August 29, 2014 11:16:09 AM
STARKVILLE -- Entering her seventh season as Mississippi State's volleyball coach, Jenny Hazelwood has big plans for her 2014 Lady Bulldogs.
Hazelwood will try to help MSU rebound from a 3-15 record in Southeastern Conference play. To accomplish that goal, her staff placed an emphasis on size and athletic ability in its offseason recruiting. The result is in incoming crop of 11 newcomers that gives MSU a different look.
"We are definitely taller," Hazelwood said. "We decided we had to get bigger because in this league, no matter what your game plan is, you've got to be able to play high above the net. That's what the Floridas and Missouris of this league can do, and that's where we want to be. But size isn't the only answer. You have to be athletic to go along with it. I think this team is probably our biggest and most athletic since I've been here."
MSU opens the season with four games this weekend at the Sam Houston State Invitational in Huntsville, Texas. MSU will open the event today with a 1:30 p.m. match against Cal-State Bakersfield before capping the day with a showdown against tourney host Sam Houston State. MSU will play Texas Pan-American at 11:30 a.m. Saturday before finishing up against UL-Monroe at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.
Eight of MSU's 14 players on this roster top the 6-foot mark, led by 6-foot-3 middle blocker Leticia Valente, a freshman middle blocker from Sao Paolo, Brazil.
"She seems even taller than that," Hazelwood said of Valente. "She's already 20, so she plays experienced even though she's a freshman. We expect big things out of her."
The incoming class also includes 6-foot setter Shelby Andreton, of Collierville, Tennessee; 5-10 outside hitter Ericka Timberlake, of Frisco, Texas; and 6-foot setter Chantal Martin, who is from Munich, Germany.
The fresh faces will follow veterans like juniors Katlyn Mataya and Alex Warren, who Hazelwood calls "the heart and soul of our team. Our upperclassmen have to set the tone as far as what we want to be as a team."
After going 12-20 last season, Hazlewood leads MSU into a brutal SEC slate that includes perennial powers Florida, Kentucky, and Missouri.
"Those teams are always going to be good, but athletically, I think we are starting to look more like those teams," Hazelwood said. "Now we have to raise our level of play and our consistency to be able to compete game in, game out in this league.
"Eight SEC teams made the tournament last year, and that shows you what we're up against. But, realistically, if things come together the way they should, I feel like we can get into that group in the top half of the conference."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat