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Miami Volleyball: 2010 Season Outlook

Aug. 24, 2010

Coral Gables, Fla. – Advancing to the 2009 NCAA Tournament and winning at least 18 games for consecutive years has the 2010 edition of the University of Miami Hurricanes volleyball team excited about the possibilities leading into this season. The team returns a core group of letterwinners from last season’s NCAA Team [Gainesville Regional], including five starters at their respected positions.

For one of the first times in the Nicole Lantagne Welch era, the `Canes have depth at almost every position on the court. There are at least three players at almost every position, with there being two players at the setter position. Lantagne Welch and her staff assembled a team during the off-season to rival the 2008 team that amassed a school Division I record 26 wins, in addition to the 2002 and ’09 NCAA Tournament participant squads. The 2002 team advanced to the “Sweet 16” of the NCAA Tournament.

“We have a great team returning for 2010,” says Lantagne Welch, the 2008 ACC and AVCA East Region Coach of the Year. “Last year, getting a taste of the NCAA Tournament was a really special experience for our team, and something that they just want to build upon. Certainly, we have to take a lot of steps and strides forward and continue to get better, but we have a great group to begin with – a lot of returners and a lot of experience, and a couple needs to fill. However, the more players that are willing to step up and do that, then the further we can go.”

With the return of five starters, as well as a two-year letterwinning setter, Katie Gallagher (Winter Park, Fla.) – who sat out the 2009 season with a medical hardship waiver, the 2010 Hurricanes have plenty to be excited about. With just two seniors on this year’s squad, the `Canes welcome seven newcomers to the team, all of whom will vie for playing time right from the start of fall practices.

The team is not without two big losses, however, as the school’s all-time leader in digs – Cassie Loessberg – is gone, as well as Genny Mayhew, who became just the fifth player in UM history to register 1,000 kills in a career. Also gone is role player Maria Andersson, who led the team in service aces (33), and finished her career sixth all-time at UM in that department. Lantagne Welch knows those losses were big, but that it just means others within the program will have to emerge as new team leaders.

Offensively, the Hurricanes outhit their opponents last season with 1,559 kills for a .235 clip. One of the players ready to take charge and lead the offense yet again is junior two-time All-AVCA East Region and All-ACC Team member Lane Carico (Manhattan Beach, Calif.). Carico led the league during the regular season in kills, and returns as the freshman and sophomore class leader in UM history for kills in a single season. Also back is Lici McGee (Warr Acres, Okla.) who had a solid, breakout season in the middle for the `Canes, finishing the year second on the squad in kills (243), while also leading the team and finishing among the top 10 in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) in blocks, collecting a personal-best 117 on the season.

Defensively, they were among the tops in the league for digs, led by All-ACC and All-America honorable mention player Cassie Loessberg. The `Canes collected 1,812 digs on the campaign, and averaged 15.62 digs per set. Carico finished the year second on the team in digs (402) behind Loessberg, while sophomore Lizzie Hale (Menlo Park, Calif.) could also see time in the back row as a defensive specialist. A year ago, Hale collected 119 digs in 96 sets played. A trio of newcomers will also battle for the starting position as libero.

“When you’re at the University of Miami, you’re always thinking about rising to the highest challenges, and we certainly first want to strive for an ACC Championship,” said Lantagne Welch.

OUTSIDE HITTER
At the outside hitter position for the `Canes, the last two years have been a steady combination of players claiming kills from a variety of areas on the court. It was instrumental in 2008 as the `Canes claimed the best season record in Division I history; and it was once again vital in 2009 with the NCAA Tournament run. UM out-hit its opponents by a .235-to-.209 clip last season, claiming 1,559 kills in the process.

Miami returns two starting outside hitters from last season’s team in the form of Lane Carico and Christine Williamson (Tampa, Fla.). Carico led the `Canes with a sophomore school-record 506 kills, while leading the ACC in that category during the regular season. Carico, an All-ACC performer for the past two seasons, once again saw her name on the All-AVCA East Region Team after amassing a team-high 20 double-doubles.

The other starter back, Williamson, played along the front row for the `Canes a season ago, and she ended the campaign fourth on the team with a personal season-best 222 kills (.225 hitting percentage). Williamson, who was a key reserve for the Hurricanes, started in four matches last season while playing in 96 sets through 26 matches.

Several newcomers will challenge the returning players for playing time at the outside hitter position along the way.

UM is in a fortunate situation to have two returnees that started the second half of the season along the left side coming back in 2010. With the addition of several newcomers, including Alexandria Johnson (Tallahassee, Fla.) and Taylor Hollins (Long Beach, Calif.), the depth at the outside hitter position will be plentiful for Lantagne Welch and her staff.

