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Alabama volleyball team sets sight on return to NCAA Tournament

 

Adam Minichino

 

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The University of Alabama volleyball team hopes focusing on smaller goals and taking them slower helps it accomplish a larger goal this season. 

 

A strong spring season and a competitive preseason has the Lady Crimson Tide ready to start the season against Saint Louis at 7 p.m. Friday in the SLU Active Ankle Challenge in St. Louis. 

 

"I think every team know what it wants to do, and I think when you set smaller goals and you reach them you get more encouragement and more affirmation," senior right-side hitter Liz Salstrand said. 

 

Alabama finished 16-13 and 9-11 in the Southeastern Conference last season. The finish snapped a run of three consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament. 

 

This season, Alabama is a year older and more experienced, and it hopes to raise its level and return to the NCAA tournament.  

 

"I feel we beat the teams we were supposed to beat and we lost to the teams that on paper we probably should have lost to," Alabama coach Judy Green said of last season.  

 

Green said Alabama had so many inexperienced players who had never logged significant minutes. She said that youth played a role in the team''s up-and-down season. Alabama started 8-2 and then lost three of its first four SEC matches. 

 

Green said 2008 was a teaching experience and an opportunity for everyone to gain valuable time on the court. She hopes the lessons learned from last season help the team take the next step this season. 

 

"I feel the chemistry of our team is much improved," said Green, whose team was picked to finish third in the SEC''s Western Division behind LSU and Ole Miss in preseason voting by the league coaches. "The players get a lot of credit for that happening because of what they did over the course of the spring and the summer. I think they worked really hard to make sure our chemistry was good coming in to preseason camp. The coaches feel like we can take our team and push our team harder and they will respond harder because they believe more in what we''re doing and they believe in each other more." 

 

Green also is excited about the improvement of all her players. She said she hopes a year of experience will help the Lady Crimson Tide cut down on the errors it made last season. 

 

Alabama had 238 serving errors last season, which is just one area Green wants to improve. 

 

It should help to have four of the team''s top six in kills returning this season. Senior Brooks Webster should be a force for Alabama. The 6-foot outside hitter paced the Southeastern Conference last season with 4.04 kills per set. She had 11 double-doubles and double-digit kills 22 times, and set a career-high in kills (26) at Georgia on Nov. 9. 

 

Defensively, Webster, an American Volleyball Coaches Association Honorable Mention All-American and first-team All-SEC pick last season, had 287 digs and 45 blocks, 16 solo. 

 

Those statistics are part of the reason Webster was named to the nine-player Volleyball Coaches Preseason All-SEC team. 

 

"I think we have a lot of potential," Webster said. "I feel like last year was a step to the next level. We''re just trying to make it more of a slow process. We''re concentrating on taking steps and once we get to this mark, we''re going to go to the next mark, which will lead to the NCAA tournament." 

 

Webster said the team discussed feeling "rushed" last season and having goals that might have been too large. 

 

This season, she said the players are focusing more on how they are going to meet goals like winning the conference. She hopes that mind-set carries over to the court. 

 

"I think everyone wants to be good and is concerned that their platform is correct or if their technique is for the betterment of the team," Webster said. "We''re concentrating on our steps to attain these big goals that we hope to accomplish." 

 

Joining Webster will be junior right-side hitter Alyssa Mueth (second on team last season with 242 kills), junior middle blocker Calli Johnson (fourth, 157), and senior right-side hitter Elizabeth Salstrand (sixth, 102). 

 

"I feel like they are determined to do something on their own and something that will belong to them," Green said. "You get a sense being around them and the swagger that they have at the moment that they really want to do something and put their mark on the program. I think they all want to do it together." 

 

Green said the Lady Crimson Tide has four players who have been a part of that success, and she feels those players will help set the tone for what could be a promising season. 

 

"I think our conference will be stronger than it was a year ago," Green said. "Last year, we were not strong and competitive from top to the bottom from beginning to the end. I think a few more teams will be more competitive, and I think Alabama will be one of those teams." 

 

Junior Kayla Schmidt, a 5-10 player from Bleiblerville, Texas, and Blinn College, adds depth to the setter position. Schmidt was the NJCAA National Player of the Year in 2008. 

 

Kelsey Anderson and Kayla Fitterer, two PrepVolleyball.com High School All-Americans, also will compete for playing time in their first seasons. 

 

Anderson, an outside hitter/defensive specialist from Louisville, Ky., was the 2008 Kentucky Player of the Year and 2008 Miss Kentucky Volleyball.  

 

Fitterer, an outside hitter from Edwardsville, Ill., set the Edwardsville High School career kills record and helped it to win the conference, regional, and sectional championships in 2008. She ranks in the top 20 in the state of Illinois for career kills and was a two-time All-State First Team selection.  

 

Salstrand hopes all of those pieces come together and help the team erase the memory of 2008 when the Lady Crimson Tide felt like they could have done more. 

 

This time, she believes focusing on the process and smaller goals will help Alabama get where it wants to go. 

 

"We do have better hitters," Salstrand said. "If somebody isn''t doing well, we have great hitters on the bench, too."

 

Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.

 

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