Tech Volleyball Season Outlook
Aug. 22, 2002
LUBBOCK, Texas - After earning trips to the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons, the bar of expectations is set high for this year's squad. But making it to the tournament is not a goal for 2002; it is an expectation. Head coach Jeff Nelson enters his eighth season at the helm of the Red Raider volleyball program and has guided Tech to five NCAA postseason appearances.
With a season of rally-scoring gone by, the Red Raiders will look to capitalize on a style of play that has been categorized as aggressive. This year Nelson has in place the athletes that he feels can take his team and its style to a whole new level. With leaders in place such as Melissa McGehee, Angela Mooney, Ann Romjue and Kelly Johnson, his "attack" style offense will be better than ever.
One area that will be much more aggressive is the serve. Mooney has added a jump serve for 2002 and according to Nelson "we will be going for points, playing to win those instant points." Some tweaking in the offense to get McGehee and Johnson more touches out of the back row has also been an area addressed over the spring and summer with favorable early returns.
One reason Nelson feels that this "go for it" style will produce positive results is the fact that his team is a great ball handling one.
"With Ann Romjue, Melissa McGehee and Jessy Herrera in particular, you can expect a lot. The ball gets where it is supposed to which is the setter's hands. If we can do that then I think we can have a lot of fun, play fast and aggressive."
The season will not be an easy one, but seasons in the Big 12 Conference never are.
"We trained really hard in the spring," Nelson stated. "Probably as hard as we ever have in the eight springs that I have been here. I feel this team has really put its time in. Their time was quality time and I feel like we saw great improvement. We played a tough schedule in the spring with a lot of success. I think that everything is really moving in the right direction for us to have a great season."
Combined with playing eight schools that were invited to the postseason in 2001 week-in and week-out, Tech has three tough preseason tournaments, starting with the Hofstra/Asics Invitational in Hempstead, N.Y. After the first tournament is completed the road gets much tougher. A trip to Las Vegas, Nev., to play the likes of UNLV, California-Berkeley, and Ball State all await the Red Raiders at the UNLV/Gameworks Classic. Prior to the non-conference finale with New Mexico State, Texas Tech will host the Four Points Sheraton/Red Raider Classic. This three-team tournament will bring in two of the nation's top programs in Clemson and Arizona State.
Once Big 12 play starts there is never an easy game, but with a tough non-conference schedule the Red Raiders will know what it takes to compete in arguably the nation's best volleyball conference.
"The Big 12 is going to be tough as ever," notes Nelson. "A lot of matches come down to a few points. With the experience that we have, having three seniors on the floor, hopefully we will come out on the right side of some of those points."
The Big 12 provides teams with a great atmosphere to play in, as well as a great atmosphere for fans to watch. There is never an easy match. This year's team will have to compete with every serve, which, according to Nelson, helps them develop competitiveness and character.
Losing the school's all-time leader in assists average and a three-year starter would cause most coaches to feel a little unsure about the season ahead. Such is not the case for Nelson in 2002. Texas Tech will be without the sets of the school's all-time leader at the setter's position but Nelson feels like sophomore Laura Grote and freshman Abby Schukman will fit in with this season's new style perfectly.
One dimension that the 5-foot-8 Grote and 5-11 Schukman bring with them is a bigger block, which is something that Nelson has not had in his tenure at Tech. Grote's style, according to Nelson, creates a sense of having fun on the court which brings out the best in the other players on the floor.
Grote's work ethic is second to none and that may be because of her strong volleyball background and having success at every level.
"I think that she is more than ready, both physically and emotionally," notes Nelson. "She is in great shape, probably the best shape of her life. I am excited to work with her. We work well together which is important."
But one player cannot do it alone. This will be where Schukman steps in. Schukman will be looked upon to learn the system and step in at times to give Grote a rest and pick up a block or two. While Schukman is strong at the net, Grote is more of a finesse player with great leadership skills. This arrangement is almost ideal for Nelson and gives him an added dimension and excitement that he has not had in the past.
The duo combine to give the Red Raiders much needed depth at the position, and the Tech coaching staff looks forward to using this size to its advantage.
Senior Stacy Poole and junior Angela Mooney will look to anchor a young but solid corps of middle blockers for the Red Raiders. Poole is best off one foot and can hit the slide better than maybe anyone on the team. But that did not stop her from working hard over the spring to develop her game in front of the setter. She has made tremendous strides in that area which has the coaching staff excited about her potential for this year. Nelson would like to use the Las Cruces, N.M., native in the "M1" position because of her blocking skills. After starting most of last season Nelson feels that Poole is battle tested and could really come on and show the type of leadership that he expects from a senior.
"She could really have a break-out year," says Nelson. "She has really trained harder than she ever has and I think that creates a desire to do something really special."
