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August 17, 2010

Stepping it up - Hokies to prepare themselves for the ACC's long haul with tough non-conference slate

By: Matt Kovatch

Amy Wengrenovich will play a bigger role in her senior season as one of the Hokies’ defensive stoppers.

Hot summer day after hot summer day, children of all ages filed into Cassell Coliseum for one of the many camps held by the Virginia Tech volleyball program. There were individual camps and team camps, instructional camps and advanced skills camps, overnight camps and day camps.

In fact, there were so many high school teams registered in the competition camp in late July that action spilled onto temporary courts in Rector Field House. Tech head coach Chris Riley and his staff ran everything, and while the camps made for a hectic preseason with little time to relax, they provided a hidden, non-monetary bonus for the Hokies – added experience for the Tech players.

“Our players were here from the second summer session on,” Riley said. “They were working a lot of camps and that gave them an opportunity to be around the game. It’s tremendous for them to come to the second summer session and be able to do that. Not only did it give them a big leg up academically by being here to take classes, but also it really helped with their learning process.

“For anybody, once you start teaching it, you become a much better player yourself. They really enjoyed it and now they see the things that we try to work on in our practices. They have a better understanding of what we’re looking for.”

What Riley and his coaches are looking for, especially this season, are better performances in tough situations. But that’s not about to happen in the friendly confines of Cassell Coliseum, where the Hokies went 12-3 last year and where they haven’t experienced a losing season since 1996.

If Tech expects to make any sort of push toward the postseason in 2010 and beyond, it’s going to have to play better on the road. In fact, the Hokies haven’t won more than five road games in a season since 1998, the last time they posted a winning record away from Blacksburg. It’s become a troublesome contrast, and it becomes even more visible late in the season when Atlantic Coast Conference battles rage. The Hokies started 16-3 in 2008 before dropping eight of their final 12 matches, and they began 16-5 in 2009 before losing seven of their last 10.

Riley feels that the only way to avoid faltering down the stretch again is to put the team through some tougher tests early on in non-conference play.

“We need to focus on playing tougher teams on the road,” he said. “We scheduled some games early to put ourselves in difficult situations on the road and to learn how to be successful in that environment. It puts us in a situation where we have to be able to compete every night no matter what the environment and no matter where we’re playing.”

Included among the non-conference tests will be 20-win Xavier and NCAA Tournament participant Tennessee at the season-opening Lady Vol Classic, as well as three NCAA Tournament teams in Coastal Carolina, Long Island and Jacksonville State during the second weekend of the agenda. Then at the Western Kentucky Tournament on the slate’s third weekend, there is Central Arkansas (27-3 in 2009), Western Kentucky (25-9) and Missouri (18-12). It’s a more daunting itinerary than in the recent past, but sacrificing a few wins early on is a small price to pay if the lessons are learned for later in the season.

“We’ve got to be more diligent in the level of competition on the road now,” Riley added. “It’s been a building-block process, but now we’re at that level where we need to be pushing ourselves in the preseason all the time. The ACC, especially this year, is as deep as it’s ever been. Everybody is going to be good, and you have to compete every night to win. For us, that environment is what we are looking for.

“Our group is looking forward to it. They know exactly what is asked of them. They’ve bought into what we’re trying to do by building things up that way, so they’re ready for the challenge.”

Meeting that challenge head on will be a group led by two seniors, middle blocker Felicia Willoughby and defensive specialist Amy Wengrenovich. Not much needs to be said about Willoughby, a two-time honorable mention All-American and one of the ACC’s elite players, but Wengrenovich looks to play a much bigger role than she has in the past.

Cara Baarendse displayed great talent as an outside hitter as a freshman in 2009, and her number will likely be called more often on attack this season.

“Amy will be on the floor somewhere and it might even be at libero,” Riley said. “She brings great ball control, a great work ethic and defensive range that very few have. We’ve got a bunch of liberos, but in the spring, Amy was clearly our best.”

Joining those two in the lineup will again be the set-and-swing duo of setter Erin Leaser and outside hitter Justine Record, both juniors who earned all-state honors last year. Record led the team in kills and service aces in 2009, while Leaser has been the steady distributor of the ball for two seasons now.

Fellow junior Kirsten Higareda will compete for the libero job with Wengrenovich, as will Morgan O’Neill, a sophomore who started 13 matches and played in 22 as a defensive specialist/outside hitter a year ago. O’Neill, however, underwent rotator cuff surgery in the offseason and might not be able to swing at 100 percent until midseason, therefore rendering her to more of a defensive role early on.

Another sophomore who will be a major contributor is Cara Baarendse, a 2009 ACC All-Freshman Team honoree after a campaign in which she led Tech with a .354 hitting percentage that ranked third in school history.

Riley and his staff have also added six freshmen this year – two of whom figure to join Baarendse, Record and Willoughby on the attack from day one. Making an immediate impact will be 6-foot-1 Samantha Gostling, an outside hitter out of Charlotte, North Carolina.

“Samantha has the potential to be the best outside hitter we’ve ever had here at Virginia Tech,” Riley said. “She’s a physical presence and she plays the game all the way around. She’s going to be a six-rotation player for us, playing in the front row and the back row.”

Then there’s 6-2 Tori Hamsher from Nazareth, Pennsylvania, a middle blocker who will be groomed as the heir apparent to Willoughby up front.

“Tori is going to be a big part of the future of our program offensively,” Riley said. “She’s probably going to take Felicia’s spot after Felicia graduates. She’s going to come a long way, and she’s going to be asked to come a long way pretty quickly.”

How quickly she and the rest of the Hokies adjust remains to be seen, but that early-season schedule will give them plenty of opportunities to do so.

“If we take care of our business and can get a little bit better every day, we’ll put ourselves in a position where we don’t have to worry about wins and losses,” Riley concluded. “The product will be good enough that it will take care of itself.”

For The Official Volleyball Roster click here.

For The Official Volleyball Schedule click here.