2000 Volleyball Outlook
UMBC head coach Felix Hou is very honest when it comes to his opinion about the Retrievers' fortunes for winning the Northeast Conference crown this season.
"It's about ourselves," said Hou. "If we play well, we can beat anybody. If we don't, we can lose to anybody. It's very simple."
Of course, Hou cannot afford to lose his key players to injuries like he did in 1999. Hitter Joanne Marshall, who was enjoying a terrific early portion of her junior campaign, suffered a season-ending knee injury prior to the conference season, and back row specialist Sarah MacCord missed the entire NEC Tournament after injuring her knee in a collision late in the season.
"We just had to many injuries last season, said Hou. "I'd say we had an above average season and coming in second place was not a bad finish considering all of our injury problems."
Hou is much more upbeat about the team he is prepared to guide in 2000, as he has reloaded with some fresh faces. Seven newcomers will join eight returners, including what should be a healthy Marshall and MacCord.
Hou will spend a great deal of the pre-season focusing on the offensive aspect of the game, an area he was unhappy with last season. "We became to predictable," Hou said. "Our offensive was to simple. We need to do everything faster." Hou will also focus on minimizing errors and strengthening team leadership. "I expect the returners to take on more of a commanding role this season."
Five seniors will see a great deal of court time. If healthy, Marshall will be a key player in Hou's offense. Before her injury, Marshall, the 1998 NEC Tournament's Most Valuable Player, was averaging 3.1 kills and 2.35 digs per game. "Joanne has very good offensive skills," said Hou. "She's a powerful hitter and jumps very well." Classmate Kara Welniak has improved each year for the Retrievers and earned First Team All-Conference honors in 1999. Welniak, who averaged 2.17 kills and led UMBC with 0.93 blocks per game is expected to play a key role both offensively and defensively for the Retrievers. According to Hou, Welniak improved her arm swing and blocking tremendously during the spring and should be poised for a big season. Another senior, Muge Pars, did not practice for much of the spring season after she underwent arthroscopic surgery on her knee. Pars earned Second Team All-Conference honors last season after averaging 2.64 kills and 1.98 digs per game and is expected to play at left side outside hitter. MacCord, who averaged 1.83 digs per game, is known for her defensive abilities. Bola Afolabi displayed some good blocking skills (0.68 blocks per game) on the right side last season and will continue to aid Heather Kerley at the setter position.
Hou believes that Kerley (6.70 assists per game, 1.84 digs per game) will be much improved this season as a sophomore. "Last season was a big adjustment for Heather and I thought she handled herself well. Making the jump from high school and club ball to the Division I level is a major step. She has gained a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience over the past year and I expect her to make a big improvement this season."
Another sophomore who gained a great deal of experience last season was middle hitter Jennifer Davis. Davis averaged a kill per game and finished fourth on the squad in digs (2.19 pg.). Classmate Sania Davis displayed some good improvement in the spring and will challenge for time at an outside hitting position.
Four of the seven newcomers have transferred from other institutions. Junior Dana Cookson (Louisiana Tech) should play a big role on the right side and is regarded as a good offensive player. Junior Jill Engel (Elgin Community College) is regarded as a well balanced player and is expected to help the Retrievers with ball control. Junior Joanna Melahn (Elgin Community College) will help in the middle and brings a quick arm swing to the position. Sophomore Jennifer Thomas (Livingston University) can play both the back and front row. Freshmen Colleen Morton (Springbrook/Silver Spring, MD), Lisa Weir (Blair/Silver Spring, MD), and Shara Wells (Cathedral/Washington, D.C.) will also compete for playing time. Morton has good blocking skills and is very quick in the middle. Weir is regarded as a very solid defender who has the ability to dig a great amount of balls. Wells will provide good depth at the setter position.
"This year, we will have many more players who will be able to help contribute," Hou stated. "We're still in a transition period, but we have the ability to win the NEC and make the NCAA Tournament."