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BLANCHARD LOOKS FOR SECOND SEASON TO CONTINUE UPWARD TREND FOR UMBC VOLLEYBALL
Sarah Ball and the Retrievers open the season at the Colgate Invitational on Friday.
UMBC head coach Ian Blanchard heads into the 2006 season with both excitement and a new comfort level now that the second-year Retriever leader has a greater knowledge of what lies ahead. In his inaugural season, Blanchard was at the helm of a collegiate program for the first time and had a lot to learn. Blanchard was unaware of the conference, the travel required and the type of systems his league foes ran.
“I am more familiar with our conference now,” Blanchard said. “That is a big thing I needed to learn. I know a little bit about what to expect from our opponents and what the competition is like. I also learned a lot about coaching a collegiate team as a head coach. There are some things we could have done differently last year that would have led to some smoother transitions this year.”
Entering his second year Blanchard has a better understanding and what it will take to lead UMBC into the America East Conference tournament that has eluded the Retrievers the past three years. With 13 returning players that he has trained with for more than a year, and six newcomers that he has seen play during the recruiting process, Blanchard feels his team is already way ahead of its starting point last season.
“There is a trust factor that has to take place,” Blanchard said. “That just doesn’t happen in a spring and that just doesn’t happen in a fall. Now that I have been here for a spring, fall and a spring, and now we are going into another preseason, I think everyone is a little more comfortable with who I am. They know exactly what to expect of me and what to expect from my coaching styles. There is something to be said about continuity when you are coaching athletes, and rapport and relationships are very important. We have continuity right now and we are developing the trust and rapport needed between players and coaches.”
Blanchard’s comfort level also runs into the depth of his team with a squad of 19 student-athletes. Heading into 2006, the Retrievers have a number of players at each position, setting up depth to counteract any injury related issues, but also make competition in practice for the starting spots fierce.
“I feel more comfortable coming into the season this year because we have depth at every position,” Blanchard said. “Last year we ran into some injury and illness situations and I just feel more comfortable going into the season with a larger squad.
“There is going to be a tremendously larger amount of competition,” the coach added. “That is very exciting to me. I want them to go at it, and with 19 players on the team there is a lot of competition for those six spots on the court. I made it very clear that it doesn’t matter if you are on scholarship or a walk-on. If you earn a spot you are going to play. Last year we had three out of six players on the court on some occasions as walk-ons.”
Jen Wylie, Amanda Willey and Britney Hodson return as the Retriever captains for the 2006 season. Wylie is the type of player every team needs in that she can play at just about any spot on the court and has a hard-working mentality that you like to see in a captain. Willey, a junior, is in her second year with UMBC and ranked in the top three in the conference in blocks last year. Hodson is a player who just wants to be on the court and her work ethic will give UMBC needed leadership.
Sarah Ball and Ashley Hargrove return for a second season after an honor-laden season last year as freshmen. Ball set a conference record with seven America East Rookie of the Week awards, setting the table for a unanimous selection as America East Rookie of the Year and earning a spot on the Honorable Mention All-Conference team. Hargrove joined Ball on the All-Rookie team, making UMBC one of two programs with at least two members earning all-rookie status.
Despite all the accolades received, Blanchard believes the duo’s sophomore season can be even more productive after a full off-season of rest.
“Most importantly they understand the length and breadth of a season,” Blanchard said. “They were tired at the end of the year and I don’t think they understood why. I think they will be able to manage their time better and take recoverey time very seriously. They are stronger now after having been in the weight room for a year.”
Also expect to see a lot out of a core of UMBC seniors looking to make the most out of their final year. Highlighting the group is Jessie Folk, who has ranked in the top-10 on UMBC’s single season blocks charts in each of her three years as a Retriever. Julia Hood and Andrea Clarke also return for their final go-around in the black and gold.
More consistency will be needed out of the returnees as a group of six newcomers has the potential of making an immediate impact. Headlining the rookie class is a pair of national champions for their respective countries and two defensive specialists. Kira Giles set for Sarah Ball to win the 2005 Canadian national title and comes to UMBC looking to reconnect with her former teammate. Ashley Oscars was an outside hitter for her club team that just won the 2006 USA Junior Olympic Girls’ Volleyball national championship. Pam Jarrett and Marllorie Clary are two defensive specialists that will push very hard for the libero position.
Last year UMBC did not have the production from the outside that Blanchard would have liked, as UMBC hit under .200 as a team and averaged fewer than 13.0 kills per game. Looking towards the 2006 season, Blanchard has brought in two freshman recruits to compete for the position in hoping his squad gets a little more consistency from the outside.
“At outside hitting we are going to be deeper than any other position,” Blanchard said. “We are going to have a lot of people fighting for that position.”
Sarah Ball highlighted the outside hitter position for UMBC last year and was the most productive out of the bunch despite playing on the left side for the first time in her career. Ball, who ranked in the top three in the conference in points per game and kills per game during the 2005 season, is a natural right-side hitter Blanchard and could possibly be moved to the right side if potential candidates for the position produce.
