2003 Miami Volleyball Outlook
Aug. 18, 2003
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (hurricanesports.com) – Expectations will be high for a Miami volleyball team that returns almost all it’s personnel from last season’s impressive NCAA Regional Semi-finalists, including BIG EAST Player of the Year Valeria Tipiana and BIG EAST Setter of the Year Mallorey James.
Tipiana and James look to continue success in 2003. Tipiana was recently selected as the BIG EAST Preseason Player of the Year and along with James was named to the Preseason All-BIG EAST first team.
The duo will push a Miami team that has been ranked 26th in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Preseason Poll.
Last season, Miami was runner-up in the BIG EAST Conference Championship, made the NCAA Tournament and advanced to the regional semifinal, against Nebraska. Head Coach Nicole Lantagne Welch, who will be in her third year as a head coach, says that this edition of Hurricanes volleyball has the potential to surpass even last season’s enormous accomplishments.
“I expect us to have a great year,” Lantagne Welch said. “We should compete for the conference championship and advance to the NCAA Tournament and anything can happen there. We know that as well as anybody. I think our improved schedule can only help us come BIG EAST Tournament and NCAA Tournament time by giving us more challenges early and often.”
One way to measure the Hurricanes’ success is their record against the nation’s elite, those teams that vied for collegiate volleyball’s top prize – the NCAA Championship.
In 2002, the Hurricanes defeated five of the six tournament-qualifying teams they faced including Florida State, South Florida, Wisconsin, Duke, and Notre Dame (UM split with the Irish, defeating them in the regular season and falling to them in the BIG EAST Championship final). This season, the Hurricanes brace for an even more competitive schedule that includes 11 teams that qualified for the NCAA Tournament team last season.
“As we were building this program, we knew that we wanted to get a stronger schedule year in and year out,” Lantagne Welch said. “You hit a point where you have a great team like we did last fall and you want to push your team a little bit more and raise the bar. That means that you’ve got to play better teams week in and week out as much as you can. I really think that it makes you a better team if you can play a higher level of competition more often.”
Among the rugged non-conference clashes the Hurricanes have scheduled are matches against Santa Clara, which finished the 2002 season ranked No. 19 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association polls, and Arizona, which finished ranked No. 10. South Florida, which the Hurricanes scheduled for a 2003 rematch, finished 2002 having received votes for a ranking and won the Conference-USA Championship. Santa Clara finished second in the West Coast Conference.Other tournament teams that the Hurricanes will face are Northwestern and Indiana of the Big Ten; Manhattan (Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference Champions); George Mason (Colonial Athletic Association Champions); Central Florida (Atlantic Sun Conference Champions); and Florida A&M (Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Champions). The non-conference slate of former tournament teams also includes regional rivals Florida State and Florida International.
“I think our match with FIU is always a tough battle where we get their best every time,” Lantagne Welch said. “That should be a fun in-city rivalry match.” Last season’s five-game win over Florida State marked a turning point in the season, as the young Hurricanes overcame a convincing two-game deficit against the veteran Seminoles.
Also on the list is another tough conference schedule that includes a home match against Virginia Tech on Saturday, Nov. 15. Last season, the Hokies dealt the Hurricanes their only three-game loss. UM avenged the loss in the BIG EAST Championship when they dispatched the Hokies in five games.
“I think we have a great rivalry with (Virginia Tech),” Lantagne Welch said. “We went up there and lost a tough one. We were able to play them again and got our revenge. That will be fun to have them come down here. They’re similar to us in a lot of ways because their coach has only been there for a couple of years so in a way, he’s been building. I think we have similar types of teams so it makes for some great matches.”
The Hurricanes will face conference-power Notre Dame on a nationally televised match on Nov. 10 at South Bend, Ind. The BIG EAST rivalry will be featured on College Sports Television at 6 p.m.
“I think when we ended their streak last year, that woke them up and jolted them a bit,” Lantagne Welch said. “They realized that they may not just walk over teams in our conference anymore. I think that we should both have good teams year in and year out and that will always be a tough match for both of us and a tough rivalry down the stretch.”
