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August 14, 2013

Mixing youth and experience

By: Marc Mullen

The Tech volleyball program lost talented stalwarts Cara Baarendse and Jennifer Wiker, but several returning players and some talented freshmen hope to lead the Hokies to success in 2013

Samantha Gostling is one of several veteran players returning to lead the Tech volleyball squad this season.

For the first time in five seasons, Virginia Tech volleyball coach Chris Riley will not have a returning All-ACC member on his squad. Felicia Willoughby [2008-2010] and Cara Baarendse [2010-2012] each picked up three of those awards during their Hokie playing days, but now they are just names in Tech’s record books.

Any member of the 2013 Hokie squad will have her work cut out to extend the program’s streak to six straight seasons with an All-ACC performer. After all, the new-look Atlantic Coast Conference adds three teams, including a strong Notre Dame program.

But discount the Hokies. They do have some talent in their own right.

“I am excited about the group,” Riley said. “We’ve got some seasoned veterans who have played a lot in Sam [Samantha Gostling] and Tori [Victoria Hamsher], Kathryn [Caine] and Jordan [Fish]. They’ve played a lot of minutes, and they’ve played some significant time for us. So that part, I’m excited about.

“But we are going to have some challenges, which I’m looking forward to. We graduated almost our entire serve/receive from last year. We’ve got mostly new passers in there, so for us, that’s a challenge and something to work at every day. So we know exactly what we’ve got to do to get better.”

Seniors Gostling and Hamsher definitely fit the bill for possible All-ACC honors, as each enjoyed successful seasons in 2012. Playing next to Baarendse and Jennifer Wiker, the pair put up similar numbers to the departed graduates.

Gostling’s numbers of 328 kills, 955 total attacks and 3.39 points per set were on par with Wiker’s (327, 1,032, 3.62 pps), while Hamsher’s numbers of 236 kills, 464 total attacks and team-high 95 blocks were similar to Baarendse’s 244, 55, and 83.

The other two returning starters are juniors in Caine (232 kills, 459 total attacks, 50 blocks) and Fish (1,090 assists and 190 digs), who stepped into the full-time setter’s role last year.

“I wasn’t surprised at her setting. That’s exactly what I expected from her,” Riley said. “She needed the experience that Erin [Leaser] had, so it wasn’t the same, but Jordan’s got that experience now. She’s learning very fast, and she’s getting much better.

“She’s, right now, without a doubt, our best setter. We expect big things from her. We expect leadership. We expect decision-making, and we expect all the right things from her. She gives it to us most of the time now, so I feel very comfortable with her running the show.”

But replacing those two top-notch seniors up front – Baarendse and Wiker – was a priority during the preseason and don’t be surprised if freshmen are called upon at some point to fill those spots, or if a different style of play is implemented.

“Kathryn did a great job last year, and I think she is going to be asked to do a lot more this year,” Riley said. “I think Tori is going to be asked to do more. But we are pretty solid with three or four very good outsides that are going to be asked to do more.

“With last year, Sam and Jen, we weren’t quite as defensive as we needed to be. We’ve got Sam, who’s better defensively in blocking, and with Kennedy Bryan and freshmen Lindsey Owens and Amanda McKinzie coming in and playing at such a high level, we’ll be a different team than what we were. We will be more defensively oriented.”

Riley is high on his freshmen and the sophomores he brought in last year. So he sees a future nucleus that will be solid for another few years.

“We’ve got a young team that’s pretty physical and pretty solid,” he said. “It’s a very encouraging and entertaining time. With us being young, we could be great at times, and we could be bad at times. There’s going to be a rollercoaster, more so than the last few years when we had a pretty solid upper-class base.

“We’ve got a great freshman class that is probably the most athletic and most complete freshman class we’ve ever had. And then to follow that up with last year’s freshman class, I think that group playing together is going to be solid. We’ve got a great foundation.”

Those freshmen, along with the rest of the team, will be tested this season, and not just by a tougher ACC, but also by the early portion of the schedule. The Hokies will face 2012 NCAA Tournament participant Michigan State in the final game of the Hokie Invitational and will also see two NCAA teams at the Louisville Classic – Louisville and Bowling Green – in late September.

“We scheduled very difficult teams to come into Cassell [Coliseum], and we’ve got difficult tournaments on the road,” Riley said. “Everybody is good. There are no easy matches on our schedule, period. We have to show up to play every day. But that’s to get us ready for what the ACC is like.

“There are no easy matches in our conference, and not that there ever have been, but now it’s just gotten exponentially more difficult. But I’m excited about that. I want that level of competition.

“I want our conference to be – you got the Pac 12 and the Big 10 as far as the premier leagues – but I would like us to be the third-best league in the country. And that helps us all. I like that level. I’d like us [the Hokies] to be pushing to be a top-15 team every year, and the better the conference is, the more chance we have to do that.”

Certainly, if the Hokies find themselves in the top 15 this year, they’ll probably have more than their share of All-ACC performers – yet again.