“We are still not sure whether or not Sarah is going to be moved to the right side,” Blanchard said. “We may still need Sarah on the left. The beauty about Sarah is that she had never really played left side before but now she has a whole collegiate season of it. She could very easily stay on the left side.”
Coming into the mix is freshman Ashley Oscars. Oscars comes to UMBC out of Bakersfield, Calif., where she played for the TCA Volleyball club team with some of her former teammates having went on to some of the top programs in the country.
“Even though she is a freshman, I think Ashley Oscars can make an immediate impact as an outside hitter,” Blanchard said. “She comes from a club program that just won a national championship and has been playing at a high level with and against some of the top club teams and athletes in the country. She is an explosive athlete that could fit right into our offensive system.”
Also returning for UMBC are Angela Anderson and Julia Hood. Both have strong arm swings but lacked the consistency needed at outside hitter. Both hit under .200 for the year but had more than 2.50 kills per game. Anderson had some explosive matches last year, tallying 19 kills and a .421 hitting percentage against Cal Poly and 28 kills and a .352 hitting percentage against Fairfield.
“Angela’s biggest concern to us is consistency,” Blanchard said. “At times last year Angela was the best hitter on the team and the best hitter of all teams. When we played Cal Poly she was the best player on the court. She lit up teams at times last year. She has the most explosive arm swing on the team.
“Julia is in the mix as well,” Blanchard said. “Julia has the best motor skills at hitting on the team. She can really help us because she has an excellent swing.”
Blanchard also likes the look of freshman Sarah Fillmore on the outside. A local product from Gaithersburg, Md., Fillmore won the Maryland 4A state volleyball championship in 2005 with Gaithersburg High School’s first undefeated season at 19-0.
“Sarah Fillmore is the X-factor,” Blanchard said. “She might be the best athlete on the team. She is explosive and has a great platform for passing. She has never played at this level before and so she could be someone that can help us tremendously. It is going to be up to her. If she can handle the training and learn at a high level and pick stuff up quickly, she could help us tremendously.”
Much like the outside hitting position, Blanchard sees some improvement coming from the middle blockers in their offensive output.
“With the change in setting we are going to have this year we should see our middle blockers getting more into the offense,” Blanchard said. “We are going to be moving to a slightly different offensive system this year.”
Ashley Hargrove shined for UMBC her freshman year and returns as the leading candidate at middle blocker. Hargrove staked claim to America East All-Rookie team honors and recorded UMBC’s best single season for assisted blocks (82 for third all-time) and total blocks (92 for eighth all-time) since 1999. The Retriever middle blocker ranked eighth in the conference in hitting percentage at .275, fifth in service aces with 0.44 per game and fifth in blocks at 0.90 per game.
“There are a lot of things we have worked on with Ashley in her arm swing to get her more involved in the offense and becoming a better blocker,” Blanchard said. “If we can get her to be around a .300 hitter we are going to be in pretty good shape.”
Amanda Willey missed the beginning of last season with injury but upon returning split time with Katrina Carrick as the Retrievers’ other middle blocker. Willey flourished when on the court, ranking second in the conference in blocks per game (bpg) at a 1.00 clip. Carrick ranked third on the team with 0.88 bpg, finishing with a team-high 11 solo blocks and 47 assisted blocks.
“It will be interesting to see how Amanda and Katrina come into the preseason,” Blanchard said. “Either one is capable of taking the starting spot from Ashley, which should produce some strong competition for the spot.”
According to Blanchard, the important part of the right side is not just the hitting, but also the blocking ability. When looking for a right-side hitter, Blanchard is eyeing an athlete that can take on the opponent’s top hitter defensively while also getting involved in the offense.
If someone steps up into the outside hitter’s position, expect Ball to move to the right side. Ball’s arm swing and court vision match her up better on the right side. Ball recorded 47 blocks last season, but that was also as the outside hitter, a number that should rise if she were to play the right side.
“We are going to look very closely at moving Sarah Ball to the right side,” Blanchard said. “That is the position where she played for five years in high school and club and that is where she is more comfortable. Having taken thousands of reps from that side, she sees the court better and has a better understanding of where blockers are coming from.”
Right in the mix is senior Jessie Folk after emerging as a strong option last year. Folk was the only hitter from one of the wings to record over a .200 hitting percentage last season. She also ranks third in career assisted blocks and sixth in career total blocks in UMBC history.
“I think Jessie had a good season last year,” Blanchard said. “We would like to see her pick up where she left off. She blocked well, she hit the ball well and she was the only outside or opposite hitter that hit over .200. She has proven that she can get the job done but she needs to step it up this year because there is more competition.”
Also look for Britney Hodson to push for a spot. Last year’s unsung hero, Hodson has a tremendous work ethic and works at all costs to get on the court. Last season she played in 19 matches, averaging 1.44 kpg and 0.41 bpg.
