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November 7, 2008

Leaser, freshmen at the center of volleyball's resurgence

By: Matt Kovatch

Setter Erin Leaser is just one of the seven freshmen who have aided in the Hokies’ improvement this year.

Even on the day before Halloween, it still remained to be seen. Had the Virginia Tech volleyball team’s success to that point been a trick? Or was it a treat?

Tech fans still have the month of November to find out, but the Hokies entered All Hallows Eve in a three-way tie for first place in the ACC with an 8-3 league record (17-5 overall), and that’s certainly nothing to make faces at – especially considering that Tech finished 2007 in eighth place at 8-14.

And much like Halloween is characterized by youngsters in search of candy, the 2008 Hokies have also been driven by a group of youngsters – seven freshmen who have revitalized the program.

At the center of it all has been Erin Leaser, a rookie from Allentown, Pa., who has gradually seized the setting job – volleyball’s equivalent of a quarterback or a point guard – since arriving in Blacksburg over the summer.

But ask head coach Chris Riley, or even Leaser herself, and not even they saw this type of success coming. Besides, Tech already had a two-year incumbent setter, junior Michelle Lang, and at best, she and Leaser would be splitting the duties.

“I came in not expecting to play very much,” Leaser remembered. “I was just going to work hard during summer school with open gyms and lifting, and I just planned on preparing for two years before starting in my junior year.”

“There really wasn’t a lot of pressure on her,” Riley agreed. “We didn’t expect too much, but she’s really come in and settled our offense.”

But something happened during the second session of summer school, which nearly the entire team showed up for. The seven freshmen (Leaser, Alison Blasingame, Kirsty Blue, Kirsten Higareda, Justine Record, Jenn Wiker and Jessica Woody) took to each other, and in turn, the rest of the Hokies. They developed a connection and a chemistry that has eased the transition from high school to college.

“Coming in for the summer helped a lot because that was when we really got to know each other,” Leaser said. “We were always with each other playing, lifting and eating. We even had classes together. I think that really gave us an advantage heading into the season because we basically had a two-month head start.”

While Leaser and Record, an outside hitter who is among the team leaders in kills, have made a huge impact in Tech’s matches, don’t think that it is solely the newcomers who have sparked the Hokies’ turnaround. Tech’s veterans, like Kristen Cunningham, Sarah Munoz, Jill Gergen, Betsy Horowitz, Taylor Parrish and Felicia Willoughby (“Felicia is the go-to hitter for me,” Leaser said. “She’s one of those players who has a lot of drive, and when we’re in tight situations, she’ll look at me and say, ‘Erin, give me the ball.’ I know that she’s ready for it and that she will get the job done for us.”) are still the main weapons in the Hokies’ arsenal. But they can’t develop those weapons without quality practice time, and that’s where the freshmen come in.

“It’s obviously still a work in progress, but the freshmen have brought a different level of attitude and all-around volleyball skill that we haven’t really had here in such a big class,” Riley said. “They’ve allowed us to be more consistent on both sides of the net in practice so that we’re competing against ourselves and pushing to get better and better every day. They’re all taking their time, making their progression as a group and pulling our team along with them.”

“I think we all contribute so much to practice every day,” Leaser agreed. “We really add to the overall chemistry of the team.”

As big of a role as talent plays in the success of any team, a good mental approach is just as important, and that’s something that the Hokies are developing as well. Riley said the team got caught doing a little bit of scoreboard watching once it realized it was in first place, and that led to back-to-back losses against Duke and Florida State. But the Hokies bounced back with a win against Miami on Oct. 25th to get back on track.

One might think that late-September upsets of Georgia Tech and Clemson – the two teams predicted to finish atop the ACC before the season – might have been the highlights of the year, but Leaser cites the Miami match.

“I think the Georgia Tech and Clemson games were really exciting, but I think the win against Miami was the best feeling that I’ve had so far,” she said. “We had just come off of two losses and we weren’t really playing as a team. We were losing confidence, but I think that win was the best thing for us.”

While that might sound like coach-speak, it’s that level-headedness that has made Leaser one of the keys to Tech’s success this season.

“Erin has really come in and settled our offense,” Riley said. “She brings a calmness to what we’re doing that allows our offense to run smoothly and our players to do their job. She makes good decisions and plays a consistent ball-control game, and that’s what has really helped us take it to the next level.”

The Hokies are still figuring out what that level is, and whatever it ends up being in 2008, expect it to be higher in 2009.

“We’ve got a great group with these freshmen,” Riley concluded. “And we’ve also got a great group of girls coming in next year who will be equally as good – not as many – but just as talented, if not more so. We’ve got a great, young nucleus of players who are going to be able to bring this program to another level. What that level is, we’ll have to see, but it will be better than it’s been before – that’s for sure.”