Aug. 12, 2002
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -
1. Last season was a banner year for the Tiger volleyball program, with four key seniors in the line-up who did a great job of helping you get off to a solid start in 2001, starting the season with a school-best 10-0 record. With those four student-athletes now gone, what is the key to again getting off to a good start in 2002?
Our physical conditioning and team chemistry will definitely be significant factors for us in getting off to a good start again this season. We had a great spring. Brittany Barnett stepped up as one of our key all-around players and Tiara Gilkey moved from the middle to the outside and was another strong attacking player for us. Tiara really developed into one of our go-to players. I think that once we develop some consistency, our strength and conditioning and our development from the spring will help us get off to a solid start again this season.
2. Talk a little bit about the returning players, particularly your only senior, Brooke Chrisman, and your junior class (Brittany Barnett and Shella Neba).
Brooke has really made a complete turnaround in the past year. She was a transfer here and with a year's experience under her belt, she has made the transition to the environment, the training and our system here. She also had a great spring and added 10 pounds of muscle. She is so strong now and her overall play has also improved, so I think she is ready for a great senior year.
Brittany took another big step for us this year. She moved from middle back to outside last year and then she tore an ab muscle early last season. That injury probably kept her from being one of our starting outsides and restricted her just to back-row play. But she is healthy now and is a great physical force at the net. She has several shots now at the net and has matured nicely into an upperclassman. We will look for her to be a leader both on and off the court.
Shella continues to get better and better. After hitting .300 in conference play last season, she has worked hard on her blocking and will continue to get better in that area of her game. We work hard to make sure to get her more repetitions and more touches to round out that part of her game. She is also such a great role model for our team. She's a great student and has developed into a great leader as well.
3. How did the spring go for the Tigers this year?
We had a great spring. We went 12-3 and beat some good teams. We had another busy spring because none of our players, except Shella, played the same position in the spring as they did in the fall. Tiara moved from middle to an outside and Heather Watts moved from a defensive specialist to our setter. The team did a great job of making those adjustments, it is not something that is easy to do, but we are confident that everyone fits well in their new roles heading into the fall.
4. How important is it that when you were hiring an assistant coach, you found one with previous head coaching experience. Is Coach Sykes experience needed more this season with so many newcomers?
Steve is such an important addition to our staff. He not only has head coaching experience, but he has been a head coach in this conference. He is going to help our offense, especially. I really am looking forward to the experience he will bring into the gym during practice and to his helping us incorporate a faster offense as soon as our team can implement it. With a bunch of very athletic newcomers and a solid core of returning players, I'm really excited about what this season will bring for our program thanks to the new players and to Steve joining our team.
I am also excited to have Jenni Rosselli back for another year. She is a great recruiting coordinator and will be working directly with the middles this fall. She is a great role model for the student-athletes, especially since she was a Tiger.
We did lose Coach Hale this year after she moved to Georgia, but Angela Graziani, another former Tiger, will step in as an assistant coach for us. We will really utilize her area of specialty, right side, with our young team. She will work and train with the right sides in practice and will do some traveling with the team this year as well.
5. With just one setter on the roster, are there any concerns about the offense and talk a bit about the challenge facing sophomore Heather Watts as she switches from a back to setter from a defensive specialist position.
Heather played setter in high school and really has the ability to run the offense. She's quick and has great court awareness. She really had a great spring running the offense and I really think she will become one of the top leaders in the conference in her Tiger career. Her teammates respond well to her and in addition to her being very athletic, she is very calm on the court, which helps sooth the rest of the team. She is a great leader by example and was one of our top defensive players and servers last season. Being a setter this year, we will need her to help block. But she already possesses a nice block on the right side. She will also add an extra wrinkle to our offense in that she is ambidextrous. Having her able to hit from either hand is a weapon we have not possessed before. Heather is definitely developing into one of our team's strongest assets.
