. The black and gold conclude the weekend on Saturday, Aug. 30, with matchups against Weber State (2 p.m.) and host UMES (6 p.m.).
Scouting the Retrievers (2014 Season Outlook)
The UMBC volleyball team has advanced to America East Championships in each of the last six seasons, including a trip to its first title match since 2010. Despite this solid league history, the Retrievers will approach the 2014 campaign with a different mentality, having been chosen as the America East preseason favorites in the annual coaches' poll for the first time since 2007.
The Retrievers' roster features an array of returners and a talented mix of newcomers for 10th-year head coach Ian Blanchard. The squad returns 10 letterwinners and four starters after posting a 19-12 overall mark last season. The Retrievers took advantage of a 9-5 record in conference action, its highest league win total since joining in 2003, to advance to the America East championship contest, before falling in five sets to New Hampshire.
The Dawgs have another rigorous schedule on tap in 2014, including three NCAA Tournament participants and tournaments at UMES, BYU and Arizona, in addition to the Retrievers' annual home event, the Maddie Bingaman Memorial Tournament.
"I don't know who chose this schedule, because that guy must have been crazy," joked Blanchard of his schedule creation. "It is going to be a tough preseason for us, but we feel like it'll prepare us well for whatever we might see in the America East."
Despite losing two-time America East Setter of the Year in Mallory McIntyre, Blanchard has little concern that the Retrievers will lose a step at the position in 2014. Junior Paige Miller has proven in her first two seasons that she is ready to step in without missing a beat, having appeared in 76 matches since arriving on campus. The Reading, Pa., native will also be looked upon to provide leadership to a squad that graduated six seniors a season ago after being named one of the team's two co-captains.
"Paige has shown nice growth in terms of her maturity and her leadership," said Blanchard. "We want to see her continue to play with confidence and to help lead the team in the right direction.
Senior Hannah Schmidt is the lone All-Conference returnee from a season ago, earning a spot on the second team after registering 280 digs and 268 kills in the regular-season. The co-captain stepped up during the America East Championships, registering a double-double in each of the Retrievers' tournament contests a season ago to earn All-Tournament honors, and is expected to be a focal point on the squad in 2014.
"I think a lot of our season is going to depend on Hannah," Blanchard admitted. "If Hannah has the kind of season that she is capable of having, then she is an absolute candidate for Player of the Year in our conference. She has the skill level and the physicality to be able to do that. I think she understands the pressure and can handle it."
Senior Tanaeri Santiago and junior Sherelle Walker also return at that outside position. Santiago has seen action in 99 sets coming into her final campaign with the Retrievers. Blanchard has seen great improvements in the senior and counts on her to make contributions in the team's ball control and defense. Walker looks to get back to her All-Conference form in 2014, a feat that Blanchard expects to be attainable for the New Freedom, Pa., native. The junior registered 269 kills in 2013, fourth-most on the team, and scooped up a career-high 98 digs and added 63 total blocks last season.
"Sherelle is certainly one of the most athletic young women in our conference," explained Blanchard. "We want to take advantage of that athleticism. She has worked incredibly hard in the offseason to increase her range and get better on both sides of the ball."
Also vying for time on the outside and up the middle will be sophomores Ivana Kostic and Zoya Trendafilova. Both saw limited action in their freshmen campaigns, but have both put in the work over the offseason to battle for playing time in 2014.
Red-shirt freshman Elise Adamson and newcomer Abbie Mirabella are also in the mix for a spot on the outside. Adamson appeared in four matches in 2013, but Blanchard thinks that her hard work and athleticism gives her the potential to have a big impact on the court. Mirabella brings a high volleyball IQ from St. Mark's High School in Hockessin, Del., where she earned 2013 Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association Player of the Year honors.
Up the middle, Blanchard has a combination of veteran experience and a wealth of talented newcomers. Red-shirt junior Krystal Mlemchukwu is expected to make yet another jump this season after leading the team in block-assists (95), the fourth-highest single season mark in school history, and in total blocks (106) a season ago.
"We feel like Krystal is one of those athletes that had a really good spring and has had a really good preseason so far," said Blanchard. "She is ready to make that jump and get back to being in consideration for All-Conference recognition."
As a junior, Kristin Cooper set career-highs in kills (37), total attempts (103) and blocks (30) after nearly doubling her time on the court from her sophomore campaign. Blanchard saw the greatest improvements from the senior, both mentally and physically.
"No one has made more improvements from last year to this year than Kristin," said Blanchard. "She has worked hard, gotten stronger and is showing more confidence. We are really excited about what we think she is going to bring to the table this year."
Newcomers Marissa Duncan and Paola Rojas bring a tremendous amount of skill and versatility to the program. Duncan, a local talent from Ellicott City, works hard and can be put just about anywhere on the floor, while Rojas has a considerable amount of international experience after playing on the Puerto Rican junior national team.
"Marissa is the kind of athlete that can play anyone of the three positions up front and has proven herself to be a work horse thus far," explained Blanchard.
"Paola is the most explosive athlete that we've ever recruited," said Blanchard. "She is already competing at a very high level with the rest of the athletes on the team. We are not sure where she is going to fit into our lineup quite yet, but we know that she is going to probably see the court pretty early on in her career."
Sophomore Casey Griffith returns as the team's libero and defensive specialist after playing in all 31 matches and 120 sets in her initial campaign with the Dawgs. Griffith led the UMBC back row with 496 digs in 2013, the fourth-highest total for a single season in program history, and ranked sixth in the conference in digs per set (4.13).
"Casey has shown some nice growth and improvement in the preseason and we are expecting good things from her once again this year," Blanchard explained. "We look forward to her continued strong play in ball control and an improvement in her defense this year."
Scouting the Jackrabbits
-South Dakota State was picked to finish eighth in the Summit League in the conference's annual preseason poll.
-The Jackrabbits open their 10th season in Division I competition with their first trip to the Chesapeake Bay state.
-Junior Wagner Larson and sophomore Tiara Gibson have gained significant experience during their time at SDSU and led the attack last season for the Jackrabbits. Each registered 60-plus blocks in 2013, with Larson adding 2.59 kills per set and Gibson chipping in 1.75.
Scouting the Knights
-Fairleigh Dickinson is projected to finish seventh in the Northeast Conference by the coaches' annual preseason poll. FDU returns seven letterwinners and adds six newcomers.
-Among those returning for the Knights are the team's 2013 blocks leader in Maddie Gibbons and the squad's leader in kills in Caroline Laton. Gibbons, a junior middle hitter, registered 21 solo blocks, while Laton, a sophomore, recorded 147 kills.
-Also returning for head coach Stacey Recanati is junior setter Allison Butler. Despite an injury plagued 2013 campaign, Butler accumulated 702 assists to place herself seventh on the program's all-time list in helpers (1,661).
Scouting the Wildcats
-Head coach Tom Peterson enters his fourth season at the helm of the program and returns five starters and nine letterwinners from a squad that posted a 7-27 record in 2013.
-Seniors Audrey Biggs and McKay Tarbox are expected to provide leadership to Peterson's squad. Biggs averaged 2.76 kills per set a season ago, while Tarbox set a single-season record in digs (515).
Scouting the Hawks
-Host UMES is back under the tutelage of head coach Toby Rens for the first time since he left the program in 2004. Rens helped the program to a then-school-record 26 wins in 2003.
-The Hawks posted a 3-21 overall mark in 2013. In 2014, UMES brings back a wealth of experience from a season ago, with four seniors and a pair of juniors returning.