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1998 Volleyball Outlook
With four Final Four appearances in the past six years, seven-straight Southeastern Conference Championships and numerous individual awards, the Florida Gators certainly have established themselves as one of the most elite programs in the country. However, 1998 will produce some new challenges for eighth-year head coach Mary Wise.
More so than any other year in Wises tenure with the Gators, the squad will need to replace a high percentage of on-court production. Nonetheless, you will not hear any complaints from Wise and company as an optimistic humbleness surrounds this group, which in effect "will be a hard-nosed, scrappy, gritty team that loves to compete," according to Wise.
"From what Ive seen in the off-season, this will be a hard-working group," Wise observed. "This will not be a team that overwhelms you with its size. We would like to think that night in and night out, this team will fight for every side-out and point.
"There are a lot of unknowns so far with this year's team. We've got some big shoes to fill," Wise says speaking of the graduations of AVCA first-team All-America and SEC Player of the Year recipient Nina Foster, All-SEC players Nikki Shade and Aurymar Rodriguez, and defensive powerhouse Claire Roach.
But wait. Dont cash out the Gators just yet. A strong nucleus of returnees give Wise a reason to smile. Among all the uncertainty are several proven performers. Headlining the group is junior All-America candidate Jenny Manz. Wise feels it is Manzs time to burst on the national scene, "Jen is one of those throw-back athletesa gym rat who loves to play and compete. She has a chance to be an elite-level player at the collegiate level and beyond."
Also returning are two seniors who have a lot of playing time in their Gator resumes. Fifth-year senior Jenni Keene moves to the No. 1 outside hitting position after starting the last two seasons as the O2. Meanwhile, senior Jeni Jones returns for her final campaign after missing the last two months of 1997 with a rare illness.
The biggest change for UF will be at the setting position. Junior Jennifer Sanchez served as Shades understudy the past two seasons and now gets her chance to run the team.
"It's like we've changed quarterbacks," Wise said. "But Chez is ready. Shes had to be patient while waiting for her time to come. Well, her time is now."
So what will all of these new challenges bring to a team learning new roles? Wise believes strengths will include ball control and quickness. Whereas last years team had a slew of physical hitters, this years edition will rely on defense and team speed.
"We should have an improved defense this year because we have more good players who can make the quick transition and score points from defense to offense," Wise said. "This could be the quickest team we have had at Florida. That should enable us to have better ball control and make quality first contacts."
Wise is quick to point out that even though the teams talents have changed, the work ethic will not. She notes that the same work that went into the first SEC Championship in 1991 was still there when the Gators captured their seventh-consecutive league crown.
"We still believe you prepare for each opponent one match at a time," Wise explained. "This year, we might be the underdog more often than in the past. But, we think our schedule gives us every chance to be playing our best volleyball come December."
Wise and her Gators have established a "take all comers" mentality when it comes to scheduling, and 1998 is no exception. Thirteen teams which made the 1997 NCAA Tournament are on this seasons slate. In addition, nine of those teams finished in the top 25 in the final USA Today/AVCA poll.
For the first time in the Wise era, Florida will open their season on the road, traveling to Hawaii to play in the Wahine Classic. There, Florida will face Ohio State, UCLA and Hawaii, all of which were ranked in the top 20 in the preseason polls.
Floridas 15-match home schedule gets underway in the Sun Trust Invitational a week later when Northwestern, Pittsburgh and Kansas State come to Gainesville. The highlight of the home matches will probably be Sept. 23 when the ninth-ranked Texas Longhorns return for the first time in two years.
The other early tournament has Florida traveling to Lincoln, Neb., to play in the First Bank Tournament. Loyola Marymount, Wyoming and the host Cornhuskers (preseason ranked No. 5) present yet another new challenge for the Gators.
"The first three weekends of this season will be as demanding as any we have tried to date," Wise said. "We believe that in order to get better you have to risk failure. You do that by playing against the best competition."
