2003 Volleyball Season Preview
Aug. 6, 2003
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- - The University of Memphis volleyball program fell just one victory shy of its second consecutive 20-win season in 2002 with a team that consisted of just one senior, two juniors and six newcomers. Tiger Head Coach Carrie Yerty is hoping that some of the self-described 'craziness' from 2002 will transition into a stronger 2003 season for the Tigers.
"Last season was crazy," Yerty said. "It was full of surprises. Jenni and Angie had to run the program while I focused on delivering a healthy baby. They did a great job and learned a lot. We had several players that really had incredible performances."
Senior Brittany Barnett has been one of the most versatile hitters in Tiger history, moving to middle hitter as a freshman due to off-season injuries to the Tigers' core of middles. The move resulted in Conference USA All-Freshman team honors and the seventh-best single season block assist performance in school history (105). Her sophomore season, Barnett was relegated to the back row as a defensive specialist after tearing an abdominal muscle. So when Barnett exploded with 532 kills her junior year, the Tiger coaching staff could only imagine what would have been had Barnett been healthy and able to play her natural outside position the previous two seasons.
The Dallas, Texas, native is just 171 kills shy of becoming the 13th Tiger in school history to hit the 1,000 career kill mark and is 257 kills shy of the career top 10 in kills. Barnett led the team with 4.16 kills per game in 2002 and was named to four all-tournament teams, including tournament MVP honors at the Yale Tournament. Barnett also posted 49 total blocks in 2002 and was fourth on the team with 34 service aces. An integral part of the Tigers' serve-receive, Barnett will continue to draw opponent's blocking attention and has continued to work on her shot selection to give her some more options when facing double blocks at the net.
"Brittany was the most consistent player on the floor for us last year," Yerty said. "Not only did she do a great job offensively with over four kills per game, but she stabilized our serve receive and did a great job defensively. (She) also brings the intangibles to the floor that every team needs - she is a great leader, and has no problem taking charge on the floor."
Barnett got some expected help when Tiara Gilkey moved from the middle to the outside slot to give her some more opportunities to terminate balls. Gilkey responded to the move with 426 kills, the 10th-best single season mark in school history, and was second on the squad with 72 total blocks, including 70 assisted. A powerful jumper who struggled with consistency in 2002, Gilkey will continue to be used all around the court, both on the outside and in the middle.
"Tiara has the ability to be a dominating player for us," Yerty said. "She is a great attacker and great blocker and has the ability to pass and play defense. It will be important for her to find consistency in her game throughout the entire season. If she can put it all together and provide a consistent weapon for us, she will be an unstoppable weapon for us."
Gilkey posted some impressive individual outings in 2002, downing 26 kills against UT-Martin and eventually putting together a string of consistent performances to earn all-tournament honors at Boston College. Gilkey also worked hard on her defense in 2002, resulting in a 19-dig effort at Dartmouth.
With Barnett and Gilkey in the rotation drawing a lot of defensive attention, that left multiple opportunities for freshman Nancy Nellans. Nellans responded with 353 kills, the third-highest mark on the squad, and led the team with 48 service aces. Nellans set a school record and tied a Conference USA record for service aces by a freshman with a nine-ace effort versus Arkansas State. The South Bend, Ind., native crushed 20 or more kills five times, including four times against Conference USA opponents.
"Nancy Nellans worked her way into the starting line-up and showed us what competitive attitude is all about," Yerty said. "Not only did she put herself in position to be a terminator at the outside hitter position, but she worked very hard at developing a great serve."
Freshman Jennie Toronto will join the outside hitter corps from Salt Lake City, Utah, and Highland High School. Toronto will come in and may see some time at right-side hitter after helping her prep squad to a third-place finish at the state tournament in 2002 and a runner-up finish in the region and state as a freshman.
"Like the rest of our 2003 recruiting class, we are anxious to see how (Jennie) makes the transition from high school to college ball," Yerty said.
The Tigers dodged a bullet in 2002 with just one setter on the roster. But since that one setter was rising junior Heather Watts, Yerty did not have much to worry about. Watts had one of the most impressive seasons in school history, with 1,575 assists, the second-best mark in school history, and the best mark in the sport's modern collegiate era when teams were not playing over 55 matches a year, as did the 1989 team of Clare Dirksen (the current record holder with 1,678 assists). Named to four all-tournament teams, including tournament MVP honors at Boston College, Watts was also named to the Verizon All-Academic District IV Second Team.
"Heather had a great year for us," Yerty said. "Her athleticism and her willingness to do whatever it takes to become one of the best setters in Conference USA is present in everything she does. She has developed into a great defensive player and is running the team better every day. In her first year as our primary setter after studying behind Amie Hamilton her first season, Heather worked very hard on developing her jump set and is providing her hitters with offensive opportunities to score."
Watts will have someone to push her in 2003 with the spring semester addition of Bulgaria-native Hristina Stancheva to the roster for 2003. Stancheva already has a spring semester of training with Watts under her belt and is already demonstrating the difference she will make in the Tiger rotation.
"(Hristina) brings an entirely different style of play to our team," Yerty said. "She is very aggressive and loves to compete. She and Heather complement each other very well and they work hard and push each other daily. It is nice to know that we have two quality setters ready to play."
The middle hitter spot was a spot of inconsistency for the Tigers in 2002. The year started with then-senior Brooke Chrisman and junior Shella Neba injured and it took until late in the season for the duo to get back to form. Only Neba and rising sophomore Kristen Hardee return to the Tiger middle for 2003, with Neba looking to capitalize on her final season in a Tiger uniform.
