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2005 UMBC VOLLEYBALL SEASON PREVIEW
WELCOME TO THE NEW ERA...
is a phrase that new head coach Ian Blanchard hopes fans and supporters of the UMBC Women's Volleyball program will take literally.
"First and foremost we want to welcome them to our gym," said Blanchard on what he wants the UMBC community to know about his program. "We want them to come see us play. We are going to be competitive, we are going to create a great atmosphere and it is going to be exciting."
Blanchard, who becomes the Retrievers' fifth coach in their 33-year history, has developed strong ties to the area over the past eight years, winning state championships at the high school level, building a nationally competitive club program and making his way to the NCAA D-I Tournament as an assistant coach at the collegiate level.
With UMBC seven seasons removed from their last conference championship and an NCAA Tournament berth, Blanchard looks to lead the Retrievers' program into a new direction that will show the way back to the winning ways of the mid-to-late 90's.
"The most important thing that we have to focus on everyday when we come into the gym is that we have improved," Blanchard said. "We need to be mindful of overall improvement, be sure our athletes are being mindful of their own improvement, and combine them as a team. If you are doing those types of things everyday in practice and are physically, emotionally and intellectually connected to the task, than the natural result will be an increase in your winning percentage."
Blanchard believes that improvement will stem from the up tempo and highly competitive settings he will incorporate into practices.
"We are implementing a more competitive atmosphere in practice," Blanchard said. "We score everything we do in practice. I want the girls knowing everyday they are coming in to compete. That alone gives us an edge."
The Retrievers enter the season with a number of strengths, sparking a positive outlook on the upcoming year. The Retrievers, a young squad, feature two veteran seniors who continue to rewrite the Retrievers' record books. Megan Gross and Christine Skala look to anchor the squad as Gross chases the all-time assists record and Skala looks to mount a challenge at the all-time digs mark this year.
"We are going to need those veterans," Blanchard said. "They are the most important components. They are going to be the emotional and physical leaders of our team."
Other starters returning from the 2004 season include Emily Berman, Jessie Folk and Britney Hodson along with key subs Katrina Carrick, Andrea Clarke, Julia Hood and Marisa Gross.
While the atmosphere has already changed and the hype surrounding the volleyball program has begun to build, Blanchard is aware of a number of uncertainties heading into his first year at the helm. The Retrievers the last two seasons have finished seventh in the conference standings and lost to graduation Jocelyn Teoh, one of the Retrievers' all-time most decorated athletes.
"This is my first year in the conference and I don't know what to exactly expect out of the conference," Blanchard said. "I have looked at some of the films and I know how some of the teams play, but I don't know specifically what to expect out of these teams."
"It is also going to take time to find out what we have with our team," Blanchard added. "We had a good spring and I saw a lot of good things. We have some depth and I made it really clear at the end of the spring that nobody's position is safe. Everybody is going to have an opportunity to compete for a starting spot on this team. Some positions are wide open."
With the Retrievers already instilling high energy into their practices and everyone competing for spots on the court, one thing that is certain is the Retrievers will head into a new era with intensity and a competitive mindset.
"I wear my emotions on my sleeve," Blanchard said. "You are going to see me jumping up and down when we do things well and you are going to see me cringe when we don't do things well. I am very high energy and I will work and work and work until we get this program to where we want it to be."
Every year the issue of youth and health comes into play and for the Retrievers that issue lies at the outside hitter position heading into the year. Blanchard and company will be facing the obstacle of filling the void of the Retrievers' top offensive weapon the previous two years with Jocleyn Teoh now graduated.
Combined with off-season shoulder surgery to the Retrievers' top returning hitter in Emily Berman, leaving a question mark on when she will return to full strength, the Retrievers' offense may rely on who steps up.
"Outside hitter is wide open right now until we can find out the status of Emily," said Blanchard. "I saw a lot of good things in the spring and expect who ever wins the position, whether it be Emily, a returning veteran or one of our newcomers, to be a big part of the offense."
Berman last year racked up 378 kills, averaging 3.67 per game with a .212 hitting percentage. If healthy, Berman is poised to start at the position but not without some strong competition. Jessie Folk and Andrea Clarke have auditioned for the position and show the ability to finish attacks and transition from their normal spots on the court. Marisa Gross and Julia Hood also return from last year's squad at the position.
"It will be interesting to see what kind of pressure our hitters can bring to bear on the outside," Blanchard said.
Coming back from redshirting last season is freshman Angela Anderson, who suffered a knee injury that sat her out the entire 2004 season.
"There is no question Angela has a good arm and that she can help us offensively," Blanchard said. "She did some good things in the spring and it will be interesting to see how she comes into the season."
UMBC will also welcome newcomers Jennifer Wylie, a transfer from
"Wylie is just an intense and tenacious athlete," Blanchard said. "She has proven to be able to compete at a high level. Ball has a great arm and I think she can come in and compete right away. I would not have recruited her if I didn't think she could make an immediate impact with us."
With the depth at the position Blanchard will likely move some of the hitters to compete on the right side.
The important component of the right side is to not only be offensive minded on the front row, but be able to block the opponents top hitter. Once again the Retrievers show some depth at this spot on the floor although there is not a clear cut favorite heading into the season.
Jessie Folk, who was used mostly in the middle last year, could move out to the right side among a number of other positions on the floor. In each of her first two years, Folk joined UMBC's single-season top-10 chart for assisted blocks and is fourth all-time. Folk also proved to be potent at the net, dropping 214 kills last year, 1.96 per game, from the middle.
