Aug. 8, 2003
WACO, Texas -
A young Baylor squad returns in 2003 -- young, but with a surprising amout of experience.
Eight players are back from a year ago: six experienced underclassmen plus a pair of all-Big 12 seniors. Those eight, combined with an outstanding recruiting class, make for a high-energy team with a good balance of youth, athleticism and experience, and a desire to make an impact on the Big 12 Conference.
While injuries cut short the team's postseason dreams a year ago, those same injuries provided a greater variety of players with playing time than usual, a result head coach Brian Hosfeld hopes will work to his team's advantage this year.
"We had a lot of people get a lot of playing time last year," Hosfeld said. "They had an opportunity to see what it takes to play at this level, and that has helped them better prepare this summer."
That extra experience will provide the Bears with their greatest asset this season: depth.
"We have a lot more depth at just about every position," Hosfeld said. "I don't think that in my time here we have been as competitive at each position as we are this year. Day in and day out, our players will have to be competitive to hold their positions.
"That depth will allow us to train people in position -- to give them a chance to settle in and feel comfortable at one spot. It will allow us to train our team system, to get them more comfortable with their responsibilities than we have in the past."
The 2003 squad will be led by a pair of seniors in 2002 all-Big 12 honoree Tisha Schwartz and two-time all-Big 12 selection Stevie Nicholas.
"With Tisha's experience last year moving from the middle to the outside, she's given us the opportunity to have a lot of options," Hosfeld said. "The jump she made was probably the biggest jump of development I've seen in a player. Now, there's a new level of confidence in her abilities, since she's done it before."
Nicholas is returning to action after missing most of last season after injuring her right knee in October. Lingering effects of the injury mean Nicholas will start the year at either libero or defensive specialist.
"Stevie, being the other senior, is looking to come back strong. She led our team in digs before her injury, and we're comfortable with her coming back in that position. She's the type of personality that leads by example, so her energy and competitiveness will lead the team in the right direction," Hosfeld said.
"Any time you can have two all-Big 12 players on the court, that's definitely a positive for the team. Those two also bring a great amount of energy to the floor. That's one-third of the team that is comfortable and knowledgeable about their abilities."
With no juniors on the roster, the Bears expect heavy contributions from an experienced sophomore class. Emily Huston will likely begin the season at setter, while Stella Odion appeared in 29 of Baylor's 31 matches a year ago. Kelly Spriggs and Marisa Kersten were among the Bears limited by injury last year who should be 100 percent for this season.
"With her size (6-1), Emily can be one of the better blocking setters in our conference," Hosfeld said. "Offensively, when she's on the front row, her ability to score points can potentially wreak havoc on teams, as well.
"Stella's speed and athleticism is by far an advantage in getting her acclimated over on the
right side. She'll become a very saavy player as she gets comfortable over there.
"Physically, Kelly was going over people last year. before her injury. Seeing her come back in the spring and make adjustments like she did is exciting. She can definitely be a force to be reckoned with.
"Marisa has been working hard on the skills that will allow her to contribute. Defensively, she's got good foot speed and can be a player that is exciting to watch. She'll fit in the mix at defensive specialist and the libero position."
Maggie Chlebana is a sophomore transfer from Southeastern Louisiana, where she appeared in 30 of 32 matches for the Lions in 2002.
"We brought Maggie in to challenge Emily with the setting responsibilities," Hosfeld said. "She's got a good background with club experience, and should give us a lot of opportunities in how we decide to play."
Redshirt freshman Desiree Guillard-Young is back after spending last season training on the side.
"Desiree spent last year training and working out with weights. Her strength is much improved, as is her playing ability," Hosfeld said. "I can see her playing potentially in the middle or on the right side, where she can block balls and make the other teams think twice about running the offense at her."
The list of true freshmen includes Casey Schuur, Nicole LeBlanc and Kristen Schramek.
"Casey comes from a very competitive club in Southern California; she has played at a good level all th eway through her club career. She's got great ball control, and should help our team in that department, both passing and defensively," Hosfeld said.
"Nicole is going to be one to watch. She, too, comes from a great club background. She's explosive, has great lateral movement, and can get up quick. As soon she gets comfortable in our system, she will be someone we want to get the ball to quite a bit.
"Kristen played at a good level of club. She is very athletic, has good foot speed and controls the ball well. She will compete for time at defensive specialist and/or libero. We're always excited when we get somebody within the state with the skills that she has."
The Bears have three new faces who bring a taste of international experience with them to Waco. Sophomore Adeline Meira comes to Baylor from Brazil, while freshmen Eszter Kovacs and Andrea Vakulya hail from Hungary.
"Adeline came in to start the spring and has adjusted well to speaking English and going to school," Hosfeld said. "She's a very fast attacker who has played the middle blocker position, but she could be moved to one of the outside hitter or rightside hitter positions. She has lots of experience, and that needs to be on the court.
"With her size (6-4), Eszter has an advantage that should allow her to block for points right away. She will have to make an adjustment to our system, but when she does, she'll be able to score a lot of points for us. She has good foot speed for her size and can create some good angles.
"We're going to be counting on Andrea's ability to control the ball. Her experience should allow her to be really comfortable in our formations. She is the complete type of player, the kind you can really count on: mature, with a relaxed intensity."
Also coming to Texas from overseas is former Hungarian national team coach Jozsef Forman, one of two new assistant coaches for the Bears. Forman and fellow assistant Sarah McFarland, a two-time all-American at Loyola Marymount.
"We look forward to tapping into their experience; that will help this team improve at a quick pace," Hosfeld said.
All those attributes will be needed as the Bears face yet another deep schedule.
"We'll get tested right out of the gates at our tournament," Hosfeld said. "It will be good to start with our annual scrimmage, then start at home and get four matches under our belt."
Even though the Big 12 Conference race is considered to be more wide open than ever, the league is still easily one of the top three in the nation. Baylor will have to battle from August to November to reach its goal of finishing in the top portion of the conference and advancing once more to the NCAAs.
"Coming off last year, this team is very motivated and looking forward to getting back at some of those teams that had their way with us last year," Hosfeld said. "With our new staff in place, we are anxious to get this season underway."