By Nan Turner
As summer approaches, students finish up their exams, say their goodbyes and get out of Richmond for a few months. But that won't be the case for the VCU Volleyball team.
The entire roster decided to remain on campus this summer. Head Coach James Finley said the ladies wanted to be able to spend time together and play some sand and grass volleyball, which should help build team chemistry.
"I'm really excited about the commitment that they made to each other," Finley said. "We've got to bring the new players around as quickly as possible and get them on the same page."
He hopes the emphasis on team unity will move the Rams closer to next seasons' lofty benchmarks.
"Always our goal is to win conference, but our ultimate goal every year that we set as a team is to be in the Sweet Sixteen," Finley said. "That's our ultimate goal because you make it in the Sweet Sixteen anything can happen. Ask [men's basketball]. You've just got to get there."
In order to get to that point, Finley says the returning players have shown a great deal of leadership.
Last fall, VCU faced potentially the most challenging non-conference schedule in school history, a slate highlighted by six ranked teams. While they encountered both success and hard times on the court, the Rams made great strides and made a bid for the CAA Championship.
Finley said he asked the team their thoughts on the schedule, and the overwhelming sentiment was that the players enjoyed the challenge. As a result, the 2011 schedule will be nearly as rigorous.
"They said, 'We learned, we grew and really what we want is to be playing at that level of competition,'" Finley said.
The Rams recently completed a difficult spring schedule, which normally allows Finley to begin putting pieces in place for the fall season. VCU graduates senior starters Mariel Frey and Kelsie Clegg, both of whom earned All-CAA honors last year. Both will be difficult to replace
"We have a great group of young ladies that are coming in to add to the program," Finley said. "As always, there are a couple of the players that you need to come in and contribute, so we're looking for players that are going to do that."
Frey played at almost every position at some point during her time with the Rams. Her stability and work ethic will be considerably difficult to replace, but not impossible.
"Kristin Boyd is who we look at to step into that role," Finley said. "I think she really did a great job this spring and has really grown as an athlete."
Finley went as far as to call Boyd, "…the best athlete we have on the team." Saying the rising junior is, "jumping out of the gym". According to Finley, Boyd has exhibited outstanding leadership and has emerged as one of the team captains.
Meanwhile, rising senior Courtney Hott will attempt to fill the void left by Clegg, who set VCU career and single-season records for blocks. Through her first three seasons, Hott has excelled as a versatile role player for the Rams. She expects to team with rising junior Jasmine Waters in the middle.
Meanwhile, Finley believes rising sophomore Ciara Brown, a CAA All-Rookie Team selection, has made great strides emotionally and in her understanding of the game.
"She's just a real competitor she wants to win and wants to make her team better," Finley said. "I've really seen her grow and mature. So I'm excited about what she'll continue to do this fall."
Liberos Sam Salvi and Jessica Warner, both rising sophomores, contributed heavily this spring and will vie for increased roles this the fall.
While Finley wanted to see the team improve in service reception this spring, there was a setback when returning junior and starting libero Marisa Low suffered a knee injury. She will play in 2011, but may miss a portion of the early schedule.
In the meantime, Finley says VCU squandered far too many leads last season, and he and his staff have are emphasizing the importance of closing out matches.
The team won't have to change much in blocking and on offense, however. The Rams excelled in both areas in recent years.
"We're a very big blocking team and we really have grown a lot in transition offense," Finley said. "We're able to put up a lot of points quickly, it really helps."
This season will also feature some new and familiar faces along the sidelines. Assistant Coach Nathan Baker will be returning for his third season, but will be joined by Nikola Petrovic and Makini Thompson, who will serve as a volunteer assistant. Frey will also join the staff as a graduate assistant.
"I'm really excited. I have a lot of fun at work because of my staff," Finley said. "The girls are responding really well."