Young UMBC Volleyball Squad Looks to Take Next Step; Opens Season on Friday in Virginia with game on ESPN3 Saturday Night.

Young UMBC Volleyball Squad Looks to Take Next Step; Opens Season on Friday in Virginia with game on ESPN3 Saturday Night.

In 2015, the UMBC Volleyball team finished in a three-way tie for third-place in the America East, but missed out on the four-team playoff due to the tiebreaker. Coach Ian Blanchard hopes that his young team -- 15 of 17 players on the roster are juniors or younger-- can take the next step and earn a spot in the conference tournament this season, and they'll begin the journey this weekend.

 The Retrievers will open up the season Friday in Radford, Va. on Friday when they take on Norfolk State in the Highlander Invitational. When they take the court at 2:30 p.m for the first match, there will be seven players suiting up who have never played in a match for UMBC, and they will be joined by 10 returnees.

Blanchard likes the group that he'll be putting on the court.

"We have a nice mix of some new players that have been added to the team and some returning and veteran players that have been with the team for a few years." said Blanchard "I think that we're inexperienced in certain areas, and we hope to gain experience [during] the pre-conference schedule."

Here's a look at the various positions:

Outside Hitter

Junior Abbie Mirabella will lead the group of outside hitters. She will be joined by newcomer and classmate Ashley Ramos, senior Zoya Trendafilova, and freshman opposite Brooke Hayden.

"Abbie had a pretty dominant role her freshman year." said Blanchard "She had a solid role her freshman year and then some injuries derailed her season a little bit, and injuries significantly derailed her season last year. This is the most healthy I've seen Abbie, [both] mentally and physically since she got here. She has turned the corner, and my expectations of her are pretty high. She has the opportunity to be a really good all-around volleyball player for us, and this could be a break-out year for her"

Blanchard has been aware of Ramos for several years, and he's hoping for big things from her.

"I first saw Ashley Ramos play when she was in the 8th grade" said Blanchard "She went through a difficult time. She's had to really work to get to where she is right now. She's not going to take what she has at this point for granted. I'm just thrilled that she's finally here. I expect her to do some really good things."

He's also hoping that Trendafilova can help the Retrievers at that position. Blanchard thinks there's no doubt she's ready to make a mark in Catonsville.

"Zoya has worked hard," he said. "She's in probably the best shape I've seen her in since she's been here. She's going to really add to the depth of the position that we have. She plays with a lot of energy, and when she makes a mistake, she has a pretty short memory."

The coach also hopes that Hayden can give UMBC a lift despite being a freshman. 

"Brooke Hayden has a surprisingly high level of ball control for just being a freshman," Blanchard said. "She's got a really funny, fun disposition. She's just really fun to be around. She's a very sound all-around volleyball player who has the potential to be really good if she works hard enough."

Middle Blocker

Four of the five players in the middle have never played in a match in a UMBC uniform . The group will be led by graduate student transfer Megi Dervishi, freshman Franchesca Reed, and red-shirt freshman transfer Emily Panchak. Red-shirt freshman Lauren Mortimer and junior captain Marissa Duncan also will see action for the Retrievers.

"Megi comes to us with a wealth of experience," Blanchard said. "She played on a team [American University] that went to the Sweet 16. She's extraordinarily serious about improving and about the team. She's very goal-oriented, and has competitive experiences against some of the best teams in the country."

Blanchard said that Reed is continuing to improve each day, and he's hoping for bigger things from her this season. 

"Fran is a really good athlete who is learning to become a better volleyball player," Blanchard said. "She's improved every single day she's come to practice. Her potential is one of the highest I've seen because Fran is a humble enough, hungry enough and competitive enough person that she will continue to get better. She gets after it in practice. She loves winning, she's blowing everybody else away right now."

The coach also has been impressed by Panchak's good all-around attitude, something he thinks will help the team this season. 

"Emily is just somebody you want to be around," he said. "Every time I see that kid, I get inspired. She's mature beyond her years, and she's just one of those kids that you root for. She has the best intentions and works super-hard. We want to help develop her athleticism and her explosiveness."

He's also hoping to see big things from Mortimer this season, a player he sees as still getting better. 

"Lauren Mortimer is probably the most athletic of our middles," Blanchard said. "She is still maturing and hasn't really tapped into what she's capable of doing but when she does, watch out. Because, when she does, she's going to be really good."

Duncan gives the Retrievers leadership on and off the court. She's a walk-on and the team captain.

Blanchard said she helps UMBC in different ways, and they're happy to have her.

"She's done a good job, and played for us under really difficult circumstances the past two seasons," he said. "This is the first year in a while where we have considerable depth in the middle, but Marissa is the only returner, the only one with America East experience. She will do whatever team needs, and that's something I so greatly appreciate in an athlete."

Setter

UMBC returns two setters in Puerto Rican sophomores Krytsia Negron and Claudia Lopez and adds a freshman in Taylor Dunn.

"We're putting more responsibility on our setters' shoulders," Blanchard said. "We want to run [a] more effective offense, and competition at that position is high. We're relying on all our setters to help out."

Blanchard sees all three players being able to help the Retrievers in some form, especially because he wants the setters to play a big role this year.

"With Krytsia, I see this very steady athlete," he said. "You can say pretty much whatever you need to say to her. She's not a big talker, but she's very competitive, while also very subdued."

He's also hoping for big things from the other two players. 

"Claudia is very competitive, but she needs to harness that competitiveness to find more consistency," Blanchard said. "Taylor, who has just this really fun, funny personality, just goes out there and competes like crazy. She knows how to run an offense. She has high volleyball IQ and knows how to run an offense."

Libero/Defensive Specialists

Defense will be the most experienced position for the Retrievers, with all four freshmen L/DS from last season returning. Carola De Jesus leads the group, followed by, what Blanchard calls the "Fearless Trio" of Kristin Watson, Allie Stolz and Taylor Alexander.

"Carola is improving her aggressiveness, while Kristin is a hard worker, a great motivator and just and awesome teammate," Blanchard said. "Allie and Taylor are improving and have such great hustle."

On Saturday, the Retrievers will face St. Francis Brooklyn at noon in Radford before making the short trip to Blacksburg to face Virginia Tech at 7 p.m. in front of a national audience on ESPN3.