August 26, 2010 8:36:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Ashley Newsome doesn''t like the spotlight.
The Mississippi State senior wouldn''t mind if she is just another piece to the puzzle as long as her team wins.
As much as the 6-foot-1 middle blocker has improved in her three seasons with the MSU volleyball team, it will be difficult for her to keep a low profile this season because she figures to play an even bigger role.
Newsome and MSU will get their first chance to show their stuff Friday when they play host to the Mississippi State Maroon Classic at the Newell-Grissom Building. The two-day tournament kicks off at 10:30 a.m. Friday and features the University of Montana, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and Austin Peay.
Newsome has played in a team-leading 87 career matches (286 sets) the past three seasons. She ranks among the program''s career leaders in block assists (10th, 217), block solos (10th, 52), and total blocks (ninth, 269). The three-time SEC Academic Honor Roll selection has reached double-digit totals in kills in 19 matches.
Last season, she led the team with a career-high in kills (319, ninth-most in the SEC), attack percentage (.252), and total blocks (119, sixth-most in a season at MSU. Newsome''s hitting percentage has climbed each season from a .088 as a freshman to a .152 as a sophomore, which is why MSU second-year coach Jenny Hazelwood believes Newsome can take another step this season.
"She knows she is going to be a focal point of our offense, and it is something we did last year with her," Hazelwood said. "She responded well to being a major point of emphasis in our offense, and this year she will be that much more comfortable because of that experience."
Hazelwood noticed Newsome''s potential wen she arrived at MSU, saying in the 2009 media guide, "Ashley has the potential to be the most dominant player on the court in any match we play. She is unbelievably gifted in her athletic ability and has All-SEC potential. There will be matches when she is unstoppable."
After a year of coaching Newsome and watching her and the team''s setters mature, Hazelwood is looking for big things this year.
"I think (Ashley) knows (how good she can be)," Hazelwood said. "Even our freshman setter (Paris Perret) has made the comment, ''She is the best middle I have ever played with.'' Ashley knows she is that caliber. I think the biggest thing for her is figuring out how to handle that so she can continue to be successful for her team. It is more important for her to be a good representative for her family and her teammates. She is a strong believer, so she wants to be a good representative of her faith. That is the type of stuff that motivates Ashley."
Hazelwood said the team''s ball control has improved, as has the play of its setters. She said the ability of sophomore Hillary Parker and Perret to distribute the ball to all of their options regardless of the quality of the pass should help the offense generate more punch. She also feels Newsome will be able to connect better with the setters on quick plays at the net that depend on timing.
"We want our setters to be able to run our offense and to set the middle blocker from even the 10-foot line, and they''re doing that a lot this season," Hazelwood said. "We are so much tougher to defend right now because in the past that ball (at the 10-foot line) was set high outside. Now you have to worry about that middle being set, and the middles will be successful with that play. I think we have expanded our ability to get the middle the ball."
Newsome is excited to work with the setters in any way she needs to. She feels she has improved every year, particularly in footwork and how that helps her in blocking, and is eager to help MSU improve on its 9-22 record (5-15 in the Southeastern Conference) from last season.
"When we have a win it is not going to be Ashley Newsome wins, it is going to be Mississippi State volleyball wins," Newsome said. "I have to do my part and everybody else has to do their part."
Newsome feels more comfortable playing middle blocker and knows what Hazelwood expects from her. She said a lot of hard work in the offseason has prepared her and her teammates to play with an attitude this season.
Newsome''s ability to take that attitude and to be a force in the middle could play a key role in MSU climbing the ladder in the SEC. Her athleticism is equal to that of any middle blocker in the league, which is why Hazelwood is optimistic.
But Newsome hasn''t allowed her improvement or her potential alter her focus. She said she will remain a team player who intends to set the example for everyone.
"I am not worried about myself. I am worried about the team," Newsome said. "We win as a team and we lose as a team. I understand it doesn''t matter what you do as an individual. It is what our team does as a whole."
Hazelwood said Newsome has the "killer instinct" a hitter needs to have when the set or match is on the line. She said that mind-set has grown in Newsome''s time at MSU, and she hopes it becomes a more consistent presence this season.
That consistency could help Newsome become the program''s first All-SEC performer since outside hitter Martina Gregusova was named to the All-Freshman team in 2006.
"It is something that we as a staff had for as a goal for her," Hazelwood said. "We have talked with her about her potential to do that. The numbers she put up last year put her with the best middles in the conference, and I think she will put up even better numbers this year."
If Newsome continues to improve, she won''t be able to stop the individual awards from coming her way because the team will achieve greater results, too.
That sounds like something Newsome is making a priority this season.
"I believe we''re going to beat teams that nobody expects us to beat," Newsome said. "We''re going to play hard and do things no one expects us to.
NOTES: Hazelwood enters the season with 97 career coaching wins. ... MSU football coach Dan Mullen will serve as a guest bench coach Saturday night for the match against Montana.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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