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August 11, 2009

Under the radar? - Tech volleyball exploded onto the scene early last year before falling back to earth, so what's in store for 2009?

By: Matt Kovatch

Felicia Willoughby

In mid-July, FOX Sports came to Blacksburg to film “getting-to-know” interviews for ACC All Access, a weekly television series that provides insight into the world of Atlantic Coast Conference sports. Among the three subjects that day were two of the Hokie football team’s biggest stars – Stephan Virgil, the heir apparent to All-American Macho Harris at the boundary cornerback position, and quarterback Tyrod Taylor, the MVP of last year’s ACC championship game. The third, believe it or not, was volleyball standout Felicia Willoughby.

The interviews weren’t anything hard-hitting; rather, they were kept light and jovial in an effort to show viewers the fun side of the student-athletes’ personalities. They were asked to complete sentences like: “I’m secretly scared to death of blank,” or, “The last thing that made me say ‘wow’ was blank.”

While Virgil was a cut up and it was evident that Taylor had been in front of a camera before, Willoughby was a little more reserved and seemed hesitant to let loose.

But the fact that she was even selected to do the interview in the first place says a lot about the current state of Virginia Tech volleyball, which improved by leaps and bounds in 2008 behind the talent of Willoughby. That’s because up until that day in July, no female – or non-football player, for that matter – had ever been featured in that segment of the show.

“I guess that’s the last thing that made me say, ‘wow,’” Willoughby joked afterward of her newfound superlative. “That was pretty cool.”

Though the interview likely won’t air until sometime during the season, the fact that Willoughby was chosen to film it so far in advance shows how much some outsiders are expecting from the junior middle blocker and the Hokies in 2009.

After all, Willoughby was an honorable mention All-American as a sophomore after posting the ninth-best hitting percentage in the nation, with her mark of .402 leading the ACC and setting a new Virginia Tech single-season record. She also recorded team highs in kills (326) and blocks (117) along the way to earning all-region and all-conference honors.

Her teammates followed suit, and the Hokies started the season by winning 16 of their first 19 matches, including seven of their first eight in league play. It was a blistering start for a young team that included just two seniors, and the Hokies quickly snagged their share of the spotlight after being chosen in the preseason to finish eighth in the league.

The Hokies were in first place and the Tech faithful took notice, as attendance at games in Cassell Coliseum increased by well over 3,000 fans as compared to the previous year.

Setter Erin Leaser returns to lead the offense after a 2008 rookie campaign that earned her ACC All-Freshman Team honors.

But as the long conference slate dragged on, the Hokies began to slip, dropping eight of their final 12 matches to end the season in seventh place. Though Tech’s 11-9 ACC record was its best since joining the league in 2004, and its 20 overall victories were its highest total since 2002, the Hokies ended the season right where they started it – just under the radar.

“It’s not that we got complacent,” head coach Chris Riley said, “But we made more mistakes than we made earlier in the year, so we were losing some of those tight games that we were previously winning. I don’t think our level of play was that much lower – we still forced five sets at North Carolina, Duke and Virginia. We were right there, but we just couldn’t finish off some of those solid teams.”

Willoughby agreed.

“We did have an awesome start to the season, but I wouldn’t say that we got cocky,” the Pleasanton, Calif., native said. “I think we just got too comfortable with where we were. We need to learn to push throughout the whole season.”

Tech hit the proverbial midseason wall in 2008, and after giving four true freshmen heavy playing time as Riley did, that can certainly be forgiven. The late-season swoon may have put things in perspective for the returning players and given them motivation for the impending campaign, but it also may have done something far more advantageous – it may have tempered expectations of Tech by its opponents.

“I feel like teams didn’t give us that much credit [early last year],” Willoughby said. “They may have thought, ‘Yeah, Virginia Tech is doing well now, but when we play them again, they’re not going to do as well.’”
Some of those suspicions proved correct, as four rematches against previously beaten opponents resulted in losses for the Hokies as the season went on. Willoughby and Riley feel that just leaves Tech primed for another surprise run through the conference.

“They [opponents] didn’t believe that we could do it and we didn’t really show it toward the end of the season,” Willoughby admitted. “But by being under the radar, we can prove people wrong. It doesn’t put so much pressure on us because we don’t have anything to lose.”

“I think that any time you have a player as good as Felicia on your team, you’re not going to be too far under the radar,” Riley quickly said. “But I do think that we’ll probably be picked somewhere in the 5-6-7 range in the conference. That’s fine with me, because hopefully some of the teams above us will take us lightly and think that we’ll make the same mistakes again. I just don’t see that happening because I think we’re a better, deeper and more disciplined team. We know what to expect now and we know how to deal with certain situations when they come up.”

