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August 15, 2011

Hokies digging deep for repeat NCAA volleyball appearance

By: Marc Mullen

Head coach Chris Riley has nearly everyone back from a team that made history with an NCAA bid and victory

In head coach Chris Riley’s first year in Blacksburg, he led a Virginia Tech volleyball team that had won just 13 games in each of the prior three seasons to a 17-win season that included 11 ACC wins, still the high-water mark for the Hokies.

Last year, his fifth at Tech, Riley elevated the program to another plateau, accomplishing three things that had never been done at the school in the previous 33 seasons.

Erin Leaser

First, after 24 previous tries, the Hokies defeated a top-25 program with their 3-2 victory over No. 25 Florida State on Oct. 29. A month later, on Nov. 28, they earned an invitation to the NCAA Championships.

Five days later, they checked “NCAA tournament victory” off the list as they defeated Delaware in the first round before falling to three-time defending national champion Penn State on the Nittany Lions’ home court.

And Riley is poised to take a very experienced team back to the tournament, but wants more.

“Our expectation is the same as it is every year, trying to make the NCAA tournament and, for us, to try and advance past where we did last year,” he said. “Our goal is to make the Sweet 16, going a little bit farther than the round of 32.

“I think we’ve got a pretty experienced, good group, a senior-led team that’s been playing since they walked on campus. So we expect them to be pretty solid, and we’ve got a lot of experience on the floor.”

A member of Riley’s senior-laden roster, and the leader on the court, is setter Erin Leaser, who has made 91 starts and played in all 94 games since arriving as a freshman. She is already fourth all time at the school in assists with 3,755 and is just 1,000 shy of second. She would need a monster senior year to become the school record holder, as Melissa Markowski (2002-05) holds the mark at 5,287.

“Erin is definitely our floor leader, and we’re going to lean on her a lot,” Riley said. “She’s got to be consistent for us. She has to be solid and be the same player every day for us. We can be pretty good and make some good strides if our setters can be consistent.

“Erin, Allison (Munter, a sophomore) and Jordan (Fish, a freshman) are all going to be leaned on, and the most important aspect for all three of them is to be consistent everyday because we’ve got attackers all over the place that can score. So we’re going to be pretty physical, and we’re probably one of the best ball control teams in the conference, so if we can be consistent setting, we are going to be very good.”

Attackers include senior Justine Record, juniors Cara Baarendse and Jennifer Wiker, and sophomores Victoria Hamsher and Samantha Gostling, who all had at least 100 kills in 2010.

Baarendse is most likely the player who will be looked upon as the leader of this group after the graduation of three-time All-American Felicia Willoughby. An All-American herself in 2010, Baarendse led the Hokies with 385 kills and a .376 hitting percentage, and she added 121 digs to her totals.

“Losing Felicia is pretty hard, a three-time All-American and the best kid to play here, but Cara is fantastic,” Riley said. “To be an All-American as a sophomore is impressive. With the progression that she’s made and how efficient she is as an attacker – she just doesn’t make any mistakes – she’s going to be tough to defend. Cara could be hitting over .400 all year for us.”

Riley believes the experiences Leaser and Baarendse enjoyed this summer also will help his 2011 Hokies. In June, the pair joined a USA Development Team that trained for several days in California and then toured and played matches for almost two weeks in China.

“It was a great experience for both of them,” Riley said. “I think they played with a lot of great college players that are in the US system. They got an opportunity to play at a higher level, see what the international game was like, and keep playing together.

“They both made strides and came back comfortable with what we wanted them doing and what the next level looks like. So they are going to try and bring that to our gym with our group.”

And a group is exactly how Riley sees his 2011 squad. He believes that, at times in prior seasons, his team was too “Felicia heavy,” and that this year, his team will feature a more balanced attack.

Evidence he pointed to was during the spring, when his team went 7-1 in a pair of tournaments that included a win over North Carolina, who also lost in the round of 32 at the NCAA tournament.

“At times this spring, we were actually better than we were in the fall,” Riley said. “We had a fantastic spring. With the amount of kids we had, being able to move them around and get them on the court was essential. But when we had our best team out there, we were very, very good.

“Our balance offensively – our ability to set anybody at any point – is a big emphasis for us, and it’s going to be really hard to defend us if we can do that. I’m excited about what we have, and we got a great group of freshmen coming in that are going to keep building on what we’ve done so far.”

The class coming includes Fish, a 5-foot-8 setter who earned first-team all-state selection in Michigan last year; LaTasha Samson-Akpan, a 6-foot middle blocker from Ohio who had 383 kills and 74 blocks as a senior; and Alyssa Gammel, a 5-10 outside hitter from California who was named a Fab 50.

“We’ve got a real good class coming in that all are going to be really good players,” Riley said. “Jordan’s a great setter, Alyssa is a dynamic jumper, a good ball-control kid, and LaTasha is so fast in the middle that she reminds me of what Felicia was before Felicia became Felicia.

“Then we’ve got a couple libero/defensive setters in Catherine Kane, a local Virginia kid and probably the fastest player on the team, and Gabrielle Talley. Lastly, we have Bailey Dowd, a 6-3 right side front from Pennsylvania, who is a big blocker. So we expect them to help us get better and help our practices tremendously.”

The last key component Riley points to for his team to make a return trip into the postseason is another solid non-conference showing. The schedule includes six 2010 NCAA tournament teams, among them Sweet 16 participant Indiana and SEC power Tennessee.

“If we learned anything from the past, for us to make the NCAA tournament, we’ve got to beat some teams that are going to be in it,” he said. “Last year, we beat Western Kentucky and Missouri in the non-conference and Florida State and Duke in the ACC. But you have to have some out-of-conference wins that put you on that board.

“So having the opportunity to play against teams like Tennessee and Indiana at home and playing against Western Kentucky, Ohio, Kentucky and UConn is something we are looking forward to. We have a very heavy schedule, but I think that’s what is going to help us get back to the NCAA tournament.”