Additional highlights include the annual intrastate rivalry with Florida State and a mid-season match-up with Notre Dame. Wise also acknowledges that the target on Floridas back grows bigger each year as the SEC titles have accumulated. Even though Florida is now a big-time player in the national spotlight, she has focused on the ever-improving SEC.
The regular season concludes with another creative scheduling move by Wise and her staff. Florida will host the first Conference Challenge at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. Pac-10 powers Washington and Washington State will travel to Orlando to square off against UF and league-rival South Carolina.
"Our primary goal is to put ourselves in position to win the league and head into December on a roll," Wise says. "To accomplish that, this team will have to respect the fact everyone in the SEC is gunning for us. This year, teams will feel they can get us. Thats good for our conference. We found out last year that even though we might not get through the league unscathed, we still can be the team in the NCAA tournament that no one wants in their bracket."
A lot of new faces and unknowns, a brutal schedulecertainly a tough line-up for the Gatorshowever, Wise and her squad have proven that in the 1990s the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Below is a breakdown of the 1998 Gators by position.
The only known on the outside for Florida will be fifth-year senior Keene. However, even Keene will have to learn a new role as the Gators No. 1 outside hitter. Keene, according to Wise, has emerged as one of the best players in the region because she has the ability to play both the front and back rows at an elite level.
Keenes defensive prowess will be one of the Gators cornerstones this year.
"For us to be successful this year, Jennis got to lead us in digs," Wise said of the 5-11 Lodi, Calif., native who did just that a year ago with 390.
The other positive note that Keene brings to the court is her ability to perform in the big matches. Her three best career dig efforts have been 27 against Michigan State in the 1996 Central Region Champion-ship, 26 vs. No. 3 Nebraska and 25 against South Florida in 1997. This year, she will be asked to carry more of the defensive load on a consistent basis.
The unknown is who will play the O2 opposite of Keene. The answer may be by committee. Junior Sandra Reboucas, and sophomores Jerilyn Hattendorf and Janie Velentzas will all get a shot at earning the starting nod. Reboucas and Hattendorf platooned last season in defensive specialist role. The two combined for 278 digs on the year. Both figure to battle throughout the year for the front row.
Velentzas will also compete after red-shirting her freshman campaign. In a limited role last year, she also saw some back row duty. Her quickness, however, makes her another candidate for that O2 position.
Here, the Gators figure to have one of the countrys elite players in All-America candidate Manz. Manz spent this past summer training with the U.S. National A-2 team at the Olympic Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. Manz showcased her talents last year, earning All-SEC and All-District 4 honors. However, the Orange Park, Fla., native raised her level of play in the last month of the season. She earned All-Tournament accolades both in the year-end Bankers One Classic at Pacific and the NCAA Central Region where her career-high 25 digs led the comeback Gators from an 0-2 deficit against Wisconsin to send Florida to the Final Four.
Finding a back-up for Manz will be one of the objectives during fall practice. Redshirt freshman Malaika Naulls might fit into that role. Naulls can be a force in the blocking scheme and needs only to develop her offense.
How can a team lose a first-team All-America player in Foster and still have two starters coming back to start in 1998? It is easy. Jones started the season and got the Gators off to a fast start with a career performance against third-ranked Nebraska, starting the first 22 matches only to see her year end with an illness.
Meanwhile, Heather Wright watched and learned. On a strange night in Columbia, S.C., Wright was unexpectedly thrown into the fire. She responded by going on to hit .393, which would have been the fourth-best effort in a single season for Florida if she had gotten the required number of attempts.
Expecting to be the starting setter for the first time will be San Antonio, Texas, Sanchez. After spending the last two years behind Shade, "Chez" is ready to take control of her squad, according to Wise.
"Jen has great hands," Wise said. "She has the ability to put up a lot of killable sets. If we can get Jen the ball, then our hitters will get a ton of great looks."
