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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Tuesday Cardinal Couple - Volleyball Wrap-Up


( Staff columnist and legendary Volleyball fan "Worldwide" Jeff McAdams presents his wrap-up on the 2013 volleyball season for the University of Louisville Cardinals.)

Another season of Louisville Volleyball has reached its conclusion.  While its always a disappointment to end the season with a loss, its always good to keep in mind that its really quite rare to end a season with a win.  Ending the season with a loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament is particularly disappointing, however.

A Rebuilding Year

Early in the season, and even in pre-season, we discussed how difficult it was going to be for UofL to replace the 70% of the offense that graduated last year with Lola Arslanbeckova, Gwen Rucker, Kaitlyn James, and Tanya Lukyanenko; and that proved to be a big challenge for this team indeed.

Specifically, replacing Lola's outside hitting wasn't really possible.  While Maya McClendon and Janelle Jenkins displayed amazing talent and skills, as freshmen (Janelle having redshirted last year) they were not able to bring the maturity and precision of a senior world-class hitter like Lola.  Keep your eye on them because in the coming years, they will definitely be forces to reckon with.

In the middle, we were concerned about who would take over for Gwen Rucker.  We have two freshmen middles in Sydney Cooper, and Brooke Betts, but neither saw much playing time.  Brooke spent the early season recovering from an ACL that happened midway through her senior year of high school, entered a match, and promptly tore her ACL again.  Sydney has been developing, and saw a little bit of playing time, but will need more development to contribute valuable playing time.  Our saving grace in the middle was a timely transfer in Randi Ewing.  Having graduated from Fordham with a year of playing eligibility remaining, Randi came to UofL to play for a year and did a reasonable job of replacing Gwen Rucker.  To say only "reasonable" is not a slam on Randi, but rather acknowledgement that Gwen left some very big shoes to fill.

Some Real Bright Spots

So what went well this year?  Well, we've talked about these points all season, and already touched on one or two in the above paragraphs.

Janelle Jenkins and Maya McClendon are a fearsome duo that have been super great fun to watch.  They are dynamic and powerful hitters, and with some refinement from playing another year or two are going to be a serious threat to any team in the country.

Katie George at setter plays well above the level you would expect from a sophomore.  She's consistent and has great athleticism getting to passes even when they aren't on the mark and can do amazing things with them.  She frequently made back sets to the right side and quick sets to middle hitters that left me with the classic fan's response, "No! No! YES!!!" when she made a set that I thought was ill-fated, but she pulled it off, and in style.  Katie is a big part of the reason that I really wish the NCAA would tighten up on double-touch calls on sets.  Her setting is precise and clean, and tighter calls would benefit us because most setters would get called with double-touches more frequently than Katie would.

Haley Pouliezos was at least half a step, if not a full step, faster than she was last year in getting to and digging hits.  Her passing was generally on target, though she did seem to struggle a little bit with serve receives of float serves (serves where there is no spin on the ball and it behaves like a knuckle-ball in baseball and is very hard to predict where its going).

As mentioned above, Randi Ewing was a real force in the middle, but on the other side of the rotation, Brooke Mattingly may have been even more impressive.  Truth be told, watching Brooke play her first year of play (she redshirted her first year), I didn't ever expect her to be a major impact player at UofL, but boy am I happy to have been wrong on that one.

Emily Juhl came back for an impressive senior campaign as well.  I have, of course, written a number of times about her booming serves and impressive hitting, but I feel like I need to mention them again.  Knowing how much she was bothered by stress fractures in her leg her sophomore season, and taking her junior season and more to really recover from the surgery to insert a rod in her bone, it was absolutely wonderful to see her have a good season of play.

Last, but definitely not least, Caitlin Welch was one of the best Libero's in the nation, at least by my estimation.  Caitlin has aspirations of playing on the US National Team, and I think she has the skills to do it.  Combine an almost eery sixth sense for where to be to dig hits with great athleticism and quickness, a fearlessness to go wherever she needs to go to get the digs, and the physical robustness to dive, roll and, bounce off of whatever obstacles might be in her way without getting injured, and you have a libero that can get to, and pass with great precision to keep plays alive that I thought were sure kills.

What Does Next Year Look Like?

We graduate 5 players this year.  Carly Sahagian, Randi Ewing, Brooke Mattingly, Emily Juhl, and Caitlin Welch have all finished their eligibility for volleyball and none have any aspirations of playing any other sports that I'm aware of.

Carly has only seen limited playing time due to perennial knee issues, so losing her isn't really going to hurt us as a team very much, to be honest.  Carly has been a great teammate and supporter, but she hasn't been able to contribute much on the court.

Losing Randi Ewing and Brooke Mattingly each individually would be a blow to the team as they
have both been strong presences in the middle this year.  To lose the pair of them together brings back some of the angst I had in the past off-season about what we were going to do in the middle blocker position.  Last year we only lost Gwen Rucker, but didn't have any other middles on the team.  This year we lost both of our starting middle blockers, but on the other hand, do have Brooke Betts and Sydney Cooper that have been on the sidelines.  We also have two signed recruits that are middles coming in for next year.  Maggie Dejong and Tess Clark will be freshmen middles.  (For our readers looking for height, Tess Clark is 6'4".)  I don't expect our middle blocking and hitting next year to be up to the calibre that we have experienced in the past years with Randi, Brooke, and Gwen; and going back further to players like Lecia Brown.  We will have players to play the position, but I suspect it will be another year or two before any of them are playing with confidence and at the level that we're used to seeing.

The graduation of Emily Juhl takes away an offensive weapon.  Losing Randi and Brooke together leaves us very thin in the middle position overall.  Losing Emily doesn't have that same effect.  We have other outside hitters that are good and getting better.  We will need more, but we have other offensive weapons that we can adjust our game around.

Caitlin Welch will not be directly replaced.  Yes, we will have a player wearing a different colored jersey than the rest of the team playing the libero position, but it will be a long time, if ever, before we find as effective of a libero as Welch.  Haley Pouliezos seems to be the likely candidate for the libero position for next year, and she has advanced and developed quite a bit as a player this season, but I'll be very surprised if she will demonstrate the kind of effectiveness on defense that Caitlin contributed.  Again, this isn't intended to be a slight of Haley's skills and contributions, but a recognition that very few can achieve the same level of play as Caitlin Welch.  Courtney Robison should be available to play as a Defensive specialist next year, which is important to have a DS that can sub in for offensive hitters that really just aren't up to playing a full rotation.  Courtney is currently recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum in her hip.

Overall, I think we'll be a slightly improved team next year.  We're losing some key players to graduation, and will have some challenges in the middle, but other roles should be covered pretty well.

I'll be looking forward to the beginning of the season in September.


( EDITOR'S NOTE...23-8 is not a bad season for Anne Kordes' crew and the 18-0 mark in AAC Conference play will probably never be matched. The Cards struggled early in non conference play that saw them facing numerous top-25 schools and NCAA Tournament participants. The bar does need to be set to the next level and subsequently cleared by Kordes and her staff, though. The rebuilding process needs to make the VolleyCards a contender in tougher ACC competition in 2014 and further down the road. My guess is the Cards may take a step back in 2014 with leaders Juhl, Welch, Mattingly, Kvitle and Ewing gone. There is hope for the future in Jenkins, McClendon, George and Pouliezos, though and it'll be interesting to see how the Cards fare against a conference that sent four schools to the 'big dance' but just has one still left alive (Florida State).


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