September 23, 2010 7:40:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Caitlin Rance loves a challenge.
Like most hitters, her biggest obstacles usually come at the net reading a block or when she is trying to deliver a kill.
But the most valuable hitters also can dig and pass and play in all six rotations.
That''s the challenge Mississippi State volleyball coach Jenny Hazelwood made to Rance last season.
"She told me she couldn''t leave me in the back row because I wasn''t consistent enough but if I got better she would leave me back there and I had to earn it," Rance said. "I just told myself I was going to play back row and I worked on it a lot."
Rance will showcase her improved play at 7 p.m. Friday when she and MSU (8-4) will try to snap a three-game losing skid when they play host to the University of Arkansas in their Southeastern Conference home opener.
Rance is coming off a 16-kill, 10-dig performance Sunday in a 3-1 loss to the University of Mississippi. Her production in both areas is a marked improvement for someone who admits she was focused on one thing when she arrived in Starkville.
"When I first came here I really just focused on hitting because I knew we had a lot of good defensive players and they would probably play defense for me," Rance said.
That all changed after Hazelwood issued the challenge.
Rance agreed with the assessment and has worked on improving her footwork and her ability to read the setter to make sure she is where she needs to be.
"It''s still a work in progress," Rance said. "I still need to improve a lot on passing and to get a lot quicker on defense. I have improved a lot, but it still is not up to par."
Hazelwood, who is in her second season, said Rance has come a long way in the last few years. She said she has adjusted to her role as a "go-to player" and is finding ways to be effective. In a 3-1 victory against the University of Texas Arlington, Rance had a career-high 25 kills. Her play helped her join senior middle blocker Ashley Newsome on the all-tournament team.
Entering Friday''s match, Rance leads the Bulldogs in kills (163), total attacks (445), hitting percentage (.261), and kills per set (3.98), where she is ranked third in the SEC.
Rance, a 6-foot junior outside hitter/opposite, also is second on the team to defensive specialist/libero Kayla Woodard in digs with 96. She has double-digit kills and digs in five matches this season.
"Defensively, she definitely has improved a lot," Hazelwood said. "We''re gong to keep raising that bar for her to get better and better. If she is going to play in all six rotations I need her to be somebody people don''t want to hit the ball to."
Hazelwood likes to be honest with her players, which is why she told Rance what she needed to do to earn more playing time. She feels Rance has accepted the challenge and is working on the little things, like positioning, to help her make more plays.
"She is going to have to make sure she is being that much more disciplined in getting to her spots so she can do all she is supposed to do," Hazelwood said. "She has to continue to work on her passing, and she is a target in our serve receive pattern. We have got to be good in our serve receive."
With all of the improvements Rance has made, Hazelwood feels she can make even more progress, and she will continue to push her to those heights.
"I don''t think she is one of our strongest defensive players, so she obviously is doing the things we need," Hazelwood said. "She is finding ways to make things happen. ... I don''t want her to be satisfied with being better. I want her to be at her fullest potential."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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