Hurricanes by Position
In their first season of conference play, the Hurricanes quickly established excellence at the setter position. Coach Nicole Lantagne Welch was herself an All-Atlantic Coast Conference setter during her playing days at Maryland and has a proven record of developing quality setter play throughout her career.
“The setter runs the show on the court,” Lantagne Welch said. “They need to make smart decisions day in and day out on every single point and that has to happen fast. The best setters create one-on-one situations for their hitters, which means that they only have one blocker against them rather than two. So the setter is faking out the middle blocker as much as possible.”The setter position is a demanding position that requires a player to wield considerable volleyball shrewdness. The role of the position is similar to a basketball point guard or a quarterback.”They need to run plays in order to maximize our strengths against the opponent’s weaknesses in terms of defense at the net,” Lantagne Welch explained. “So there’s a lot going on in your setter’s head and they have to formulate a lot very quickly to be effective.”
The Hurricanes feature unusual depth at the setter position. Miami not only returns BIG EAST Conference Setter of the Year Mallorey James, but also solid reserves in Margie Young and incoming freshman Jill Robinson.
An outside hitter in high school, James’ game is flexible enough to attack or defend. James led the conference in assists per game (12.82) and finished the season 29th in the nation. She was also on the AVCA All-Northeast Region First Team. According to Lantagne Welch, the hallmark of a superior setter is her ability to lead and communicate. James is perhaps the most vocal player on the court for Miami.
Sophomore Margie Young was also a high-impact player in 2002. Against archrival Florida State, Young tied a BIG EAST Conference record for assists in a match as the Hurricanes upset the Seminoles in five games. While she lacks James’ vocal leadership and height, the team responds well to Young’s competence and her quiet example.
“Margie is more of a quiet setter,” Lantagne Welch said. “She gets in and gets the job done. But, again, that’s part of the difference between a freshman and a sophomore, too. One’s more comfortable having been around, so she’s going to be more vocal. It’s also just part of their personalities.”
In addition, perhaps the Hurricanes’ highest profile recruit this season is Merced, Calif., native Jill Robinson, a 5-foot-8 setter from Golden Valley High School. Lantagne Welch feels that Robinson has the ability to push for playing time with the Hurricanes immediately this season and will likely push both James and Young in the preseason.
“I think she (Robinson) is going to come in and really battle,” Lantagne Welch said.
The loss of outside hitter Marcela Gamarra will be difficult for the Hurricanes to recoup. Gamarra led Miami in kills (4.04 per game, fourth in the BIG EAST Conference), was one of three Hurricanes who earned a spot on the First-Team All-BIG EAST, was an AVCA All-Northeast Region selection, and was selected to the Verizon Academic All-District 3 Volleyball Second Team.
“I think we’re going to miss the steadiness of Marcela,” Lantagne Welch said. “She’s such a great teammate and she’s such a great person to have on the team. She always provided harmony because of who she is.”
Fortunately, the Hurricanes return star outside hitter Valeria Tipiana (Lima, Peru), who will bear strong consideration as an All-America candidate.
The BIG EAST Player of the Year, Tipiana was selected twice as the BIG EAST Player of the Week and was the tournament MVP at both the Wichita State Tournament and the Florida International Fall Volleyball Classic. She was also the conference’s only unanimous selection to First Team All-BIG EAST and was one of the three Hurricanes selected to the AVCA All-Northeast Region First Team. Tipiana was the Hurricanes’ most efficient offensive weapon, converting kills from attacks at a rate of .303. She was second on the team in kills per game (3.95) and was fourth on the team in digs per game (2.74).