6. Your offense loses four of the top five offensive threats from last season, obviously Brittany will be looked to for power from the outside and Shella from the middle, but who else could figure into the lineup early?
Brittany will be one of our go-tos, as will Shella. I think a year in the system will help Brooke really emerge this season as well. She has a great slide, which will make her another talented hitter up at the net. The move we made in moving Tiara Gilkey from the middle to the outside gives us another multi-faceted weapon in that she can hit from the right, middle or left sides of the court and that will make her tougher to defend.
The addition of the newcomers should see some freshmen push for significant playing time right away. Ashley Green, Nan and Nancy all have the ability to break in on the front row and help us out and Kristin gives us another front-row hitter, but she also has great back-row abilities.
I know we lost a lot after last season, but I keep stressing how excited I am about this season. We have so much depth on this team, that if we can keep everyone healthy, we are easily deeper than we have ever been in the past.
7. Out of the 10 players on the roster last season, seven of them were named to the Conference USA Academic Honor Roll; you had an academic all-american in 2000 and the Tigers were recognized by the AVCA in consecutive years for your team GPA. How important is academics to you?
Academics has always been a priority for our program. We believe that balance academically and athletically makes for a well-rounded graduate from our program who will represent both our team and our university well when they leave Memphis. We prioritize academics and our goal is to always be in the top two or three in the conference in team GPA and to strive for Academic All-American status.
8. Talk a bit about the six new freshmen on this year's squad.
Lauren Berg is probably one of the best liberos that I have ever seen play. She is a consistent passer, a great defender and will probably have a full-time position on the court if she continues to work hard and improve this summer.
Kristin Hardee gives us depth in the middle. She is a fiery, competitive worker who will challenge both Brooke and Shella for their starting spots and she also brings great back-court ability, something that Brooke and Shella are not as comfortable with. Kristin is a solid passer and will play some defense for us this season.
Nancy Nellans played on one of the best club teams in the country and is a fiery outside hitter who is determined to win. She can pass and play defense and should figure into things on the outside this year as well.
Nan Kimbrell from Lafayette will challenge for either a left or right-side position. She has been working hard this summer to get into good shape and to train to get ready for this fall. She is dedicated. She paid her own way to summer school to get a jump on things academically and training-wise and we are really looking forward to having her on the team and having her push the rest of the team by competing for a spot right away when we open practice.
Ashley Green is a highly-talented right side who has been sidelined this spring due to a shoulder injury, but she will be back in action this fall. She should bring depth to the right side and will hopefully be able to contribute right away.
Jaci Johnson is a Memphian who is adding some assistance to our back-row play. She has been a Tiger fan since about age 12 and has wanted to play volleyball for the Tigers as long as I've known her. She is another player who trained with the team at her own expense this summer, taking classes and getting ready for camp to open in the fall. She has a great personality and will add a lot of spirit and humor to our team.
9. Okay, make a prediction about where the Tigers will finish in Conference USA this season?
I would expect us to be in the middle of the pack somewhere, always working to get to the top in terms of win-loss. I think our depth, chemistry and conditioning will be an advantage for us this year. We have a solid core returning and have very athletic younger players that have had a lot of success before in their careers. Our environment in practice is going to be fun and competitive because of the level of talent we are bringing in. I expect an exciting year with this new group. The easiest answer in terms of the answer to our success this year will be how long it takes for our team to mesh together. If that happens quickly, we will have another good season. These players all have great commitment and dedication and want to excel both on and off the court, so if we work hard, we should always be in a position to win matches. It will definitely be exciting to watch this team this year.
10. Any other general thoughts you want to share?
Again, I keep saying it, but I am really excited about what we have in store this season. I have a lot of confidence in our returning players and think we have very talented newcomers that will help us become one of the top teams in the league. I have a great coaching staff to help me with Steve, Jenni and Angela and Lee has done a tremendous job of getting the team physically conditioned for the upcoming season. I can't wait, it'll be a great year.