Nelson, Red Raiders Focused on 2000|
Aug. 10, 2000
Lubbock, Texas - With the return of nine letterwinners and six starters along with a competitive schedule and a new arena, the Texas Tech volleyball coaches can't help but be a little excited about the 2000 season.
Since taking over the program in 1995, head coach Jeff Nelson has not entered a season with as much firepower as he will when the 2000 campaign opens in South Carolina on Sept. 1. The Red Raiders lost just one player from last year's squad and retained the offensive and defensive nucleus.
The 1999 season was a bit of a growing pain for the Red Raiders as they failed to capitalize on making their fourth NCAA appearance in the last five years. But, expect a totally new product to grace the floors of the United Spirit Arena this fall.
Last season, Tech welcomed two Fabulous 50 recruits in Ann Romjue and Melissa McGehee. Romjue led the Red Raiders in several categories in 1999 and will look to make an even bigger impact in 2000.Then add on what Nelson calls one of his best recruiting classes ever and the potential is overwhelming.
"We have a lot more experience than we have had in the past," said Nelson who enters his sixth season at the helm of the Red Raider program. "We are the deepest we have ever been in our positions. The experience that we have is that we played a really young group last year. We have a player coming back off a redshirt year that started for two years as a freshman and sophomore in Heather Hughes-Justice who will add to that experience level."
The return of Heather Hughes-Justice this season will mean instant production and experience. Hughes-Justice was a starter for the Red Raiders in 1997 and 1998 and will look to regain that role in 2000. Hughes-Justice tallied 130 kills and 287 digs in 1998 and will provide experience at the outside hitter position.
Adding to that experience level will be all-America candidate Colleen Smith. Smith, a member of the USA Volleyball team in 1999, had a solid season in the middle for the Red Raiders in 1999. Smith accounted for 358 kills and 862 total attempts. In the spring, the Tech coaching staff made the decision to move her to the outside in order to get the 6-7 senior more swings.
This year's recruiting class has a Texas flavor as all five recruits hail from the state. This class will be the first all-Texas recruiting class under head coach Jeff Nelson. "For the first time, some of the very best kids in Texas have wanted to come to Tech and we are very excited about that," said Nelson. "If the best kids in Texas want to come here then they will be our first choice."
Making up the 2000 newcomers are Laura Grote (Austin, Texas/Westwood), Kelly Johnson (Fort Worth, Texas/Arlington), Jana Kubolova (Bryson, Texas/Bryson), Angela Mooney (Lubbock, Texas/Monterey) and Courtney Shambaugh (Arlington, Texas/Lamar).
To say that the newcomers are accustomed to success is a bit of an understatement. Laura Grote was named the National Senior High School Girls Volleyball Athlete of the Year by the NHSCA in June and also was an all-state first team selection in 1999. Angela Mooney and Jana Kubolova were also first team all-state picks in 1999.
"This is a very experienced recruiting class and it has a lot of things in it," said Nelson. "We have got some power in Angela and Kelly and Jana.We have a real strong defensive player and passer in Courtney and who I think is one of the best young setters in the country in Laura. Besides a lot of talent, this group has a lot of drive. They will come in here and not accept less than their best and not force the program to get better
The only loss from the 1999 squad was middle hitter Lori Garber. Garber finished the 1999 season with a team-high 360 kills. Though the loss of Garber is a tough one, Nelson feels positive about a number of players who could fill that role.
"Lori Garber was a great player for us," said Nelson. "She knew the game and could play any position on the court. The place we are going to miss her the most is blocking. She just did a tremendous job there. We will definitely miss her big numbers but I think we have four other kids ready to step into that position. They all have been around for a couple of years now and really are ready to play. I think we will do a nice job of filling that loss and I look for Yolanda Cumbess, Kate Jury and Stacey Poole to help fill that loss."
Perhaps one of the biggest factors that will help mold this year's team will not suit up in a Red Raider uniform. The United Spirit Arena, completed in November of 1999 will debut this season as the home to Tech volleyball. The team was able to play two matches in the facility last season but the 2000 campaign will mark the first complete season in the new United Spirit Arena. Needless to say, the coaches and players could not be happier.
