Full disclosure: As we've noted here before, we cannot rationally discuss USF Volleyball with any sense of integrity or impartiality. That's because we are complete and shameless shills for this program. They could be caught on video beating up old people for their change purses, and we would still be at the next match yelling our undying support. However, we really do believe everything we're writing below.
After two weekends, it looks like USF Volleyball might be on to something. The Bulls have played a monster schedule over the opening two weekends that will certainly help in the RPI, taking on four teams that played in the NCAA Tournament last year in their first five matches. They come out of that gauntlet at 2-3, including a heartbreaking 5 set loss to #16 Kentucky in Lexington. But with such a young squad, Coach Claire Lessinger and her team now have a much better sense of who they are and what it will take to be successful in BIG EAST play.
The big question marks coming into the season were how the Bulls would replace five seniors, including four time All-BIG EAST outside hitter Marcela Gurgel and one of America's leading middle blockers last season, Alli Arbogast. So far the outside hitter spot has been filled with two sophomores, with Latvian Maija Strazdina leading the team in kills at a 3.0 per set so far, and Clearwater High's J'Beria Davis taking All-Tournament honors last weekend in Lexington. Davis proved she could terminate balls against high level competition while playing Kentucky, leading both teams with 16 kills on 41 attacks.
The middle blocker of the future appears to be Venezuelan freshman Andrea Rodriguez Gomez, who seems to have all the tools to be a superstar. But like most 17-year old freshman, she needs to figure out what she's doing first. She has 29 kills and 17 blocks so far this season, but also 20 hitting errors and six blocking errors. I was at the Bulls preseason scrimmage, and Rodriguez Gomez was the player that really stood out with her combination of athleticism and power. Every time I looked up from the stats computer I was manning she was putting a "1" set away beautifully. And Lessinger and her staff have proven over the years that they can develop players at the middle blocker position. Both Arbogast and 2007 graduate Nakia Williams came to Tampa as raw as a California sushi roll (and believe me, that's being kind), and both left as All-BIG EAST performers. Rodriguez Gomez is light years ahead of them at this point, and looks to go nowhere but up from here.
The other middle is redshirt sophomore Caitlyn Breen, who starts for the second straight season. Breen led all BIG EAST freshman with 1.11 blocks per set last season, and will be counted on to contribute even more in 2010 for this team to head up the conference ladder.
Senior leadership will come from right side Allie Boaz and setter Mariana Thon. Boaz is the teams emotional spark plug, who plays with an infectious joy that is fun to watch. A true lefthander both on and off the court (yes, that means flaky), Boaz will need to step up offensively to take some of the pressure off the inexperienced middle blockers and outside hitters up front. Thon is an athletic setter with a monster jump serve and four years of starting experience. In 2010 she is on the court full-time, as the Bulls switch to a 5-1 offense from their usual 6-2, meaning Thon will play in all six rotations instead of just the three in the back row. Without Gurgel, her ability to distribute will be even more important in keeping defenses honest, and keeping blockers away from attackers.
The libero will be junior Janice Rivera, who will be the one inspiring the question "why is that one girl wearing a different color jersey?" The libero is a defensive only position which can substitute for any player in the back row at any time, usually the middle blocker. Rivera is exactly what you want in a back row specialist; someone that is an exceptional passer and defender, and a vocal leader. Rivera had 31 digs against Miami, Ohio on Saturday, and her ability to consistently give Thon the ball in the proper spot will be huge for the Bulls to succeed.
The Bulls get one more road test before conference play this weekend, heading to Carbondale, Illinois to take on Doug Woolard's alma mater in the Southern Illinois tournament, as well as Southeast Missouri State and MIssissippi State. Then they finally come home to the often raucous madhouse of The Corral for their own tournament with New Mexico, FAU, and Jacksonville.
It's a young team, but one that has talent at all positions and the potential to improve greatly as the season goes along. They'll need to get better every weekend if they want to return to their fifth straight conference tournament, as only the top eight teams make it to the season finale.
And as an aside: If you haven't been to a volleyball match, make sure you get to one this season. The good part is the sport and the team are entertaining enough where we won't have to encourage you to come back again, you'll do that on your own. There is no better fan environment at USF than The Corral, and no team and fan base more welcoming of new friends. /shamelessshilling