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2007 UMBC Volleyball Outlook: Unfinished Business
UMBC head coach Ian Blanchard and the women’s volleyball team have some unfinished business to attend to in 2007.
UMBC head coach Ian Blanchard and the women’s volleyball team have some unfinished business to attend to in 2007.
After earning their first-ever America East Conference tournament bid in 2006 (16-15, 7-5 America East), and reaching their first-ever title game, in which they fell to
And that hunger is what Blanchard hopes will drive his team to a second tournament bid and eventual title match appearance—by way of perfection; in practice.
Practice makes perfect. An old adage every athlete has heard in his or her career, a phrase coaches utter like broken records, a mantra Blanchard lives by.
Before the coach can even think about an America East title match, or tournament appearance, or even a regular season match, he first thinks about what needs to be done in practice.
“With what I concern myself every day and what I want the girls to be concerned with every day,” he said, “is how they’re approaching each practice, each repetition, each ball, every day in practice.”
Performance in practice is especially important for Blanchard’s athletes, as it is the deciding factor in who starts and ultimately sees playing time in a match.
“The beauty of our program, the beauty of the way we do our practices, is that the girls compete every day in practice,” Blanchard said. “I want to put the best six players on the floor that we can. Nobody should feel secure in that they are guaranteed a starting position.”
And at the forefront of that competition Blanchard expects to find newcomers. “We’re going to have to rely on our freshmen again,” he said. “We’re hoping that our freshmen can learn at a pretty fast rate. Like I said last year, how much our freshmen can learn in a short amount of time is going to determine how far we can go.”
Judging from last season’s results, it seems that the freshmen learned fairly quickly as Blanchard and the Retrievers came one game away from a conference title and NCAA Tournament bid.
“We certainly had some success last year and we want to build on the success that we had,” said Blanchard, “but this a very different team this year than we had last year in many different ways.”
With the loss of three starters in Jen Wylie, Jessie Folk, and Ashley Hargrove coupled with the anticipated medical redshirt of junior Sarah Ball, the six players and libero that Blanchard puts on the floor will be much different from the 2006 squad.
“Sarah Ball is a big loss for us,” he said. “You don’t replace a Sarah Ball.”
Add the losses of all of his middle blockers and the starting libero and Blanchard does have a much different team.
A different team is not necessarily a bad thing, however, especially and Blanchard is awaiting the 2007 season with more eagerness than he ever has in his coaching career.
And though there are many changes this season, many things stay constant as well, providing Blanchard with a core group of veteran leadership from his juniors and seniors.
Though Ball won’t be on the court on game days, she will be on the bench and in the gym for practice every day.
“She’ll be in the gym with our young players,” Blanchard said. “She understands what my expectations are. Sometimes it’s hard for a younger player to understand exactly how difficult it is to make the transition from high school and club to Division I athletics, and I think Sarah really understands that. She’ll be able to see things from a different perspective and that will help her develop as a player and allow her to be a very valuable part of our program this year.”
Expect seniors Britney Hodson and Stacey Carroll and junior Angela Anderson to step up and provide leadership as well, while the sophomore duo of reigning America East Rookie of the Year Ashley Oscars and All-Conference selection Kira Giles, will look to translate the success of their rookie campaigns into their second year.
Sophomores Pam Jarrett and Sarah Fillmore will also be instrumental in the Retrievers’ season, with Jarrett part of a three-way competition for the starting libero position along with senior Marisa Gross and redshirt freshman Helen Smith.
Senior Katrina Carrick could provide some much needed experience at middle blocker as the final returning player, which leaves the incoming class of five for Blanchard to mold.
The freshman class of Sarah Hill, Sabrina Hoeks, Bianca Sande and Bridget Scheetz, along with sophomore transfer Tiffany Johnson, provides depth to the Retriever squad, especially at outside hitter, with four freshmen capable of seeing playing time at the position, in addition to the five returning players already experienced there.
One year ago, Blanchard reflected on the improvement that needed to be made at outside hitter. Now he boasts a group of nine players that can play the position if called upon.
“We improved a lot at the outside hitter position last year,” Blanchard said. “A lot of that had to do with the fact that Ashley Oscars had an outstanding season as a freshman.”
Oscars duplicated Sarah Ball’s freshman performance from 2005, garnering seven weekly conference awards en route to being unanimously named America East Rookie of the Year. She finished the season fourth in the conference with 4.00 kills per game and sixth with 4.44 points per game. Oscars also led the Retrievers with 1,132 total attacks, which ranks 10th on UMBC’s single-season record chart, and posted a hitting percentage of .203.
Injuries plagued Oscars in the beginning and end of the season, causing her to miss some early and later matches, and Blanchard is hoping she will stay healthy enough in 2007 to get a full season out of her.
