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Miami's Shaffer a Rising Star at the Right Time

Dec. 2, 2010

By: Rob Dunning

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – When freshman libero Ryan Shaffer decided she was wanted to play volleyball at the University of Miami, she wasn’t quite sure what she was getting into.

“Before I came here, I never really realized how hard it is to get into the NCAA tournament,” Shaffer said. “I just thought it would be a given. You actually have to work pretty hard to get in.”

It may be hard to do, but the Hurricanes are beginning to make it look easy.

For the second straight season, Miami (23-8) has made the field of 64 for the NCAA Division I Volleyball Tournament. It’s a place that is becoming familiar territory for 10th-year head coach Nicole Lantange Welch, who has grown the program to one of the up-and-coming powers on the East Coast.

“We’re excited about what we have built this to,” Lantagne Welch said. “We’re reloading instead of rebuilding. It’s what you want with your program…to just be in the regular talk for the NCAA tournament.”

Much of Miami’s success in recent years is due to recruiting classes like the one brought in this fall, led by Shaffer and outside hitters Alex Johnson and Taylor Hollins.

“There was some adjustment period with a lot of the new players, getting comfortable with each other and working out those things,” Lantagne Welch said. “They came together very nicely. I think our younger players have matured more in the later part of the season and we keep pushing them to get better every day.”

It has shown on the court. Miami has won five straight matches and seven of eight heading into its first round match against the University of Indiana on Friday at 7 p.m. in the Bloomington Regional.

“I think as freshmen we are starting to take more initiative and step up on the court and not play so tentative,” Shaffer said. “I’ve improved a lot lately. I notice I am covering a lot more court and just have more confidence in myself than I had before.”

As the team’s libero, its Shaffer’s job to keep the ball off the floor and start the offensive attack. Judging by the numbers, it’s hard to overlook just how important she has been to the Hurricanes’ success this year, especially down the stretch.

After recording 20-plus digs in just four of her first 22 career matches, she has come on strong over the last month, recording 20-or-more digs in seven of UM’s last eight matches. She ranks fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference in averaging 4.58 digs per set, a number that has jumped up to 6.5 over Miami’s last five matches – earning her back-to-back ACC Rookie of the Week honors.

On the season, she has 520 digs – the fourth-highest total in program history.

Her defensive presence extends past her personal statistics. Miami is hitting .257 as a team, the highest mark since the 2002 `Canes hit .259 en route to reaching the NCAA’s “Sweet 16”. Much of that elevated attack percentage has to do with Shaffer’s ability to control the ball and line up setter Katie Gallagher, whose 10.88 assists per set ranks third in the ACC, and Lane Carico, who ranks second in the conference with a 3.86 kills per set average.

“She has made huge contributions and impressed everybody,” said Carico said of Shaffer. “She has stepped up and really proven herself in the ACC this year.”

Like four of her teammates – including Carico – Shaffer is from California, where volleyball’s roots run much deeper than most of the country. She had plenty of opportunities to stay closer to home, but like so many of her teammates, chose Lantagne Welch’s rising program instead.

“When I committed, I had no idea it was going to be like this,” Shaffer said. “I had never really heard much about the ACC being from California… a lot of people thought it was crazy to go this far away from home but when I came here it just felt right. It’s my type of volleyball. It’s been tough – don’t get me wrong – but its fun here.”

As tough as it’s been, it only gets tougher starting Friday in Indiana. If Shaffer and the `Canes can take down the Hooisers (21-11), they will likely play 11th-seeded Tennessee (24-6) on Saturday.

“We feel prepared at this stage of the game,” Lantagne Welch said. “We just have to keep getting better every day and know that every match is going to get tougher.”

No one has improved more than Shaffer, who will need to play as big a role as any if the `Canes are to advance in the tournament.

“I think we can beat anyone as long as we are playing well and playing together,” Shaffer said. “I think when we have momentum we’re as tough as they come.”

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BLOOMINGTON REGIONAL FIRST/SECOND ROUND SCHEDULE
Bloomington, Ind. • University Gym

FIRST ROUND • FRIDAY, DEC. 3
5 p.m.- No. 11-seed Tennessee (24-6) vs. Alabama A&M (16-10)
7 p.m.- Indiana (21-11) vs. Miami (FL) (23-8)

SECOND ROUND • SATURDAY, DEC. 4
3 p.m.- Tennessee/Alabama A&M vs. Indiana/Miami