RICHMOND, Va. – James Finley knows his VCU Volleyball team can't do anything about their past near-misses, but they can use them to affect the outcome of the Rams' inaugural Atlantic 10 Conference campaign.
VCU has reached the Colonial Athletic Association Championship Match twice in the last three years, but saw George Mason and Delaware win the crown in 2009 and 2011, respectively. The Rams were a set away from victory both times, and the sting of those losses has been slow to fade.
However, Finley says this group of Rams is undeterred, and a championship remains within reach in 2012.
"The biggest thing with this squad that I'm happy about is the leadership and focus that the team has," Finley said. "Part of it too, with us being in the championship match and losing has really affected the focus of this year's seniors, knowing that they were so close to being in the NCAA Tournament and not being able to perform at crunch time."
Captain Kristin Boyd is one senior who plans to chase that elusive conference title harder than ever in 2012. Boyd led the Rams in kills (440) last season and was named All-CAA Second Team for her efforts. She's on the doorstep of 1,000 career kills (961) and needs 402 this season to become VCU's career leader, but those landmarks will take a backseat to a championship ring. She watched George Mason celebrate a conference title on the Rams' floor in 2009 and saw a 2-1 lead in the CAA Championship Match disintegrate against Delaware last season. She's hungry and ready to lead VCU to its first championship since 2005.
"I have all the motivation and determination to go into [this] year to work even harder, to put in the extra hours and make sure that never happens again," she said.
Finley feels like Boyd will be up to the challenge. After witnessing Boyd's maturation as a player from a raw volleyball newbie a few years ago to a certified go-to star last season, Finley says her personal (read: leadership) qualities are now following suit.
"Kristin's just taken this team and motivated people to be better than they were coming in and just challenging them every day to be better," the eighth-year coach said.
She'll have plenty of help. VCU returns a solid core from last season's 17-17 squad.
Sophomore setter Cecilia Aragao burst onto the scene last year behind a multifaceted skill set. She averaged 9.47 assists and directed the CAA's top hitting offense last season. Also returning is senior middle Jasmine Waters, who set a school single-season record for total blocks (157) and blocks per set (1.23) in 2011. Anett Farkas successfully moved from the middle to the right side last season, averaging 2.12 kills per set, while hitting .225. Finley has also been impressed with Farkas' consistency and leadership.
Two other returnees will solidify VCU's back line. Senior Marisa Low has been slowed by knee injuries the last two offseasons, but brings 89 matches and 1,110 career digs of experience. Finley expects her to return to the lineup sometime in September to supply a steady hand.
Sophomore Amanda Love made an immediate impact last season, averaging 2.23 digs, while firing 22 service aces. She's expected to assume an even more prominent role following the graduation of Amanda Friday.
Meanwhile, sophomore middle Janelle Sykes saw limited action in 2011, but impressed the coaching staff with an outstanding offseason. Sykes was among the standouts at VCU's Black and Gold Scrimmage Aug. 19.
Junior Danaja Novakovic lost the 2011 season to injuries, but the 6-foot-3 middle has returned this fall healthy and fit and is expected to contribute this fall.
Redshirt freshman Uzoamaka Ibeh sat out last season to hone her abilities. She's returned with a year of repetitions on the practice court and in the weight room under her belt - recording a team-best 34-inch vertical leap this summer.
Finley welcomes five freshmen in 2012, outside hitter Saige Gallop, middle Megan Stumpf and libero/setter Sami Blaze, as well as international standouts Martina Samadan, a middle, and Romana Kriskova.
Kriskova is a veteran of both the Slovakian Junior and Senior National Teams. At 6-foot-3, she's a dangerous hitter from any spot on the floor. Kriskova led all players with 13 kills at the Black and Gold Scrimmage.
Samadan has played with the Croatian Junior National Team and won the gold medal at the Croatian Junior National Sand Volleyball Championships this summer. Although her preseason was interrupted by nagging injuries, Samadan's 6-foot-5 frame and skill set are cause for excitement, Finley says
"She has a volleyball IQ and maturity that you normally get out of a junior or senior, not a freshman," Finley said. "I'm not sure we've ever had anyone who can hit the ball like she does. Incredible heavy arm."
VCU, picked sixth in the Atlantic 10 Preseason Coaches Poll, led the CAA in hitting percentage (.233) and blocks per set (2.81) last season. Given the strengths of VCU's roster, Finley believes those numbers will translate well in the new league. Finley also believes with a back row that includes Low, Love and Blaze, as well as contributions from others, the Rams will see improvement in their 13.17 digs per set average, which ranked ninth in the CAA last season. When he surveys his roster, Finley believes there's no reason the Rams can make a run at VCU's first A-10 crown.
"When we did our video interviews with the players, everybody had the same comment, so it was obvious that they had been talking about what they wanted before we set our goals, and it was unanimous, win the A-10, win the A-10," Finley said.
The Rams begin their quest Friday, Aug. 24 when they open play at the Active Ankle Challenge, hosted by Ball State, with Illinois State at 4:30 p.m. VCU will also meet the host Cardinals and Gardner-Webb on Saturday.