“Along with the experience that Christine now has, and Lane ever-working to improve her game, we have a young core of players that are going to help add depth and challenge,” admits Lantagne Welch.

Another player that will possibly see time along the right side will be last year’s primary setter, Nrithya Sundararaman (Naperville, Ill.). In 2009, Sundararaman finished the year with 94 kills and 60 blocks (55 assisted) in her rookie season with the `Canes. She also played steady defense, pulling in a team fourth-best 147 digs (1.27 per set), while registering nine service aces. This season, she could see time once again as either an outside hitter or setter for the Lantagne Welch led `Canes.

MIDDLE BLOCKERS
Along the middle for the Hurricanes, two starters and a key returnee are back in a group that put down 258 blocks (65 solo, 386 assisted) last season. The middle position proved key for the Hurricanes in several matches last year, and they will relied upon to provide kill and blocks at the net once again in 2010. All three letterwinners that saw considerable playing time a season ago are back for the orange and green.

One of the starters returning for the `Canes along the front line is senior Lici McGee. In 2009, McGee had a breakout season, leading UM with 117 blocks (96 assisted), also finishing among the top 10 in the ACC for that category. McGee was instrumental in several matches for Miami, including a come-from-behind win at Georgia Tech late in the season. Along the way, McGee registered a team second-best 243 kills, toting a .263 hitting percentage.

Also back after having a tremendous sophomore season is Ali Becker (Katy, Texas). Becker turned in 222 kills – third-most on last year’s roster, while hitting at a .295 clip. Becker posted a personal-best 91 blocks (81 assisted), and even managed 48 digs from the front line. She played and started in all 31 matches for UM, and is expected to be a key component along the front line once again this season.

“In the middle, we’re returning three players that have had significant time on the court in the middle, and that’s a great, great situation to be in” added Lantagne Welch. “It’s part of our offense that we want to build more around, and we want to become more effective there.”

The third component in the experienced trio is senior Ariell Cooke (Oakland, Calif.) who stepped up big for the `Canes in the middle of the year. Last season, Cooke managed 48 kills and 30 blocks (0.45 bps) and 26 digs. She ended the year with four matches of five-plus kills, including a nine-kill performance in a victory at Boston College.

“Lici had a very good year last year, and we’re looking for her to just build on that,” continued Lantagne Welch. “Ali had a really consistent year, and we’re looking for her to just raise it up a notch. And we’re looking for Ariell, who’s had breakout stretches throughout her career, to have her senior year be her best. With the core and experience those three bring, along with Jenna [Berkley] and Emani [Sims] challenging and adding depth, the middle can be the area we make the most significant improvements to strengthen our team.”

SETTER
The setter position for the University of Miami has always been a strong one and a point of emphasis for Lantagne Welch, a former setter in her own rights, during her playing days at the University of Maryland. Last season, the Hurricanes used a newcomer in freshman Nrithya Sundararaman at the setter position.

Sundararaman filled in nicely for the `Canes, finishing among the top 10 in the league for assists, handing out a team-leading 934 assists (8.05 aps). That number allowed her to move into fourth place all-time at UM for career assists. Gallagher is second on that list, compiling 2,744 assists through two seasons, and just 29 sets in 2009.

“Setting is such a key position in volleyball, and now we have depth there,” said Lantagne Welch. “One thing last year taught us is that you can’t control circumstance, and that anyone may be in or out at any given time. Knowing that you have two reliable setters to count on is definitely comforting.”

With the `Canes having two experienced and reliable setters in the lineup, it will allow Lantagne Welch and her staff to add a variety of different sets to the offense, in addition to being able to substitute both at any time with the depth available at a spot the head coach knows so much about.

Gallagher, who was granted a medical hardship waiver in 2009 after seeing action in just 29 sets through eight matches, is back as an experienced redshirt junior this year, and sitting out and watching last year may have improved her game according to Lantagne Welch. She was able to see the game from a different point of view, and it allowed her to study the offense (as well as opposing defenses) to see what she may be able to improve upon for the coming years.

“Anytime you’re out quite a bit and have to sit back and watch from the bench, you reflect on the game and look at it a little bit differently,” commented Lantagne Welch of Gallagher’s learning ability from sitting out last season. “She’s ready to take a bigger step up with leadership because of it. Once you have had something taken away from you and then return, there is a clear sense of urgency – she knows that, she feels that.”

DEFENSIVE SPECIALIST/LIBERO
The defensive specialist, or libero, position has been a solid area for the Hurricanes the last four seasons, especially the last three with all-time digs leader Cassie Loessberg. Replacing Loessberg was an emphasis Lantagne Welch and her staff keyed upon during the off-season, and they brought in a core group they feel can assist defensively this season.