"We are going to ask her to do something that is very difficult this year," Blanchard said. "We are going to ask her to play multiple positions. Today you are going to play outside, tomorrow middle and the next day opposite. The thing about Jessie is she is the type of kid that will be okay with that. She just wants to be out there playing, competing and winning."
In addition to her versatility, Folk brings a highly competitive mentality that Blanchard likes as well.
"I love her intensity," Blanchard said. "She is a tough player and brings that tenacity and mentally to the table that you need."
Britney Hodson returns as the other veteran vying for the position. Hodson started in 19 matches last year and has strong combination of ball control with the ability to finish kills.
Knowing this could be a critical position on the floor for the Retrievers, Blanchard may also look at three potential newcomers to fill the spot. Amanda Willey, Jennifer Wylie and Sarah Ball all have the ability to come in and take on a starting spot with Willey and Wylie having collegiate experience already. Willey spent last year at VCU and has Blanchard raving about her.
"I very excited of the addition of Amanda Willey and what she brings to us as a transfer from VCU," Blanchard said. "Amanda really understands how to play the game and will a great addition to our front row."
The Retrievers plan on being young in the middle with a number of players capable of winning the starting spot. With Jessie Folk becoming more versatile and moving to different positions on the court, sophomore Katrina Carrick, freshman Ashley Hargrove and transfer Amanda Willey all will contend for the starting nod.
Carrick had a strong spring and has constantly improved over last year where she finished with 0.64 bpg, second best on the team to Folk.
"We saw some really wonderful improvements out of Katrina Carrick last spring," Blanchard said. "She made the most improvements. I think when she starts to understand how hard she has to work everyday in practice that is when she is going to make some serious breakthroughs for us."
Willey maybe the best leaper on the team, and plays very big in the middle while Hargrove has some size and good ability and with experience will push the other middle blockers for playing time.
"I think once we get Ashley Hargrove into our system and if she works hard she is going to have every opportunity to play," Blanchard said.
Over the course of the last three seasons Megan Gross has entrenched herself into the UMBC record books, climbing to second all-time with over 3,100 career assists. The last two seasons, Gross has recorded over 1,100 assists each year and establishes herself as a favorite to run the Retriever offense.
"Megan is our starting setter heading into the preseason," Blanchard said. "She finished the spring ahead of everyone else at the setter position. She has run the team well for a while and I am excited to have a veteran setter who has been in this program for three years now and is capable of running the ship for us."
While Gross' credentials make her a clear cut favorite, the competition on her heels is one of the best pre-season battles with Stacey Carroll and Megan Hodson.
"I think what is going to be very good for Megan's development this year is that there is going to be some competition at setter this year," Blanchard said. "We have asked Megan to change a lot because we have implemented a new offensive system and I want to see her adapt."
Carroll backed up Gross last season, playing in nine matches on the year while Hodson is a transfer from conference foe New Hampshire, playing in four matches last season. Both will have ample opportunity to earn playing time and push Gross for the starting nod.
Much like at the setter position, Blanchard has a comfortable feeling with a veteran at libero in the return of senior Christine Skala. Skala joined the 1,000 digs club last year and has the potential to seriously challenge the Retrievers all-time mark this season, needing 459 to tie the all-time record.
"I think you are going to see Christine challenge for most digs in program history," Blanchard said. "She has a long way to go and she will have to dig a tremendous amount of balls but we are going to put her in a better position on the court to do that."
Skala's career mark for digs in a season is 383, set last year. In order to break the mark she has to have her best season donning the black and gold and with some changes in system and technique, Blanchard feels that Skala will have a career year.
"We changed some things mechanically and her position as the libero on the court," Blanchard said. "She made some huge strides and as she continues to make those improvements and gets more comfortable I think you will really see her at the top of her game."
Skala, like all the other positions on the court, will have some competition for playing time as well. Andrea Clarke and Melissa Golob return while Jennifer Wylie could vie for time as well.
Clarke last season played in 31 matches and 77 gmaes for the Retrievers. Clarke recorded 1.12 dpg. Golob made appearances in three matches last season.
"We are looking for Andrea to continue to make same improvements and to pick up where she left off in the spring," Blanchard said. "The nice thing about Andrea is she is willing to play wherever you need her. She just wants to be out there competing."
Wylie has some of the best passing skills and ball control and looks to be a great addition for the Retrievers back row if she doesn't earn a spot on the front line.
"Jen is going to put a lot of pressure on defensive specialist," Blanchard said. "She has great ball control. Some of the best ball control on the team. She is also a tenacious and intense athlete which what you like to see out of your defensive specialists."
The past two season UMBC has faltered down the stretch, struggling in the second half of conference play and missing out on the conference tournament. Once a program that dominated in the fall, the Retrievers look to regain that year-to-year winning mentality and win conference titles.
"It is every coach's goal to win the conference championship heading into the season," Blanchard said. "What we have to do is be mindful of ourselves, make improvements everyday in practice and compete daily at a high level."
Making the conference tournament and giving the Retrievers a chance to compete for the league tournament may not be far off. The top four teams advance to the league tournament and with Northeastern joining the Colonial Athletic Conference, the Retrievers will be one of seven teams chasing the top-four spots at the end of the regular season.
UMBC earned a tie with Stony Brook for fourth in the 2005 pre-season America East Conference Coaches' Poll. Still with the hype of earning the first America East Tournament berth, Blanchard remains focused on taking each step at a time and allowing raising the bar with every new step.
"From a philosophical perspective we are going to be competitive," Blanchard said. "It is going to be exciting volleyball. I am a teacher and I am going to insist on teaching the game. We are going to be fundamentally better in all aspects."