The 5-10 junior saw her playing time increase significantly last year as Wise began grooming her for this season. The result was an improvement of more than 100 assists from her freshman campaign, including a career-high 42 against Kent.
The 1998 recruiting class met the needs of the Gator program and is a great fit to Wise's system. All three are athletic and great competitors, according to Wise. All four will see playing time, but Wise plans to be careful as they make the adjustment from high school to Division I ball.
"We don't want to put them in a position to fail," Wise said. "This is a group that could have a lot of wins under its belt after four years."
Working off of her redshirt freshman season is Naulls, who will be looked to, to provide depth behind Manz. Naulls, who has high-level playing experience prior to Florida, was an alternate for the 1996 USA Youth National team and led her high school squad to the school's first state title in any sport in 1995.
Kris Bova, a 5-9 setter from Milwaukee, Wis., could provide depth at other positions as well this year while working behind Shanchez. Bova is an all-around athlete with a true competitive spirit.
Probably the most experienced of the newcomers is Niki Hartley, a 6-0 middle blocker from San Jose, Calif. Hartley impressed Wise with her competitive spirit and her ability to find a way to win. The 1997 Volleyball magazine National Prep Player of the Year was also named a U.S. Junior Olympic All-American and the 1997 Gatorade Circle of Champions High School Girls Pacific Region Player of the Year.
Nicole McCray enters the Florida roster after her second stint with the U.S. Junior National Team that played in Brazil this past summer. The 6-1 middle blocker earned All-State honors and was a member of the Texas All-Star team. McCray should be able to be counted on early to help the Gators in blocking, according to Wise.
1998 Schedule Highlights
|TEAM||POST SEASON||FINAL RANKING||TOP THREATS|
|Arkansas||NCAA Central Region Second Round||21st||Jessica Field-SR, MB/1997 Second-team All-America, All-SEC, SEC All-Tournament team; Yarleen Santiago-SO, OH/1997 National Freshman of the Year, All-SEC|
|Florida State||NCAA Central Region First Round||NR||Holly Schneider-SR, OH/ 1997 All-ACC second-team, had a team-best 400 kills (3.31/game) and 401 digs (3.31/game), also added 62 blocks|
|Hawaii||NCAA Pacific Region First Round||25th||Nikki Hubbert-SR, S/1997 All-WAC Pacific Division second team, averaged 12.34 assists, 2.11 digs and 0.89 blocks/game|
|Nebraska||NCAA Pacific Region Finals||8th||Fiona Nepo-SR, S/1997 Second-team All-America, Pacific Regional All-Tournament team, All-Big 12, averaged 13.58 assists/game|
|Notre Dame||NCAA Central Region Semifinal||18th||Denise Boylan-SO, S/Trained with the U.S. National Team this past summer, named 1997 first-team All-District , second-team All-Big East, her 12.39 assists/game is third in Irish history|
|Ohio State||NCAA East Region Semifinal||15th||Jen Flynn-JR, S and Dana Stearns -SO, MB Named to 1998 Preseason All-Big Ten Team|
|Texas||NCAA Mountain Region Semifinal||10th||Demetria Sance-SR, OH/Three-time All-American, Big 12 Player of the Year, UTs all-time kills leader (1,500), averaged 4.62 kills (485 total) and 3.45 digs/game (362 total)both team bests in 1997|
|UCLA||NCAA Mountain Region Second Round||NR||Elisabeth Bachman-SO (RS), MB)/redshirted 1997, trained with U.S. National Team this past summer, 1998 All-America candidate|
|Washington||NCAA Pacific Region Semifinals||11th||Leslie Tuiasosopo-SR, QH/1997 All-PAC 10, trained this past summer with U.S. National Team, averaged 1.54 blocks/game (166 total)|
|Washington St.||NCAA Central Region Semifinal||12th||Jennifer Stinson-SR, MB/1997 All-Pac Ten player, her blocking (1.56/game) was third in Pac-Ten|