Mooney will most likely start in the "M2" position in 2002, but may play some on the right side. One of Texas Tech's most dynamic players, she is a great jumper who can hit the ball hard and at any number of tempos. Not knowing when and where the ball is coming from plays to her advantage as she can hit for power off one foot or hit it quick. After a summer in Italy playing volleyball she could have the competitive confidence to take over matches. Add to this a new jump serve and she could be a player that dominates a match.
"The style of play that we want to play is going to be really aggressive," according to Nelson. "Which means that [Angela] will be hitting a ton of jump serves throughout the season."
Coach Nelson will look for a couple of freshman to step up and show that they are ready to play the Division I game. Two athletes that may have a step on the rest are Jessica Watson and Christina Miller, because of their strong volleyball backgrounds.
At 6-1 Watson has an added size advantage over Miller, but Miller has played the game at a faster tempo, similar to that of playing in the Big 12. Both of these freshmen will be looked at to not only provide much needed depth but to step in and compete with Poole and Mooney. The pace of the college game will be the biggest adjustment for this duo. Katie Halley is another freshman who, if she can make the adjustment to the speed of the game, could see playing time right away, but Nelson feels that she may need a season under her belt to develop her game and be a great player.
This group is the most experienced of all the positions. With seniors Melissa McGehee and Ann Romjue and sophomore Kelly Johnson in the lineup Tech looks to be very strong in the outside hitter position.
In her third year as a starter, McGehee has already been named both first-team and honorable mention All-Big 12. She is a great athlete, might be the best jumper on the team and can put the ball away. One element of her game is she has backwards footwork, which deceives the opponent many times. McGehee will make the move over to the "L2" position this season.
Johnson, arguably the best freshman in school history, returns for her sophomore season with great expectations. One of the two best athletes on the team, she has the speed to be successful. Speed, combined with her ability to hit at any tempo make her a threat every time the ball heads in her direction. A multi-dimensional player who can hit off one foot, hit quick, hit high and bolsters a deadly jump serve, she should return to the "L1" position for the second-consecutive year.
In Romjue, Nelson has the most experience of anyone on the team. Her participation in national championships in club ball combined with being a three-year starter, she does everything well. She will not beat you with flash, but she will beat you. A sound fundamental player she will be the best player on the court. She does the basics and does them well.
"She is the best player on the court," says Nelson. "She passes, she plays defense, she serves, she blocks, she hits and she is the kind of player that makes the coaches need to have her on the court."
An area of concern for Nelson is the lack of depth on the left side. But the addition of freshamn Breanna Pursley should help with depth and outside hitter is the most experienced and aggressive position for the squad.
A change in the game for 2002 brings in a "Libro" position, which in Nelson's view is the biggest change in the game, even bigger than that of the rally scoring of 2001. This new position allows a player to play the back row the entire time.
Competition for playing time in the Libro position will be the best battle in the preseason. Junior Courtney Shambaugh, sophomores Jessy Herrera and Daneen Grisham will battle for time at this position. The position lends itself to one of a strong passer and a strong defender.
Based on performance in the spring, Herrera has the inside track to starting at Libro. She turned in a great freshman campaign and should only get better, but Shambaugh will also find her way into the backcourt as well as be used as a serving specialist. The position is not set and Nelson feels that he has the most depth there, so the preseason will be a war.
An area of concern from last season is blocking. This was evident by the fact that Tech went from one of the best blocking teams in the conference two years ago to being near the bottom last year. Thus, a large portion of practice time in the spring was put in working on getting blocks. According to Nelson great progress was made in this area and it will continue to be addressed when two-a-days start in August.
Nelson feels that with the rally scoring the way it is, his team needs to be a great "first contact" team. Along with this, his team needs to be more aggressive than it was a year ago.
"We need to be way more aggressive from the service line," notes Nelson. "We need to attack more out of the back row."
Momentum is another area of the game that coach Nelson feels is different with the new scoring. With the score's ability to change faster, games are closer and there are less blowouts, which creates a higher level of intensity. Thus Nelson feels that his team needs to be aggressive and stay aggressive.
"Everything is a point," says Nelson. "We have got to emphasize that and live and die being aggressive. I don't want to be a safe team, I want to have an exciting team that is fun to watch. We can't play safe, we have got to go for it and live and die with it."
Nelson feels that the addition of the rally scoring last year along with the new rule changes this season and playing in the Big 12 Conference, volleyball is becoming a much more fan friendly game than it was just a few years ago.
"There are some big changes in the game again this year," notes Nelson. "It is really going to make it fun for people to watch. The level of play is going to go up again significantly this year and hopefully that will create an even better atmosphere. Here in Lubbock, we have the best facility in the country to play volleyball in. We have a great team in a great conference where any night you can see a great match. We really are going to work hard to get the people out this season and break some attendance records."
The 2002 Red Raiders are battle tested, they have played in the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons and know what it takes to win in arguably the best volleyball conference in the nation. Three seniors, a pair of players fresh off a trip to Italy where they honed their skills and the return of a freshman phenome should guide Texas Tech past a pair of milestone victories, as Tech is just two wins shy of 675. Two home wins will give the program 250.