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Miami Volleyball Thriving Under Lantagne Welch

Nov. 19, 2010

By: Rob Dunning

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Nicole Lantagne Welch had her hands full when she took over the reins of the University of Miami volleyball program at the turn of the century. Dormant since the early 1980’s, the program was nothing more than record books and an empty arena.

A decade later and Miami is among the top volleyball programs on the East Coast and knocking on the door of the NCAA Tournament on a yearly basis at this point.

One of the nation’s top assistant coaches in the late 1990’s, Lantagne Welch was hand-picked in 2000 to start up a Miami program that last played a match in 1981. It was a job that Lantagne Welch knew would be difficult but was obviously up for the challenge.

“I came into a really unique situation because there were very few programs just starting volleyball for the first time,” said Lantagne Welch, now in her 10th year at the helm. “I didn’t come in and already have a recruiting database, equipment and players. It was completely starting from scratch. That part of it is what makes it so special …that we put together this program and built it into what it is today.”

What it is today is one of the top up-and-coming programs on the eastern seaboard. Miami is one just six women’s volleyball teams on the east coast currently ranked in the Top 30 of the NCAA RPI rankings. Over the last three years, Miami has amassed 64 wins, with four regular season matches remaining this season.

The program has been built to a point where the NCAA Tournament is a regular topic of discussion every fall. Three seasons ago, the `Canes finished 26-6 (14-6 in the ACC) but were snubbed when the field was announced. Last year, Miami’s 18-13 but a strong RPI and strength of schedule earned them a bid. This season, the case is even stronger with a 20-8 record and an RPI of 26.

Rich Kern – a leading expert on collegiate women’s volleyball – likes the `Canes chances to make the NCAA Tournament again this season.

“Barring major injury, Miami looks like almost a lock to be selected,” Kern said. “I looked over what the NCAA has done in the past – and of course they can make variances – but the last six years the highest ranked team not selected was No. 34 and with Miami being 26th, it is almost a lock.

“They’ve beaten some good teams, they have played a decent non-conference schedule beating three of the Top 50 teams in the RPI and they’ve played quite a few solid teams,” Kern added. “I think they are going to do OK.”

There is still work to be done to really secure a spot, however. The `Canes will play host to Boston College (8-22, 0-17 ACC) tonight and Maryland (19-10, 10-7 ACC) on Sunday at the Knight Sports Complex before traveling to Florida State for the regular season finale next weekend. Winning all three matches would all but guarantee the `Canes a spot, winning two should do it, while winning one could make things a little more uncertain when the field is announced on Sunday, Nov. 25 on ESPNews.

The strength of the Atlantic Coast Conference should help Miami’s chances this season. Eight ACC teams rank in the RPI Top 60, while nine already have 17 wins or more. And while Duke and North Carolina have established themselves as the top teams in the conference, Miami is right there in third place.

Recent performances against the ACC’s leaders should go a long way too. Surely the committee will take note of the Hurricanes’ 3-1 win over UNC last weekend as well as a close 3-2 loss to the Blue Devils a few weeks back. Few teams are as hot as Miami, who have won four of its last five, including three strong RPI wins.

“We strive to win ACC Championships and compete nationally,” Lantagne Welch said. “Every year you try to take steps in the right direction and continue to build. We are just 10 years into the program now and we feel like we’ve made a lot of progress and our plan is to keep that going.”

The next two weekends will go a long way in determining Miami’s fate for the near future. Regardless of how it plays out, the fact that the `Canes are making noise on the national stage shows just how far Lantagne Welch has brought the program.

“They are certainly going in the right direction,” Kern said. “Nicole has done a good job of recruiting down there and keeping some kids there that might have been going other places in the past. She is doing a good job.”

Tonight the `Canes look for another win. Tomorrow the building continues.

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Other items of note heading into the weekend….

– Tonight’s match against Boston College will begin at 7 p.m. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for kids.

Nicole Lantagne Welch will be in search of win No. 190 when the `Canes host the Eagles tonight.

– Sunday’s match against Maryland marks the team’s last home game. Seniors Lici McGee and Ariell Cooke will be honored prior to the match as they close out their home careers.