August 16, 2011 9:47:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- In her first fall practice, Mississippi State volleyball coach Jenny Hazelwood always discusses goals for the upcoming season.
It isn''t a new tradition, but MSU''s third-year coach said her players had a different reaction when she informed them of the expectations.
"Our goal is to win the Western Division in the Southeastern Conference," Hazelwood said. "There are some quality teams in the West, without a doubt, but we can do it this season."
When Hazelwood, a four-time letterwinner as a setter at MSU, talks about the goals for this year she doesn''t receive any funny looks, laughs, or confusing stares in return.
"We know we''re going (to the NCAA tournament) and we''re more determined to get there than we ever have been," senior outside hitter Caitlin Rance said. "I think we have the people and the talent to do it, so that''s not the problem."
For a program that has never finished with a winning record in the Southeastern Conference, having a division title and its first trip to the NCAA tournament would seem like a daunting task.
"When we first got here, it was more of a foreign concept and they would think, ''Coach, we have to go through a top-25 program in LSU to do that'' sort of thing," Hazelwood said. "I know now there''s way more belief because you got this group of girls that for two and a half years have been hearing it from me."
Hazelwood is using the goal of reaching the NCAA tournament to motivate her and her players. Hazelwood, who coached at Mississippi College, Centenary, and Austin Peay before returning to MSU, has never reached the NCAA tournament as a player or as a coach.
"Last year, (the Southeastern Conference put) six in the (NCAA) tournament, two of those were a last-team-in situation, and I was upset we didn''t beat them, so we''re not that far off where we should be," Hazelwood said. "We are planning our calendar to know this is the day we leave campus for our NCAA match."
Keys to helping MSU realize that goal will be Rance and Faith Steinwedell, a LaJolla, Calif., native who returns after suffering a season-ending knee injury in the opening week of the 2010 campaign.
"Faith was one of our biggest on-court leaders (and) losing her last year killed us," Hazelwood said. "She was the one that could say what needed to be said at the right time. She wants and will be a great coach along with right now, being a great player."
Steinwedell''s injury marked the second consecutive season MSU lost a key player before SEC play began. The injury left unproven underclassmen in roles they weren''t ready for in one of the best leagues in America.
"It''s been unfortunate to losing key players to season-ending injuries," Hazelwood said. "I feel like for the first time we''re in a win-win with our depth, and I haven''t felt that since we''ve been here."
Hazelwood will continue to focus her energy on sophomore setter Paris Perret, who has transformed into a vocal leader in her second year as a starter.
"It''s been a learning situation for her because as the setter you''re like the quarterback on the football team and run things," Hazelwood said. "We have had real steps in getting her to come to the captain''s meetings with me."
After a productive freshman season in which she assisted on 76 percent of MSU''s kills, Perret struggled in the spring, leading Hazelwood to consider benching her to get her rhythm back.
"She had a good freshman year but started to think all this expectation is on me kind of thing," Hazelwood said. "I had to make her take a step back and make her understand she doesn''t have to be everything you want to be right now."
A close match against nationally ranked University of Texas in the spring showed the team it isn''t far from realizing its goals.
"Texas has been in the Final Four the last two years and we were winning throughout most of the second set," Hazelwood said. "We were right there with them, and everybody played outstanding."
With the depth of prep talent in the state of Mississippi still developing, MSU brings in a competitive bunch of freshmen led by Lainey Wyman. Hazelwood said the 6-foot-2 middle blocker from Joliet Catholic Academy in Joliet, Ill., likely will get early playing time. She was a three-time all-conference and all-area team selection, and had 234 kills and 104 blocks as a senior to lead her team to the Illinois High School Association state finals.
"We have a lot of depth at every position, so we should be good to go," Rance said. "We are a really tough serving team and our passing got so much better.
"I think it''s awesome because it''s so much different than when I was a freshman and the enthusiasm gets better every year."
MSU will opens its 37th season and a 13-match home schedule on Aug. 26 when it entertains Southeastern Louisiana, Southern Illinois, and Tennessee-Martin in the two-day Maroon Classic.
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5. MSU women keep climbing higher, higher LOCAL COLUMNS