August 9, 2009 12:09:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Jenny Hazelwood''s excitement is contagious.
It took only one hour in the team''s first meeting Thursday for the new Mississippi State volleyball coach to get her players fired up.
That energy carried over to the court Friday when the team opened its preseason with a pair of practices.
"She is 100 percent invested in our program," senior setter Dorey Gray said Friday. "She is so good at inspiring us and knowing when to say the right things to us."
Gray said Hazelwood''s inspirational speech Thursday morning had her itching to take the court at 9 a.m. Unfortunately, she and her teammates had to wait until Friday to begin the Hazelwood era.
Hazelwood begins her first season at 7 p.m. Aug. 28 against Jackson State in the MSU Maroon Classic in Starkville. The tournament is the first of three two-day events MSU will have before it begins its 20-game Southeastern Conference schedule.
MSU finished last in the SEC in 2008 (1-19) and went 6-25 in Tina Seals'' final season. Seals resigned following the season, opening the door for Hazelwood, who played at MSU from 1996-99, to return to her alma mater.
Hazelwood''s first objective was to establish standards and expectations and to show her players how she wanted them to execute skills and why she wanted it done that way.
She remained upbeat and encouraged her players to be confident in their abilities so they could realize their potential.
Hazelwood said the team matured and was positive through the spring and an offseason in which she said it started to believe in itself.
The proof was on display Friday as the players had a new intensity and a new enthusiasm.
"She is very positive and very encouraging. Everything about her is great," sophomore middle blocker Ashley Newsome said. "We are so lucky to have her in our program."
Newsome was one of three players last season to play in all 31 games and 107 sets. She was second on the team to Ioana Demian in kills (186).
Demian, a senior outside hitter, also returns to give MSU a solid one-two punch with potential.
Hazelwood said it has been important for her to help Demian, Newsome, and the others believe in themselves because she can see their talent.
"I think we have some of the best players who have come through this program," Hazelwood said. "Ashley Newsome is an unbelievable athlete. She can be unstoppable. Ioana Demian is incredibly strong, too. We just need her to believe that. Ioana can take over a match if she wants to, and we don''t think she fully understands she is that good.
"I could go on down the line with some of the younger kids and some of the freshmen. I hear from our strength and conditioning coach that two of the six kids who stand out to him are freshmen. Across the board we are strong, we''re talented, and we''re one of the most athletic teams that we have had.
"I truly believe we will see (success) this year. We''re going to have ups and downs and girls learning to play to win every point. You''re going to have that any time you''re teaching a team to be a championship team, but I feel this group is way ahead of the learning curve when it comes to us being a new staff."
Hazelwood''s comments reflect her belief in her players. She used similar methods to build programs at Mississippi College, Centenary College, and Austin Peay. The players feel she can do the same thing at MSU.
"She really has brought out our competitive sprit and the intensity," Gray said. "She has made practice a lot more intense."
Gray played in 30 matches and 99 sets last year and led the team with 636 assists. Unfortunately, MSU had an attack percentage of just .133. (Attack percentage gauges a team''s offensive efficiency. A percentage near .300 is considered very good.)
She said Hazelwood started in the spring teaching the basics and the fundamentals. She quickly discovered her new coach has a knack for motivating athletes to play at a high level.
"I don''t know if words can describe how she inspires us," Gray said. "She knows what to work, how to work it, and how to bring out all of the best in her players."
Newsome agrees and said Hazelwood, who still owns MSU all-time records for assists in a match, season, and career, has invested an incredible amount in less a year as coach, which has pushed the players to do the same.
She feels confident MSU''s performance on the court this season will reflect the change.
"We are a completely different program," Newsome said. "Everybody is on the same page and we all have the same goal to do the best we can. We want to win this year."
Said Gray, "She is a coach we want to give everything we have got for. I can''t wait to see how much we''re going to improve by the time we have our first game."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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