“Oscars has an opportunity to be a very, very special player here and could create her own little legacy here at UMBC, but she too needs to make improvements,” the coach said. “We need her game to expand. If she can take the next step in her maturation as a player, she could have an even more outstanding sophomore season.”
Angela Anderson has also seen considerable playing time at the outside hitter position over the past two years, averaging 2.69 kills per game and 3.04 points per game and playing in 55 matches over the course of her past two seasons. In 2006 she averaged 2.60 kills per game and 2.93 points per game while playing in 30 matches.
“The amount of improvement that Angela has made over the last two years has been enormous and she continues to get better,” said Blanchard. “We need her to continue to make those types of improvements.”
Also expected to compete for a starting position and see considerable playing time is Sarah Fillmore. Blanchard called Fillmore the X-factor last year and while she struggled at points during the season, she exploded offensively at others.
Fillmore ranked third on the team with 2.84 kills per game and 3.15 points per game, while posting a .208 hitting percentage, and averaging 2.70 kills per game and 3.12 points per game versus conference opponents.
“Last year [Sarah] dealt with some good things and some things that weren’t so good for her,” Blanchard said. “But when she’s good, she is really good. I would say that last year she was the best athlete on the team. She can do some things out there physically for us that nobody else can. She had a really, really good rookie season, but she could be unbelievably good as a sophomore.”
Britney Hodson rounds out the returning outside hitters. Hodson has traditionally been plagued by injuries throughout her career, but Blanchard has high hopes for her as she enters her fifth year.
Hodson was sidelined early last season, but started four of the first five matches before her injury and recorded a .352 hitting percentage over that span. Had she not been injured, Blanchard believes that she would have been one of the best hitters on the team. He hopes that her talent and determination will carry into the 2007 campaign.
“It will be interesting to see what Britney brings to the table,” Blanchard said. “She is the kind of player we can throw anywhere on the court and she can provide an instant lift to our team. She’s going to do everything she can to find her way onto that court.”
Blanchard also anticipates good things from his new charges at outside hitter, especially Bianca Sande and Sabrina Hoeks.
“Bianca comes from a very successful club program and high school program and she is an extraordinary competitor,” Blanchard said. “She could come in and challenge for a starting outside hitting position right away.”
Hoeks, a track and field and volleyball athlete from
“[Sabrina] is absolutely devoted, absolutely committed to getting better,” Blanchard said. “She’s going to be very connected with what we’re doing. She will certainly be in the hunt as one of our starting outside hitters.”
Blanchard expects freshman Sarah Hill to make contributions to outside hitter as well.
With Jessie Folk, Ashley Hargrove, and Amanda Willey gone, Blanchard has some holes to fill at the middle blocker position and he hopes his newcomers are up to the task.
One player for whom Blanchard has high expectations is sophomore transfer Tiffany Johnson. Johnson comes from Kansas State, where, after redshirting in 2005, ranked among the top three Wildcats in kills per game (2.77), attack percentage (.301), blocks per game (1.33), and points per game (3.45).
Johnson will have a lot of work cut out for herself with school, volleyball, and the recent birth of her baby girl, but Blanchard is optimistic for her chances in 2007.
“If Tiffany can return to most of the form prior to having her baby, she can be an extraordinarily dominant force in the middle in our conference.”
Blanchard will also look to Bridget Scheetz and Sarah Hill to provide some depth at the middle blocker position, while he hopes Katrina Carrick will step up and provide some veteran experience there as well.
With Ball injured and Jessie Folk graduated, Blanchard is also looking to fill holes on the right side.
Folk finished her career with 245 assisted blocks and 270 total blocks, which ranked her second and fourth all-time at UMBC, respectively.
Ball contributed 66 assisted blocks in 2006, ranking ninth on the program’s all-time list for a single season and she recorded 17 double-doubles throughout the course of the year.
Blanchard will again look to his returning players to fill the void on the right side, with his focus on Britney Hodson and Sarah Fillmore.
Hodson is a very versatile player and Fillmore can fill in at any position, as was evidenced last season, when she spent time at outside hitter, middle blocker, and right side.
Blanchard’s entire team, in fact, is full of multiple position players, and he knows that while versatility is a huge positive, it will also take a fair amount of trial and error to formulate the best team of starters to put on the court.
“We didn’t take the first competition weekend, which will give us some time in practice to look at a lot of different combinations and find which of those combinations are the best for us,” he said. “We’re going to put players where we think they can help the most.”
One area that Blanchard has found all the help that he needs is in his setters. Last year he had one returning setter in Stacey Carroll and then added Kira Giles, a standout athlete on the Canadian club level.
Last season saw Carroll become the eighth Retriever ever to record more than 1,000 career assists. Carroll also put her name on UMBC’s all-time assists per game chart, averaging 8.82 assists per game over her three-year career, good for fifth on the list. In 2006 she averaged 9.59 assists per game while starting nine matches.
