Senior middle blocker Stella Odion is one of five seniors ready to lead the Bears back to the postseason.
Aug. 23, 2005
The 2005 Baylor volleyball team enters the campaign with its sights set on lifting the program to the postseason for the first time since 2001. The Bears have a season in second-year head coach Jim Barnes' system under their belts, five hungry seniors and a wealth of talented, young players ready to step up immediately.
"Our ultimate goal is to reach the NCAA Tournament," Barnes said. "That is going to become a standard goal for this program and we need to make sure the team is doing what it needs to do to make that happen. Historically, teams in the Big 12 need to win nine or 10 matches in conference play, so if we can reach that goal this team has a chance to win 20 matches."
To reach 20 wins, the Bears will have to make a significant improvement on their record of 12-19 in 2004 and a 4-16 ninth-place Big 12 finish. Barnes believes the turnaround is a distinct possibility if the team plays consistently every match and relies on its senior leadership, something the team lacked a year ago without a single senior on the roster.
Barnes was not content to go into the 2005 season with the same lineup, so the off-season brought position changes for some of the Bears' mainstays over the past few seasons. The head coach admitted to dreaming up the lineup changes as far back as November, but it was too late in the season to put them on the court.
"Last season enabled us to set up for spring practice," Barnes said. "We put people in more natural positions and by the end of the spring, we won both of the tournaments in which we played. The players are playing better than they ever have at Baylor, so the experiment is paying off. Offensively, we put up the kind of numbers it takes to compete in this league."
The Bears were ranked among the top 20 nationally in blocking in 2004, so there were positives to build on in the spring. Barnes said the blocking has improved, but what was critical was the improved passing on offense. "Athletically, we have always been considered one of the top teams in the country," Barnes said. "Now our skill level is there, we just have to go out and prove it. We continue to improve and adjust to the changes and we believe this program is ready to take its first big step."
One position that has remained constant is setter with the return of three-year starter Emily Huston (Santa Rosa, Calif.). Huston sits third on Baylor's all-time assists list with 3,300 and is an excellent server, also standing third on the school's all-time aces list with 137. While Dana Chuha's assist record seems to be safe at 4,955, Huston needs 59 aces, two fewer than her 2004 total, to become the school's all-time leader.
Barnes said Huston had the best spring of all of the players, running "the most effective offense since she's been at Baylor," and she gained valuable experience as a member of the under-21 USA Select team that toured Argentina in June.
"We asked Emily to become extremely accurate and she answered the call," Barnes said. "She continues to assume more of her leadership role and set up herself and her team for a great year." After splitting time at setter and middle blocker to ease some of the Bears' depth problems in 2004, sophomore Amanda Modglin (Houston, Texas) returns full time as the backup setter.
"Amanda continues to challenge Emily on the court," Barnes said. "Her work ethic and leadership skills make her a great setter for us in the future."
The outside positions underwent the most significant changes during the spring with junior Nicole LeBlanc (Tampa, Fla.) moving to the left side and senior Kelly Spriggs (Houston, Texas) taking over on the right side. LeBlanc is a versatile, explosive player and has led the Bears with 624 kills over her first two seasons. She has showed she can put up big numbers both on offense (28 kills at UT-Arlington) and on defense (23 digs at Oklahoma). LeBlanc is also averaging nearly a block per game for her career.
"The left side is the toughest position to learn on the court and Nicole has done an exceptional job learning it," Barnes said. "She is the consistent attack on the left side we've missed. She's one of the most versatile players in the league and I believe this is the season she will stand out as one of the top players in the Big 12."
Barnes believes Spriggs' skills will be much more effective on the right side, utilizing her strengths as an attacker and using her 10-foot-6 jump touch to challenge any left-side hitter the Bears face.
"Even though Kelly is a senior, this was a great change," Barnes said. "Right away she was hitting much better and more comfortable. She puts up a huge block on the right side and will make every left-side think twice."
Backing up on the outside will be junior college All-American junior Deja Sweeney (Sacramento, Calif.), a transfer from Sacramento City College. Sweeney enrolled at Baylor in January and gained valuable playing time by joining the team in time for spring workouts.
The coaching staff is high on their lone freshman scholarship signee, Kelsey Smith (Lubbock, Texas), who led Coronado High School to the state finals last year. Smith, who is a legitimate contender for Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors, is a tremendous competitor who some are already comparing to Baylor great Stevie Nicholas, who made an immediate impact on the program and was named a Freshman All-American.
"Kelsey has the physical and mental tools and leadership skills to be an elite player in this league," Barnes said. "She will have her growing pains, but we expect her to really contribute."