The United Spirit Arena, with a seating capacity of 15,050 nearly doubles that of the Lubbock Municipal Coliseum where the team called home previously. The arena features offices, a state-of-the-art lockerroom and player lounge, practice facilities and a study area specifically designed for the volleyball program.
The Red Raiders will host the 22nd Annual Red Raider Classic to open the 2000 home season. The tournament will feature Texas Tech along with George Mason, UT-Arlington and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
"I honestly think that we have the nicestvolleyball facility in the country. When you look at our practice gym, lockerroom, lounge, computer rooms, weight rooms and training rooms, I know that what we offer is the best."
For the first time in a long time, the Big 12 Conference race may be anyone's for the taking. Arguably one of the toughest volleyball leagues in the nation, the Big 12 is home to powerhouses Nebraska, Texas and Texas A&M. Last season, the Aggies advanced the Regional Finals in Honolulu, Hawaii before falling to Long Beach State. Along the way last season, the conference picked up four Amercian Volleyball Coaches Association National Player of the Week honors.
Except for Texas Tech, the entire conference took a hit last season due to graduation. As a whole, the conference lost nine (14 total) first-team selections which in turn means that the conference race should be very competitive.
"I think for the first time since I can remember, the conference race should be wide open. A lot of teams took some big losses thanks to graduation. I think you will see very tight matches and a lot of upsets. I think that if we continue to improve and do the things that we need to do then we will be right there in the thick of things in November and should be in great position to contend for a conference championship."
POSITION BY POSITION ANALYSIS
Last season was a big challenge for then sophomore Skydra Orzen. She was faced with the challenge of replacing Lisa Hilgers at the setter position. Hilgers was a four-year starter and finished her career ranked 14th all-time in the NCAA statistics book in career assists and career assists average. But, Orzen ignored the pressure that others put on her and turned in a great sophomore season. Orzen finished the season with 1,394 assists with a per-game average of 12.79.
Coming into 2000 season, one would think that she has the starting position nailed down but that isn't the case according to head coach Jeff Nelson. Laura Grote, the NHSCA National Senior High Girls Volleyball Athlete of the Year will provide plenty of competition for Orzen. Nelson calls Grote "one of the best young setters in the nation."
"Sky was a starter last year and did a nice job and did a great job in the spring working to improve," said Nelson. "I think it is really going to be a interesting fight for that position. Laura Grote is the freshman setter that we brought in and she has proven that she is a winner. I really think that she will give Sky a run for her money at that position. Either way we come out stronger because we have two good setters competing. We may even spend some time in a 6-2 offense depending on who we are playing so that both of them can get some time setting."
Texas Tech welcomes back senior Colleen Smith who figures to be a strong all-America candidate for the Red Raiders. The 6-7 outside hitter is the largest player to ever step on a volleyball court at Texas Tech and her height has been and will continue to be the key to her success. Last season, she finished second on the team with 358 kills and totaled 862 total attempts.
The coaching staff has moved her from the right-side position that she occupied most of last season in order to get her more swings at the ball. If Smith can put up big numbers, then the Tech offense should be extremely potent.
"We are stronger than we have ever been at the outside hitter position," said Nelson. We return three starters and another person who started two seasons prior to her redshirt season in Heather Hughes-Justice. So we really have four starters returning for three positions. We have expanded Colleen Smith's role and she is going to be expected to hit a lot of balls. Ann Romjue has really held it all together and we expect her to maintain that role. We have added Melissa McGehee who started toward the end of the season last year and she has proven that she can do a lot of different things. We bring in Angela Mooney and Jana Kubolova who bring in a lot of experience and can legitimately compete for those positions. I really think they are going to be able to do some good things on the floor as freshmen."
The middle blocker position will come down to Janelle Jones, Kate Jury, Jana Kubolova and Colleen Smith may even see action at this position. Janelle Jones, a senior academic all-America candidate, bring the most experience to the squad. Jones finished last season with 168 kills and 367 total attempts.
"We probably have the most experience at this position. They all are great athletes and have great touches and are good jumpers. They got a lot of experience in the spring. Yolanda and Kate got some time in the fall and I think there will be some serious competition. When they left in the spring, we told them that the position was wide open."
Jeff Nelson is planning on using a mixture of defensive personnel this season. The non-starting setter may see some time at the position as well as an outside hitter. Freshman Courtney Shambaugh should also see some significant time at the defensive position.