Few people expect this year’s GW women’s volleyball team to match last season’s accomplishments. Coming off a year in which the Colonials rolled through the Atlantic 10 Tournament, defeated Xavier for the championship and earned a berth to the NCAA Tournament, this year’s young squad holds lower expectations.
The team has already dropped its first six matches. Last year’s squad never lost two in a row.
Within a year, the Colonials (0-6) have gone from one of the toughest and consistent teams in the A-10 to its most inexperienced. The 2001 Colonials bring to the floor a new front line, a new back line, a new captain, a new assistant coach, and six freshmen- not to mention a head coach who has just year at the helm.
With the core of the team built around an alliance of sophomores, the Colonials are staring down at what will most likely be a long and painful season. Ruth Lazzari, the lone returning starter, played in 106 games in 2000 before suffering a dislocated ankle after the A-10 Tournament.
The team returns without Jill Levey, a three-year MVP and All A-10 setter, who’s exit left a gaping hole at the setter position. Sophomore Lauren Dunning, the team’s captain, will be looked at to replace Levey.
They also return without junior Abby Ernst, a promising middle hitter whose chronic back injury forced her out of the game.
The team is in the early stages of rebuilding after the loss of six seniors, including five starters.
“(The team) has three years ahead of us to grow and be great,” Dunning said.
Head coach Jojit Coronel does not rebuff the argument that his team lacks the experience necessary to win games. Coronel’s assessment of the season is blunt but not without hope.
“(We might) get hammered right off the bat,” he said. “It will be a tough season with many ups and downs, hopefully we will scrap out way into the A-10 tourney with one of the four best records in the league. Our goal is to win the A-10 though, and get back into the NCAA tournament.”
In their first three matches at George Mason Aug 31-Sept 1, the Colonials failed to win one game, let alone an entire match.
The colonials failed to redeem themselves this weekend in the Pacific Women’s Volleyball tournament. The Colonials dropped mathce3s to the University of the Pacific, Northwestern University, and the University of Connecticut.
Dunning said the team has quickly gelled into a unique style of play. Though she said the women like Coronel’s and assistant coach Amy Bambenek’s coaching styles, the coaches have designed and implemented a style of play that caters to the youth and muscle of the team.
“We play like a men’s team in terms of back row attacks,” said Lidsay Ochs, another sophomore likely to start at middle hitter. Ochs played din 44 games last season and amassed the most block assists (24) of the freshmen class.
In early practices, Coronel has placed a tremendous emphasis on technique and ball control rather than weighing the players down with a heavy playbook.
Shannon Farley is the team’s only returning senior. Farley’s role, in addition to her position of defensive specialist, is to provide the team with leadership.
“Shannon has really been there for all of us,” said freshman Katie Downey, an outside hitter from Caldwell, Ind. “She’s been there, she knows what’s going on, she lends that experience. It’s nice having someone that’s been here for a while.”
Lazzari is the lone returning starter. She appeared in 106 games last season as a freshman and held her won while playing with a class of seniors. Lazzari recorded 274 digs and 70 kills but suffered a dislocated ankle at the end of the season after the A-10 tournament. She said the team spent enough time together during the summer to get acquainted.
“The returning are very close,” Lazzari said. “We spent most of our free time off court together last year.”
Nobody seems to question the experience of Coronel, who is a coach building on a career that took a sudden turn a little more that a year ago.
It was early August last year when Coronel was assistant coach under Yvette Moorehead. Last August Moorehead was found dead in her Arlington, Va., home. Coronel was immediately named interim head coach.
After last season’s triumphant performance played in Moorehead’s honor, both the A-10 and the American Volleyball Coaches Association named Coronel coach of the year. The team won 25 games.
Dunning and the players agreed that they trust Coronel’s instructions and wisdom despite his inexperience.
“He’s very positive, very encouraging,” said Britta Stroman, a a6-foot-2 middle blocker from Edina, Minn. “I feel comfortable taking criticism from him. He is one of the main reasons I chose GW.”
To win the conference GW will mist likely have to dominate Xavier or Dayton, the preseason favorites to win the conference title. While few people expect the Colonials to repeat the accomplishments of last year, the players say they will not settle for mediocrity.
“We want to win bad. We’re just hungry,” Dunning said.
Coronel said he was very excited about the freshmen class. Molly Law, he said, is a “nice defensive player.” Law is a 5-foot-10 outside hitter from Denver. The Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post twice named her an all-state player.
Coronel said Stroman “does all the little things you ask of her.” She will see plenty of playing time this season, the coach said.
Other newcomers include three players from California: Kristin Kiefer, a 5-foot-10 setter from Santa Barbara; Amanda Carnahan, a 6-foot-3 middle hitter from Santa Rosa; and Jacqueline Kay, a 5-foot-8 setter from Pacific Palisades. The freshmen are expected to see immediate playing time because GW graduated six seniors.
The freshmen are not the only new addition to the program. Amy Bambenek took over as assistant coach May 13. Bambenek comes to GW after three seasons as an assistant coach at Florida State University.
“Amy is kind of the team’s mother figure,” Ochs said. “She is on the same thinking level as Jojit.”
“Jo and Amy came into the season extremely prepared,” said Dunning, who added that the addition of Bambenek signifies the start of a new program.
They are young and inexperienced. But that does not stop the players from setting their sights on the A-10 championship and NCAA tournament, freshman Stroman said. They are young, fresh, and ready.
“We need to get better everyday and every practice,” Coronel said. “As long as we see improvement from match to match and practice to practice, we’ll be okay.”