Departed player Maria Andersson helped a lot from the back row defensively last year as well, pulling in 218 digs, while it was outside hitter Carico tallying the second-highest amount of digs on the team with 402. Only two `Canes return from last year’s roster that achieved 100-plus digs, and that’s setter Sundararaman and outside hitter Lizzie Hale. Hale collected 119 digs a year ago while seeing action in the back row, and could play more in that spot this season.

“You never just replace a player like Cassie Loessberg,” expressed Lantagne Welch. “Her last two years here she was a phenomenal volleyball player, and was an exceptional player by her senior year.”

The 2010 roster lists four players as possible choices to be a defensive specialist or simply a libero, with Hale being the lone returning letterwinner.

Newcomers Julia Giampaolo (Torrington, Conn.), Mariel Schofield (Ijamsville, Md.) and Ryan Shaffer (San Jose, Calif.) will all battle for the libero and defensive specialist positions.

Giampaolo was a 2009 Under Armour All-America honorable mention performer following her senior year in high school, playing as a defensive specialist, while also being tabbed a three-time All-State performer as a libero. Schofield spent time in high school as a defensive specialist and outside hitter, earning All-Metro and All-Area honors for two years. Shaffer was also an Under Armour All-America honorable mention performer as a defensive specialist following her senior year in high school after helping lead her team to two consecutive Division II state titles.

“We have a handful of defensive specialists that have come in purposefully to help fill that role,” says Lantagne Welch. “I think that’s going to be a position where we’re going to have a daily battle, and collectively they will contribute and challenge each other to keep raising their level of play.

“We’re excited about the new players on our team and having them raise a level in the gym and step forward right from the start.”

THE SCHEDULE
The schedule for the University of Miami has always been a challenging one, while playing an important part in UM’s top 40 rated RPI last year, earning the Hurricanes a trip to the NCAA Tournament [Gainesville Regional].

“Scheduling is always a challenge to get exactly what you want, and we feel excited about what we’ve put together,” admits Lantagne Welch. “We like the fact that we’re playing a lot of NCAA Tournament teams from last year, and those are the types of teams you need to knock off to get back to the [NCAA] Tournament.”

The `Canes will participate in seven of their first eight matches of the year away from Coral Gables, taking part in the Sooner Legends/Nike Invitational hosted by the University of Oklahoma, as well as the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raider Bash. Both hosts were NCAA Tournament participants from the 2009 campaign. Joining the `Canes in those tournaments will be teams such as Wichita State, Auburn, UT-Arlington and Southern Miss.

Miami will host the 10th Annual Hurricane Invitational on Sept. 10-11 at the James L. Knight Sports Complex, welcoming the University of San Francisco, Bethune-Cookman and FIU. Those three matches begin a stretch of six consecutive home matches for the `Canes, stepping into Atlantic Coast Conference play with in-state opponent Florida State (Sept. 18), then hosting Virginia Tech (Sept. 24) and Virginia (Sept. 26), respectively.

UM hits the road to kickoff October with matches at North Carolina (Oct. 1) and NC State (Oct. 3), before returning home for a pair of games against 2009 NCAA Tournament participants Georgia Tech (Oct. 8) and Clemson (Oct. 10). In 2009, both matches against the Yellow Jackets of GT went to five-set decisions, both times being in favor of Miami.

Miami heads back on the road on Oct. 15, traveling to College Park, Md., facing the Terrapins of the University of Maryland, before traveling even further north to battle Boston College (Oct. 17) in Chestnut Hill, Mass. UM returns to Coral Gables following its northern-most road trips, taking on Duke (Oct. 22) and Wake Forest (Oct. 24). Those matches will serve as the only time the `Canes will play either the Blue Devils or Demon Deacons. The month of October concludes with Miami back on the road in the “Commonwealth State” against the University of Virginia (Oct. 29) and Virginia Tech (Oct. 30).

November, the final regular season month of the schedule, begins at Clemson (Nov. 5) and Georgia Tech (Nov. 6) in a critical back-to-back match-stretch that always plays an important part of the year for UM.

Four of the final five matches of the regular season will take place at the James L. Knight Sports Complex. NC State (Nov. 12), North Carolina (Nov. 14), Boston College (Nov. 19) and Maryland (Nov. 21) visit Coral Gables in what is four consecutive home matches for the Hurricanes. The final regular season match will take place at Florida State (Nov. 26).

“We’re a veteran team, and we’ll be able to rise to the challenge of our schedule,” continued Lantagne Welch. “We’re excited about what we have together. This is a special group that has set their sights high, and they are ready to prove that with our performance on the court.”