August 6, 2010 10:06:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Expect more from Mississippi State''s volleyball team.
MSU coach Jenny Hazelwood believes she has seen enough from the progress the team made last year and the success it had in the spring season to warn of a breakout year for one of the Southeastern Conference''s lower-ranked programs.
"We''ve carried over a lot of momentum and will be a better team," Hazelwood said.
Despite having five new players and middle blocker Mandy Mellencamp returning from knee surgery, Hazelwood insists the team won''t struggle with depth like it did last year. In 2009, Mellencamp played just two matches and hitter Faith Steinwedell was slowed by knee surgery from her freshman season.
The team lost five players, including two seniors, from last season. But aside from Ioana Demian''s 257 kills and Dorey Gray''s team-leading 608 assists, the Bulldogs didn''t lose much in starting minutes.
Outside hitter figures to be the team''s deepest position, as juniors Steinwedell and Caitlin Rance exited the spring as Hazelwood''s starters.
Junior Kellye Jordan and freshman Dani McCree are frontline options, as is sophomore Chanelle Baker, who saw time on the right side in the spring.
As Mellencamp returns to the court, Hazelwood will hope the 6-foot-1 sophomore is pain free and at full fitness.
Middle blocker is the team''s thinnest position, though senior Ashley Newsome led the team with 319 kills and 119 blocks in 2009. And after a stellar junior year in which she finished in the top 12 in kills in the SEC, Hazelwood is expecting more from the team''s most dynamic athlete.
"Her work ethic has always been fantastic, but it''s been about learning as much of the game as possible," Hazelwood said. "I think we saw as the season went on last year she got comfortable with the more she knew. Our offense was focused around our middles last year, and that will always be our goal.
"You''ll continue to see her be a dominant hitter and blocker."
Along with Newsome''s increased comfort in Hazelwood''s system, the second-year coach will expect the team to play above the first-year transition.
Hazelwood said there''ll be a noticeable difference in how organized the team plays and how well it controls the ball.
"We''ll look at lot more experienced, that''s for sure," Hazelwood said. "There were a lot of growing pains last year, like how to prepare for Friday and Sunday matches and dealing with the injuries and illness we had.
"Our girls will play with a lot more poise and confidence this year."
Injuries could play a role in early-season squad selection. Baker has dealt with a shoulder injury, while Jordan is battling lingering effects from foot surgery in 2009. Sophomore setter Hillary Parker has a nagging back injury that she suffered in the fall.
"They''re little things that, let''s say with Chanelle, if we were to play today I don''t think she''d be ready," Hazelwood said. "With Kellye, it''s one of those things we won''t know until we get into heavy jumping. But we''ve got some time, and none of the minor injuries we have are too big of a deal right now."
Parker, who deputized at setter for Gray last season, could benefit from a potential 6-2 formation with freshman Paris Perret as the second setter. Parker and Perret are State''s only two setters.
Senior libero Kayla Woodard believes the incoming freshmen can help offset the loss of Demian, Gray and defensive specialist Leanna King. Making a smooth transition to SEC play and knowing what to expect as first-year players is key to getting on the court early, Woodard said.
"We''re going to need them to be ready," said Woodard, a former walk-on who played in 29 matches as a freshman. "One big thing you have to have is confidence. You can''t be scared of any situation -- I learned that my freshman year.
"The girls coming in are great players, but we know the experience we lost. It''s all about adjusting and getting used to playing at a higher level."
Hazelwood hopes MSU can get off to a quick start after it won three of its last four games in 2009. That positive run came after the Bulldogs lost 10 of their 15 league matches in straight sets.
Ten non-conference matches will give MSU a mix of mid-level RPI teams and lower-ranked squads to help its case for a NCAA tournament bid. The matches also will allow newcomers to adjust.
"WTW," or "Win the West" is the team''s motto as it chases an SEC Western Division title. The goal may seem lofty since MSU hasn''t qualified for the SEC tournament since 2005, but Hazelwood is confident in her side''s quality.
"We''ve got to take care of business early with our non-conference slate and steal some from the top teams," Hazelwood said. "That''s what it''s going to take to get the NCAA committee''s attention. We''ve got a number of SEC teams that are top-30 programs, and South Florida finished with an RPI around 60.
"I think our schedule lays out well for us, and winning the West is a realistic goal."