Coach Ian Blanchard is excited to continue building on last year's success and his team's culture, saying, "We just stay true to our mission, which is getting better every day in the gym. We're really trying to build our team culture, and getting everybody to understand what we want to accomplish together as a team. One of the things we've really focused on a lot in practice in the preseason is the philosophy that you don't just get to come in and play. You're coming in with a purpose every day."
"I feel like we have a good team and we have some good pieces in place, we're not going to have the most experienced team in the world; we have a few players that are pretty experienced, but we're going to ask some of our freshmen and sophomores to step up and play larger roles, although it seems to me that happens every year for us, so I'm not really afraid of that. I think those younger players are looking the opportunity to contribute."
Here's a breakdown at each position:
Blanchard is preparing his squad to make up for the loss of production from their leading outside hitter's graduate, Zoya Trendafilova, "Between the freshman that we've got and the veteran players that we have returning, we're going to have enough offense to replace [Trendafilova's] offensive production. It may not necessarily be through all one person like it did with Zoya last year, we may spread it out between a number of people, but health has a lot to do with that. If Brooke can come back and have a healthy season, that takes some of the pressure off of our outside hitters to create more offense."
"I feel like the outside hitters that are coming in to replace her are going to give us a little more balance in our offense and that's something that, traditionally, -the team's that have been strongest with us, have had well-balanced scoring."
The coach also sees great potential in his freshman outside hitter, "Carmen Freeman can play legitimate defense. She's a six rotation player. I don't think we've really tapped into what she's really capable of doing yet, so I think she's a work in progress, but she's going to dig balls for us, so I'm excited about that."
"Brooke Hayden was injured a good portion of last season, but she's one of the best right side defenders I've seen in our conference, and if we can get her healthy and on the court, throughout the course of the season we're going to improve our digging numbers."
Senior captain Marissa Duncan will take charge in leading two freshmen in Becca Elrod and Nikiya Mitchell, as well as redshirt sophomore Lauren Mortimer at the middle blocker position. The Retrievers return two other middle blockers in red-shirt junior Paola Rojas and sophomore Francesca Reed.
Blanchard has highlighted the middle blocker position as one that UMBC has thrived in traditionally, and he plans to get back to that this year. "We feel like if we can improve our blocking, just a little bit, be [it] one or two percent better here and there, then we're going to be much better as a team, so we've worked really hard to improve the way we're seeing the game and our eye sequencing, and our mechanics and how we move to block."
Blanchard has seen great signs from his freshmen class, including Nikiya Mitchell, "She's shown a pretty explosive arm and she's for sure one of the more explosive players we've recruited in a long while. She jumps very well, and she hits the ball a ton. She just doesn't have a ton of experience playing high level volleyball so that is an adjustment she'll have to make."
Coach also highlights Elrod as someone who brings a new dimension to the position for the team with her height.
"I think Krytsia Negron is our best defender," said Blanchard on his junior setter.
"Elayna has done everything we've asked her to do. She's worked her tail off. She was the top dog at Mt. Hebron, so the biggest adjustment for her, and she's making it, is making the jump from great local high school kid and club player to now nationally Division I level volleyball, and that's a big adjustment."
Junior captain Kristin Watson will look to build off her strong 2016 season where she was named America East Defensive Player of the Year and named to the All-Conference First Team. She will lead classmates Taylor Alexander and Carola De Jesus, along with freshman Colleen Boarman.
Blanchard has high praises and expectations for his defensive group saying, "This year we've got enough pieces in place and we've made enough advancements in terms of the players that are already on the team who have just made significant improvements that we have the potential to be one of the best defensive teams we've ever had."
"We were better [last season] defensively than we've ever been and a lot it, obviously, was due to Kristin Watson's strong year. She's had a good offseason and a great preseason as well."
"Taylor Alexander's development has been exciting. This past spring has been her first time to really get to practice a lot with us. Between last spring and this preseason, she has really improved immensely."
"Carola has really improved tremendously, so we have a legitimate fight again at the libero position, which is always great. I feel very comfortable. I told Carola, Kristin, and Taylor Alexander that I'm comfortable with anyone of the three of you playing in the libero spot for us. They all complement each other very well. It's a fun unit to watch."
"And then Colleen Boarman is playing very well. She works hard every single day and you can see she's already made tremendous improvement since she's been here."
Coach Blanchard said on his thoughts for the season, "I think we're as capable as anyone to win [the conference]. There's a legitimately high amount of parity every year. We have a legitimate shot to win the whole thing, there's no question about it. Our losses from last year are substantial, but I feel very good about the team that we have right now."
The Retrievers will begin the year Friday night in College Park, Md. in the Maryland Invite, taking on Maryland on Friday at 7:00 p.m. and then Temple and Northeastern on Saturday at 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. respectively. Five freshman will be suiting up for their first collegiate action, while 12 players will be returning.
All games this weekend will be streamed on Big Ten Plus (subscription needed) as well as live stats can be found at the following link: http://www.umterps.com/SportSelect.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=29700&SPID=120724&SPSID=751712&DB_OEM_ID=29700