Already ninth in school history with 208 block assists, the Tigers will need Neba to put up more than her team-leading 93 blocks from 2002 while continuing to work as an effective hitter. As a sophomore, Neba hit .293 for the season, and over .300 against league competition, but the junior struggled in 2002, hitting .212 with just 168 kills after a 257-kill effort as a sophomore.
"Shella and Brittany (Barnett) are very different seniors," Yerty said. "Brittany attacks a challenge with fire and determination and never makes excuses for poor performances and is by far one of the hardest workers I have ever coached. Shella is more nuturing. She brings calmness to the team that is very useful during tight matches and with younger players. She has the ability to fire up and change the momentum of any game all by herself."
Hardee made the most of her playing time in her freshman campaign, stepping in and starting the four matches at the season-opening tournament at Georgia Southern. The result was a 53-kill season with 20 total block and 10 service aces for the freshman while playing behind Neba and Chrisman.
"We may see Kristen swing from several different spots on the court this year," Yerty said. "She is such an explosive player that we are eager to get her some more opportunities."
The returning pair of middles will be joined by a pair of newcomers in 2003. Fehi Tuivai transferred to Memphis from Eastern Washington over the summer and is expected to make the most of an opportunity for more playing time right away this fall.
"Fehi is anxious for the opportunity to play in Conference USA," Yerty said. "She will challenge the middles and Tiara for time on the court. She has a quick arm swing and is a selfless player. She is also a hard worker and a total team player who should do well in our system."
Tuivai played in 15 games for Eastern Washington in 2002 after redshirting 2001. She downed seven kills for an Eastern Washington team that went 29-2 overall and still missed the NCAA Tournament.
Also joining Tuivai in the middle will be Melissa Nance from Frankfort, Ind. Nance is a 6-1 middle who was an outstanding softball player in high school, but who is young in the sport of volleyball according to Yerty.
"Melissa will also be competing for an opportunity to dominate at middle hitter," Yerty said. "She was one of the best softball players in the state of Indiana, so we are looking to help her make the transition to volleyball. She has a lot of potential and a lot of athletic ability, and she brings us some much-needed depth and competition in the middle hitter spot."
With the transfer of last year's libero, Lauren Berg, the Tigers used the spring to hit the recruiting trail to find not just one, but two, liberos for 2003. Christen Clayton and Emily Steckel are each outside hitters who will be making the move to libero in 2003.
"We did lose our libero from last year," Yerty said. "But we replaced her with two players who would have pushed her for starting time as it was. Both Christen and Emily will see playing time as freshman and both are excellent defensive players. They come from very successful prep and club teams and give us one of our best overall talent levels in a recruiting class in past years."
In her eighth season at the helm of the Tiger program, Yerty now has the second-longest tenure of any Tiger coach in the program's history. What was a definite building project when Yerty came to Memphis seven years ago has some stepped-up goals for the 2003 season.
"As a whole, we were very disappointed in our overall record (in 2002), even with such a young team. Any time you lose seven matches in five games, it is going to be disappointing. But each of those matches gave our team a little more experience and our goal is to always dominate our non-conference schedule. Our next step is to make a jump in C-USA. Conference USA is a great volleyball conference," Yerty said. "There is a lot of parity among all the programs and a lot of pride in our conference as a whole. Twenty-win seasons are great, but the real challenge comes within our conference. It is important for us that we get at least three or four teams into the NCAA Tournament every year, and to get Memphis to that level."
After traveling to the East Coast twice last year for non-conference tournaments, Yerty focused on a more regional, budget-friendly schedule for 2003.
"Playing closer to home makes the transition from preseason to the regular season a little smoother for our student-athletes," Yerty said. "We have some great universities right here in our region, including our oldest rival (Ole Miss), and an NCAA Tournament team (UT Martin). Those types of teams can challenge us and get us ready for the league schedule."
The conference schedule opens against travel partner Saint Louis, Oct. 3rd, in St. Louis.
"Playing on the road is always challenging and in Conference USA, there are no easy weekends," Yerty said. "Five-game matches are not uncommon due to the parity among the teams. The new playing schedule (Friday and Saturday nights) has also added to that challenge. Friday and Saturday night competitions can sometimes be very brutal and teams that are on the road must be ready to play exhausted. The home team definitely has a home court advantage."
The Tigers' conference road schedule includes the opener at Saint Louis, a weekend at TCU and Houston, a weekend in the upper Midwest at Marquette and DePaul and an East Coast swing to East Carolina and Charlotte.
With the addition of chair-back seating behind both sidelines in the Elma Roane Fieldhouse, the Tigers are hoping a fired-up crowd will help Memphis improve on its 10-5 home mark from 2002.
"The improvements to the Fieldhouse will be a great asset to the program for recruiting," Yerty said. "Recruiting student-athletes to a quality facility is a huge tool for any athletic program. We love to play in the fieldhouse because it is a great size for volleyball, it is on campus, and has a great tradition. The seating brings the fans closer to the action and provides a real cozy feel for the Tigers.
Memphis will open its 2003 home schedule with its own tournament, featuring Holy Cross, Tennessee Tech and Louisiana-Lafayette. Memphis then will not see the friendly confines of the Fieldhouse until over a month later when a match against cross-town rival Christian Brothers kicks off a weekend of competition that includes UAB and South Florida. Memphis will also host Louisville and Cincinnati at the end of October before capping the 2003 conference schedule with home matches against Tulane and Southern Miss. With just 10 matches at home in 2003, Memphis will be looking to make the most of its opportunities to improve its Conference USA record.