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Volleyball Preview: Midway Through A Rebuild

The usual disclaimer goes here: Volleyball is our favorite. They always have been, they always will be. This is very likely a totally biased preview because we love them more than the other kids. We've been on their fundraising committee for 12 years now, and we have a highly vested interest in this program. Sorry for any objections... what, you want us to lie to you?

It's the second year for USF Volleyball coach Courtney Draper, and the team she wants to build is starting to take shape. There are eight new players on her roster of fourteen, and two All-Big East performers from 2012 transferred out in Kayla Walton (Missouri State) and Valerie El-Houssein (Tulsa). Draper's plan to completely retool the program is starting to take shape, and though it's a young roster there's plenty of on-court experience available at all positions.

With a minimum of nine players seeing the floor in every set through the 6-2 system USF will use (two outside hitters, two rightside hitters, two middle blockers, two setters, and a libero), many of the newbies will be put into the fire right away. It's a young team that's designed to grow together, and how competitive they are this season will portend how far through the process of rebuilding the squad in her vision Draper is.

"I think we can terminate balls, and we have some experience in our starting lineup," says Draper, who finished 17-15 last season, including a promising win over third-seeded Notre Dame in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament. "I think we could be a more aggressive serving team, but every week our serving gets better. Our serve receive has been a little up and down too, but when it's good it's very good."

The Bulls most solidified position is at middle blocker, where Andrea Rodriguez Gomez will be the M1, captain, and the only senior on the roster. 'Dre enters the season chasing multiple USF career blocking records after averaging1.07 blocks per set last season. The Venezuelan native is not only the face of USF (literally), but has been a four-year starter in the middle, and the Bulls most likely only go as far as she can take them. Her offense has improved each season, as she's super-athletic with a quick arm that eats overpasses and "1" sets.

Winthrop transfer Jennica Mullins will be the M2 after leading the Eagles in kills (277) and blocks (147) over the last two seasons. The 6'1 junior from Seminole, Fla. returns home and will be asked to step in right away at a higher level of competition following her second-team All-Big South nod last year.

If the middle is the most established position, the right side is the most open. "Right side is our most competitive spot with five players that are real options and will all compete for playing time," says Draper. Ciara Brown averaged 1.98 kills per set last year for the Bulls, hitting .241 inside the right pin during her freshman campaign while appearing in 31 of 32 matches. Also returning is Kayla Bivins, sister of USF Football's Chris Bivins, who medically redshirted last year as a freshman and will get her first full look after the injury.

Redshirt junior Carissa Whalen transferred from North Dakota State, where she played in every match on an NCAA Tournament team for the Bison last year. Whalen will also be the third option at middle blocker, as she was the second leading blocker on a team that won two Summit League titles. Freshmen Alexus Heidelberg (West Orange HS) and Rachyl Thomsen (Gilbert, Ariz.) add depth and will get an opportunity in practice to see the court this year as well.

With an injury to freshman Hailey Brooks (Mechanicsville, Va.), both 6-2 setters from last season in sophomores Natalia Soares and Wylie Devlin will be pressed back into service. Both are only 5-7, so as long as one of them is always in the back row their lack of height isn't an issue, but an injury that would force one of them to play all six rotations could become a problem. Soares is the S1 due to her very soft hands and deft touch quarterbacking the offense, and a return by Brooks could see Devlin returned to the libero position she was originally recruited to play but has barely filled since arriving on campus. Freshman Amy Van Sant (Atlanta, Ga.) will be given the alternate jersey as the libero right away, and her ball control will be a major factor in how the Bulls perform, particularly early in the season.

At outside hitter, reigning Big East Freshman of the Year Erin Fairs returns as the O1. Fairs improved dramatically as 2012 wore on, finishing with a team-leading 316 kills. At 5'11 she is touching higher than ever, but will need to continue her passing improvement to help fill all six rotations effectively. Freshman Dakota Hampton (Orland Park, Ill.) will compete with Jaime Dickinson (Gurnee, Ill.) for the O2 slot, with several of the rightside options like Brown and Heidelberg able to play on left as well. Hampton has had a solid preseason as a passer, which will be needed as the outside hitters will be the only players on the court at all times in the 6-2.

The Bulls start the schedule strong, opening the season as well as the USF Invitational against Miami this Friday at 2pm in The Corral. The Citadel, Austin Peay, and Ball State are also on the docket over two days, but the competition will get much tougher next weekend as they to Omaha where they'll take on traditional powers California and Creighton as well as Northern Colorado.

The American schedule format is a double-round robin against all league opponents. With 18 conference games there will be no conference tournament in 2013, so it will take a huge record (and maybe even a win against preseason favorite Louisville) to even get a sniff at an NCAA bid. But the reimaging of USF Volleyball continues, and this season will serve as a status check to see how far along that journey the Bulls are.