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New coach believes in potential of MSU volleyball

 

Adam Minichino

 

STARKVILLE -- Jenny Hazelwood knows how to surprise people. 

 

In coaching stops at Centenary College (La.) and at Austin Peay, the former Mississippi State volleyball player has exceeded expectations and helped her programs reach new levels of success. 

 

Hazelwood believes she can follow that same formula at MSU. 

 

The first-year coach will begin that job today when she welcomes her players back for the start of the 2009 preseason. 

 

MSU will hold team meetings today before it begins a series of two-a-day practices to prepare it for the season opener against Jackson State at 7 p.m. Aug. 28 at the Newell-Grissom Building in Starkville. 

 

"They have got the right attitudes," Hazelwood said. "I got to campus in the middle of January and said the culture in the gym is going to be a certain way. We''re going to set a standard, regardless of how it has been in the past, this is how it is going to be. It is just 100 percent effort and pursuit after balls. It is just a mind-set and a culture." 

 

Hazelwood still holds the MSU record for assists in a match (83), in a season (1,541), and in a career (5,505). After spending four years at MSU (1996-99), she moved on to become head volleyball coach at Division III Mississippi College. 

 

From there, she coached at Centenary College, the smallest of the NCAA Division I members. She inherited just two players from a team the previous year that won three matches and helped lead it to a 13-win season in 2002.  

 

Hazelwood''s 2006 team at Centenary College had two players earn Mid-Continent Conference (now Summit League) All-Freshman honors. The awards were the first for volleyball at the school. 

 

Hazelwood continued her ability to transform programs at Austin Peay. Her first team in 2007 went 8-25, but she helped engineer a 14-win improvement and helped guide the squad to a 22-11 record and a third-place finish in the Ohio Valley Conference. 

 

The team was picked in the preseason to finish ninth. 

 

Southeastern Conference volleyball is a bigger stage than any of Hazelwood''s previous stops, but she doesn''t see why MSU can''t have the same success. 

 

"My expectation is probably way, way, way beyond what anyone is thinking going into the season," Hazelwood said. "I have really high expectations of these girls. Some people would even think it is foolish to say this is how many wins I expect because I think we''re that talented. We have players who are that good at every position. We have depth. We have all of the things in place. If someone were to have spent the past six months with us, they would say that expectation is not so foolish. The expectation should be that high for these girls. 

 

"If I say if we just double last year''s win total, that is progress, but then the girls aren''t shooting for any better," Hazelwood said. "I want them thinking I don''t want to lose a match that we play. Every time they walk out on the court they need to expect they''re going to win." 

 

Tina Seals resigned last year after leading MSU to a 6-25 (1-19 in the SEC) record. The program had a school-record nine freshmen start last season. Injuries to key players, particularly junior outside hitter Ioana Demian, didn''t make matters any easier. 

 

The positive for Hazelwood is that she inherits a team that gained a lot of experience last season. She said she is fortunate that most of the players were on campus in the spring and attended summer classes, so they were able to continue to train and to develop the team chemistry and mind-set she wants. 

 

"When we start practice Friday, there already is that expectation of excellence," Hazelwood said. "They are going to have an expectation to train at a very high level every second they are in the gym with us. I think we''re going to be a lot further ahead that people realize." 

 

Hazelwood said the presence of talented players like Demian and junior middle blocker Ashley Newsome and a talented class of four freshman reinforce her optimism.  

 

As a former player at MSU, Hazelwood knows the program has only had three seasons of 20 or more victories in its 34 years. She also realizes MSU never has finished higher than seventh or won more than eight matches in a season in the SEC. 

 

Those realities might sound daunting to some, but they are challenges Hazelwood has accepted. She said the team made significant improvement from its first tournament March 7 to its third one the first week of April. 

 

Hazelwood said the players'' believe in themselves fueled that progression. A victory against Alabama in that final tournament added to the excitement. She said the team lost to Auburn in its next match and admitted that there will be growing pains this season, too, but that she is confident the players are ready to take the program to the next level. 

 

"We''re not just content with just showing progress and just improving," Hazelwood said. "We have a lot of talent, and I am not going to be satisfied at the end of this season if we haven''t lived up to what I think we can do. The girls are going to know that, and we''re going to help them feel the same way. They''re going to feel the same way. Their expectations are incredibly high, and I think that comes from what they see in us. They know we expect a lot out of them, and they expect a lot out of themselves. That is a great combination for being successful."

 

Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.

 

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