Another emerging force for the Hurricanes was sophomore outside hitter Biz Tyson. Among the team leaders in kills per game, Tyson’s accuracy improved by leaps and bounds in the postseason where she posted “All-American numbers,” Lantagne Welch noted.After hitting for just .136 in the BIG EAST Tournament semifinal win over Virginia Tech, Tyson strafed Notre Dame with 16 kills on 31 attacks in the loss. Against Duke, Tyson hit for a percentage of .265 (second on team). Then, in the Hurricanes’ critical match against Wisconsin at the NCAA Tournament, Tyson throttled the host Badgers with a match-high .514 hitting percent and a match high-tying 19 kills. With continued improvement, Tyson has the potential to emerge along side Tipiana as one of the premier outside hitters in the BIG EAST Conference.
Ashley Youngs was the Hurricanes’ first option off of the bench in 2002 and provided badly needed depth for the young team. She played in more games than any other non-starter (68 games in 28 matches). She had a career-high seven kills and 15 attacks (.400 hitting percentage) in the Hurricanes’ convincing three-game sweep of Providence College. Youngs performance in the Hurricanes’ spring scrimmages showed that she may be ready to take over a starting spot at outside hitter.
Also entering the mix will be Leyre Santaella Sante, a transfer from Central Florida who was a star in the Atlantic Sun Conference. Santaella Sante was the 2002 Atlantic Sun Player of the Year and was a six-time conference player of the week for the Crusaders.Two new outside hitters, Jennifer Vance and Sara Duncan, may also make an impact on this season’s team.
Despite an overall lack of size, the Hurricanes’ middle blockers performed well during the 2002 campaign. Following the spring campaign, Lantagne Welch indicated that she felt the Hurricanes may get more offensive production out of their middles in the fall.
“Our middle attack has gotten a lot better and I think that will be a much bigger part of our offense this year especially because we had freshmen in there and now they will have a whole year under their belts,” she said.
Karla Johnson was twice selected as the BIG EAST Co-Rookie of the Week and had stretches in which she was among the more dominant middles in the conference. She averaged 1.01 blocks per game and led the Hurricanes with a hitting percentage of .310 (sixth in the BIG EAST Conference).
Robin Lewullis emerged as the team’s most consistent middle blocker. She finished the season fourth in the BIG EAST in blocks average (1.29) and had several dominant performances, especially in conference play. Lantagne Welch also said that redshirt freshman Frannie Savage will figure strongly in the Hurricanes’ rotation of middle blockers.
“Frannie is probably one of the hardest hitters on the team,” Lantagne Welch said. “She’s very quick and she hits the heck out of the ball. We’re excited about getting her in game-like situations and really seeing what she can do.”
Six-foot-four middle Ciara Michel arrives on campus as the tallest player for the Hurricanes in her first season of collegiate play. According to Lantagne Welch, Michel’s height is something that the Hurricanes sorely need, but she is also impressed with the Palmer Trinity product’s athleticism and fluid movement.
Libero and Defensive Specialist
Jamie Grass pioneered the NCAA’s new libero position last season for the Hurricanes and was cited by the coaching staff as one of the Hurricanes’ best players. In 2003, Grass will likely compete for the BIG EAST Conference’s new Libero of the Year award. Grass was presented with the team’s Co-MVP Award.
Other defensive specialists are returner Kaitlin Kozak and newcomer Ann Gallo.Last season, Kozak provided the Hurricanes with a spark off the bench. The coaching staff describes Gallo as a fiery, competitive player recruited for her defensive skills and athleticism.
The Bottom Line
With an extraordinary 2002 season behind her team, Lantagne Welch feels that the future promises even more success for Miami.
“I think the biggest thing is that we finally have a team with a lot of experience,” Lantagne Welch said. “It’s going to be fun to see this group that’s been working together for a long time put everything in place and really take it to the next level. It’s exciting that our schedule is tougher and we’re going to be tested early and often.”
The experience the team has gained should also result in a more balanced attack overall with the middle blockers figuring more heavily in the Hurricanes’ offense.
“I think we’ll have many different weapons and different players leading us on different nights so a team will have to stop more than just one or two players,” Lantagne Welch said. “It’s going to be the most balanced we’ve been offensively.”