Redshirt freshman Krystle Everett (Crandall, Texas) is returning from off-season knee surgery and was limited during the spring. When she's healthy, Everett will provide even more depth to the left side.
Last season and into the spring, the Bears' most consistent offensive threat came from the middle, starting with junior All-Big 12 honoree Desiree Guilliard-Young (Berkeley, Calif.).
The coaching staff is looking for more consistency from the 6-foot-5 Guilliard-Young, a .308 hitter for her career, who hit .450 during the spring.
"We need Desiree to be a consistent offensive and blocking threat every night," Barnes said. "She has the physicalness to completely take over matches and I believe she's hungry enough this season to really be one of the top players in the league."
Senior Stella Odion (Houston, Texas) was also affected by the off-season changes, moving from the outside to the middle. She immediately took to the position, hitting over .400 for the spring after leading the Bears with 341 kills in 2004.
"With Stella making a smooth transition to the middle, it will allow us to execute our offensive philosophy, which is centered around a strong middle attack," Barnes said.
The Bears were dealt a blow to their depth in the middle when senior Adeline Meira (Sao Paulo, Brazil), who ranked fourth in the Big 12 last year with 1.56 blocks per game, chose to redshirt this season after offseason knee surgery. Even though Meira will not be on the court, she is still one of the team's emotional leaders and Barnes expects her to play a key role.
The loss of Meira made room for the addition of 6-foot-5 Melanie Hamerly (Orange, Texas), a member of Baylor's 2005 national champion women's basketball team. Hamerly earned four letters for the Lady Bears without using a redshirt year and is using her fifth year to play volleyball. Hamerly will not only provide depth in the middle, but is also learning the right-side hitter position.
"We are very happy to add Melanie to compete at two positions at which we're not very deep," Barnes said. "She's 6-foot-5 and has the potential to contribute at the net with her blocking. Even though her volleyball skills are rusty, she is still an accomplished player and her experience as a national champion will provide interesting insight as the season goes on."
Sophomore Kristen Schramek (San Antonio, Texas) took over the libero position early in the 2004 season as a redshirt freshman and instantly made a difference defensively, vaulting into the top 10 in the Big 12 with 3.41 digs per game and 3.68 in league matches. She posted double-digit digs in 23 matches, including 19 of the last 21 and three matches of 20-plus digs. Schramek's breakout match was a then-career high 22-dig effort at No. 5 Nebraska.
"Kristen has continued to elevate her play and worked extremely hard in the offseason," Barnes said. "Her goal is to be the top player in the league defensively and she's already one of the best in the conference. If she's consistent in serve receive, we will have a very successful year."
Senior Maggie Chlebana (Calgary, Alberta) averaged 2.09 digs per game last season and will solidify the Bears' defensively.
"We will rely on Maggie to be consistent defensively," Barnes said. "Our defense is improved with the defensive-minded attitude she brings to the floor in practice and in matches. She also helps us on offense as part of our serve receive and allows our offense to work more effectively. She will play a huge role, especially as a senior, because she can turn games around with her serving and digging."
Sophomore Heather Marcus (Arlington, Texas) saw limited action last year backing up Schramek and Chlebana, but brings great enthusiasm and energy to the team.
"Heather continues to work hard and is quickly learning the defensive systems," Barnes said. "She's a great competitor and helps the team on a daily basis, helping raise the level of play in practice. Teams win championships by competing hard in practice."
Freshman Jenné Blackburn (San Juan Capistrano, Calif.) will backup defensively and see some time on the outside. She is a skilled player, who is savvy with her ball control.
"Jenné is coming off knee surgery, so I'm not sure how much she can play at this point," Barnes said. "But she is a very inspirational player and is a big part of our future."
Barnes believes 2005 will be a breakthrough season for the Bears, because for the first time since he took the reigns, the team is going to be balanced - blocking tough, serving and receiving serve better and competing with consistency.
"If Emily keeps running an efficient offense like she did in the spring, we'll be successful," Barnes said. "She finally understood what I wanted offensively and she probably did better than even she thought she could do."
The strength of the team will also show through its leadership. "We have five seniors that will help us push through and win those two- and three-point games," Barnes said. "Last year, that was the difference between us and the top teams in the league."
The challenge for the 2005 Bears will be to prove that they have elevated their skills to match their athleticism and maintain the intensity needed to compete in one of the nation's elite volleyball conferences.
The Bears have shown over the past two seasons they can play with the country's top programs, posting wins over highly-ranked and NCAA Tournament-bound teams, but have to bring that effort consistently night-in and night-out to reach their goal of playing for the championship themselves.