Giles, meanwhile, was named to the America East All-Rookie team and All-Conference Second-Team after averaging 10.60 assists per game, good for third in the league. Giles also averaged 2.62 digs per game for a total of 215 during 2006.
While Giles started the majority of the matches in 2006, Carroll was there to fill in when needed and helped the Retrievers earn key conference victories en route to their tournament appearance. According to Blanchard, the Retrievers would not have gotten as far they had in 2006 without Carroll.
The upcoming season will once again pit Carroll and Giles against one another and only time will tell who will start for the team.
“They’re going to compete,” Blanchard said. “Stacey has as good of a chance to start as Kira does. I’m not worried about either one of them.
“Kira is a year older, a year stronger and a year more mature,” he continued. “She has a much better understanding of what we want offensively. Kira surprised me in many ways last year and she is all about getting better.
“And Stacey, I can’t say enough positive things about her. She works hard and provides tremendous competition. I don’t know how many positive adjectives I can use about her.”
For the second year in a row Blanchard must replace his starting libero, but if last year’s replacement is any indication of what it is to come, he won’t have a problem.
In 2005 Blanchard watched Christine Skala become UMBC’s all-time digs leader in her final collegiate match. In 2006 Jen Wylie filled Skala’s spot at libero and concluded her career as UMBC’s all-time single-season digs leader. If the trend continues Blanchard will have something extraordinary in 2007. At the very least, he knows the competition for the starting position will be extraordinarily fierce.
At the forefront of the competition will be Pam Jarrett, who saw the most playing time out of the entire freshman class in 2006, playing in all 31 matches for a total of 111 games. Jarrett averaged 1.71 digs per game and recorded six 10-plus dig matches in 2006.
Challenging Jarrett for the starting spot will be Helen Smith and Marisa Gross. Smith, a redshirt freshman, was recovering from shoulder surgery last season, but is back in shape and hungry for some playing time after a fantastic spring training. Gross was also recovering from injuries during the 2006 campaign, but will be eager to get back into competition in 2007.
“Two years ago [Marisa] was one of the best passers on the team,” Blanchard said. “She worked very hard to recover from knee surgery and she will be ready to go.
“I hope none of those girls are thinking that ‘this job is mine’ or ‘I have no chance at this job’ because every single one of them will by vying for this job. This may be the most exciting competition of them all.”
Competitiveness and connection. These are two words that are needed in order to succeed on Blanchard’s team and just as every athlete has heard the phrase “practice makes perfect,” so every athlete knows that in order to succeed he or she must be competitive. But Blanchard takes both of those ideas to a different level.
Practice is no longer a mundane, everyday event in Blanchard’s world, but rather a chance for each player to prove herself and challenge her teammates for that coveted starting spot.
And if everything works according to plan, that competitive spirit and drive for success translates into overall team improvement.
“If our girls are connected and they understand the task of improving and the emotional, physical, and psychological commitment that is necessary to make those improvements to be as deliberate in practice as possible, then I have no worries,” the coach said. “Their role is to work hard and purposefully in what we’re doing, and if they do that then all the other stuff will take care of itself. If we’re constantly improving then the wins will take care of themselves. Really the most important thing to me is that we’re working hard everyday at making those improvements.”
Hard work sits at the center of Blanchard’s philosophy. To him, nothing can beat hard work. It doesn’t matter how talented an athlete is, it matters how hard she works.
“There’s no question that we have a very talented group of freshman,” he said. “But there’s a lot of people that have physical talents. Talent is a pretty generic trait when you get to Division I athletics. It’s whether or not you have the mental capacity to work hard and make the improvements every single day and deal with feedback. Everyone in our conference is bringing in physically talented players, some more physically talented than us. The difference is how hard we’re willing to work in the mental, physical, and emotional areas.”
In order to put that hard work in, however, Blanchard and his coaching staff must provide the right feedback, and analyze skills and techniques during practice in order to focus on what areas need the most improvement. Just like his athletes have a job to perform to their highest ability every single day, no matter what the circumstances. Just like they have to treat every practice like it’s their last, he has a job to do as well.
And if everyone does their jobs, well, then the results will speak for themselves.
“While we have high expectations,” Blanchard said, “the way we measure success in our program is how we’re doing everyday in practice. Are we improving every single day? Are the girls connected with the task of making themselves better every day? That’s the only way we can really measure ourselves. We can’t always control what our opponents are doing, we can’t control how they train, how well they play. But we can control our own environment. We can come to work every single day with not only the willingness, but the excitement of working hard everyday, knowing as a team, as a family we’re all moving in the same direction with the goal of hopefully winning an America East Championship.
“If we can be deliberate in what we’re doing every single day, which is an extremely hard thing to do, and we’re all driving towards the same goal of improving, then I really, really like our chances for success.”