“Britney has been training all summer,” Blanchard said. “She has an incredible work ethic and she will work her tail off to get on that court. There is nothing she wants more than to be playing. I look for her to push for a spot on the right side or as a middle blocker.”
The relationship between a setter and hitter is very important and something that the Retrievers lacked in 2005. With a new offensive system and the majority of sets going to first-time players, UMBC’s assists dropped from 12.45 per game in 2004 to 11.44 per game in 2005. This year Blanchard hopes to have his setters on the same page with the Retriever hitters.
UMBC will look to three different setters to open the year. The leading candidate is Kira Giles who comes to UMBC after winning a national championship in the Canada games with Sarah Ball in the summer of 2005. Giles was Ball’s setter for a number of years for their club team and picking up that relationship could be very beneficial.
“We are very excited about our freshman, Kira Giles,” Blanchard said. “She is a soft spoken young woman who is just a really good volleyball player. What I like about her is she started out as an outside hitter and so she has an understanding of what hitters want from a hitting perspective and a setting perspective.”
Stacey Carroll returns after splitting time last season at the position. In 20 matches, including 14 starts, Carroll recorded a 9.40 assist per game average, with 592 assists on the season. Also folding into the mix is Andrea Clarke, who moves over from a defensive specialist role.
“We are going to let Stacey and Andrea compete with Kira,” Blanchard said. “Andrea Clarke is going to move into setting and Stacey is going to compete as well. We are going to let them battle it out. What I like is that we have three people in that position which gives us some depth.”
UMBC may have made its biggest strides in the area of defensive specialist and libero during the offseason. With the graduation of UMBC’s all-time leader in digs, Christine Skala, Blanchard brought in two freshman recruits in Pam Jarrett and Mallorie Clary to compete with Jen Wylie for the libero position.
“I think you are going to have an epic battle between Jen Wylie, Pam Jarrett and Mallory Clary,” Blanchard said. “Whoever wins the battle will be the libero and the two others will be our defensive specialists and there is a good possibility they could all be on the court at the same time.”
In 2005, Wylie averaged 1.80 digs per game as a defensive specialist. For a stint of three games, Wylie played libero and tallied UMBC’s best single match for digs with 27 against Maine while notching 25 against Stony Brook and nine at home against Albany. She averaged 5.45 dpg during that three-match span.
Clary spent the past four years in UMBC’s backyard playing at local high school Catonsville where she helped lead her team to three consecutive regional runner-up seasons. Jarrett is a native of Lincoln, Neb., where she led her high school team at Lincoln Pius X with 323 digs her senior year. She was named to the PrepVolleyball.com Defensive Dandies: Dandy Lions Fourth Team, which projects high school talents from across the country as the next top defensive specialists at the collegiate level.
“I think we have just improved exponentially in defense and ball control,” Blanchard said. “I really like what we got right here in three girls that are relentless and have a tenacious attitude. That is what you need in your defensive specialist and libero.”
Also look for Megan Hodson and Marissa Gross to vie for time. Hodson was used sparingly last season in her first year with the Retrievers while Gross, was used at times on serve receive. Freshman Helen Smith will be sidelined after shoulder surgery
While the first year for Ian Blanchard was a learning experience, the season took on a familiar trend for UMBC as the Retrievers found themselves starting off strong in league play. UMBC, however, went on a six-game slide and seven of its final eight games were losses, allowing the America East Conference tournament to elude them for the third consecutive season.
“I don’t think there is any question that we were tired towards the end of the season,” Blanchard said. “I think part of it was we were relying on our two freshmen. As you look at their numbers over the course of the season, their numbers started to fall toward the end of the year.”
Blanchard plans to combat that trend in a few different ways. For starters Blanchard feels that the depth that his team has acquired will allow his players to be fresher as the season goes on. Last year Blanchard’s right side and outside hitters spent a number of games in full rotations, never leaving the court the entire match. This year with a core of solid defensive specialists and more hitters, Blanchard can take advantage of the new NCAA rule, increasing substitutions from 15 to 18 per set.
“If the NCAA is going to give us three more substitutions this year, we might as well use them,” Blanchard said. “We are looking at pulling kids off the court and giving them breathers with the depth we have. That is also the beauty of having three very good defensive specialists.”
In addition Blanchard is going to continue to change the culture in terms of competitiveness, the way the team trains and the fundamentals involved. Every player has a chance to be a starter or contribute with every practice scored, setting up a competitive atmosphere the entire practice.
“What I am looking for is to see us improve,” Blanchard said. “That is the central focus for us. I am going to make sure we hit our goals and make sure we are getting better at serving, ball control, hitting, serve receiving and all the other aspects of the game. We can’t worry about how others are training and others are playing. I want to do a better job of training the team and continue to get better every time we take the court, whether it is a game or every day in practice.”
Following those philosophies may just be what the Retrievers need to capture that elusive America East Tournament berth or even more importantly, the league title and a berth to the NCAA Tournament.