While the Hokies clearly want to navigate through this season in a more consistent fashion and avoid the mistakes that cost them some late-season victories in 2008, it’s going to take more than that to make Willoughby and others say “wow” when it’s all said and done. Here are four things that Tech might focus on to build on last season’s success:

1. Getting leadership from the upperclassmen.

There’s no better way to enjoy consistency than to have solid leadership at the top, and that’s exactly what the Hokies have this year with seniors Jill Gergen, Betsy Horowitz, Taylor Parrish and Michelle Lang. The first three comprise half of Tech’s six returning starters (Lang started her first two years at setter before giving way to Erin Leaser last season), which should allow Tech to build some cohesion to what already existed at the end of last year.

Gergen serves as the team’s libero/defensive specialist, while Parrish has been the team’s most targeted attacking option for three years running. Horowitz, meanwhile, should be back to full strength after missing a good chunk of the season’s second half with a back injury. The experience of this quartet will be even more important considering that the Hokies’ youthful roster includes five sophomores, one redshirt freshman and four true freshmen.

Now in his fourth year at the helm, Riley has guided the development of the senior class and is proud of what that group brings to the table.

“It’s been great to see the progress that they’ve made as players and as people,” he said. “They’ve helped turn Virginia Tech volleyball into what it’s going to be and where it’s headed. We owe a lot to them.”

2. Keeping the offense on par with the defense.

At this time a year ago, Riley said that he wasn’t worried about his defense. In fact, the Hokies led the ACC in blocking in 2007. Instead, he wanted his offense to improve to the point where Tech presented a balanced effort in both aspects of the game. Has it happened?

“No doubt,” he said. “I think our ball control allowed us to use the middle as much as possible. Before Betsy got hurt, she was hitting over .400 also [in addition to Willoughby]. So we’ve got two middles with a hitting percentage of over .400, and that’s unheard of.”

Riley considers Willoughby and Horowitz to be the best pair of middles in the conference when healthy, and said that if those two, combined with Parrish, are playing to their potential, “We’re pretty tough to beat.”

Of course, that’s not possible without a good setter, and the Hokies have one in Leaser, who is now a sophomore after a rookie campaign in which she was named to the ACC All-Freshman Team. She ranked sixth in the conference with 1,084 total assists, but it was her steady and level-headed play that gave the Tech offense what it needed.

“We allowed our outside hitters to have some openings to attack, and Erin did a great job in allowing that to happen,” Riley said. “She deserves a lot of credit for how smoothly our offense was run throughout the year.”

3. Making sure that the sophomores take the next step.

While Leaser was extremely valuable as a freshman, there were three other rookies who made regular contributions in their debuts: outside hitter Justine Record, and middle blockers Alison Blasingame and Kirsty Blue.

Record’s 5-foot-8 frame doesn’t strike fear into opponents, but her incredible vertical leap aided in her finishing third on the team in kills. However, she led the team in hitting errors by a wide margin and that must improve if the Hokies want to avoid giving away free points. Blasingame and Blue were solid hitting and blocking options off the bench and should compete for time, especially if Horowitz – who has suffered an injury in each of her three seasons – goes down again.

Kirsten Higareda has one more year as Gergen’s backup at libero, but watch out for 6-3 outside hitter Jenn Wiker, who redshirted as a freshman to get stronger. With the highest approach touch (10 feet, 2 inches) on the team, she could give the Hokies a totally different dimension on the outside with her hitting and blocking.

4. Producing another standout freshman.

The Hokies have placed a player on the ACC All-Freshman Team in each of the past three seasons (Parrish in 2006, Willoughby in 2007, Leaser in 2008), and there are four individuals who could keep the streak alive this season. The group includes middle/right side hitter Cara Baarendse from Mason, Ohio, middle blocker Liz Trinchere from Salem, Va., and defensive specialist/libero Jessica Wellman from McKinney, Texas. But the one to watch may be outside hitter Morgan O’Neill.

The San Jose, Calif., native first caught the eye of Tech’s staff when she was playing club ball with Willoughby, and she went on to become a high school All-American.

“Morgan is one of the best pure ball control players I’ve ever seen,” Riley said.
As one of the freshmen who has bloomed in Tech’s program, Willoughby thinks that any one of this year’s four rookies could be next in line.

“I think the coaching staff gives the freshmen a lot of opportunities to succeed,” she said. “They don’t hesitate to put them into games and they give them a chance to show people what they can do.”
But according to Riley, getting freshmen who succeed is about more than just giving them a shot.

“We’re simply recruiting better student-athletes,” he said. “We’re always trying to recruit kids who are better than what we have. We’re excited about this recruiting class, but next year’s recruiting class will be even better than this one. We want to build a national-level program and that’s how you do it.”