2004 Season Preview
Year three of head coach Laura Farina's rebuilding process of the Auburn volleyball program figures to be challenging once again, but thanks to tireless recruiting by the staff and a total dedication to winning by the team, the Tigers are poised to have one of the most successful seasons in recent memory. With five letter winners returning to go along with five freshmen and a red-shirt junior, the Tigers should find themselves elevating their level of play from the first serve this season.
"This is the first year that we have had an opportunity to compete as a team in the spring since I've been here," Farina said. "It's also the first time that we have had a full roster as we inherited a group that was injured and was not a full roster."
For the third straight season, Farina's staff has stayed intact. Back are assistant coaches Matt Darling and Steve Aird. That will work in Farina's favor as the team will be listening to the same voices for the third consecutive year, but it also means that expectations are higher than ever for the squad.
Last season's 10-18 record was a major step forward for the Tigers after two consecutive one-win seasons. The Tigers also captured their first Southeastern Conference victory in over two years and battled through four- and five-game matches 11 times during the year, a number they couldn't reach in the two years prior combined.
"Our first expectation for this season is to improve upon our overall record," Farina said. "We have a very young team this year and we have a lot of stuff to learn. But I believe if we are a competitive team, and put forth our best effort every night, we can attain our goals.
"I think the biggest change you can see in the team is that we are better conditioned and stronger, which will assist us on the court."
The outside hitting position will be the strongest it has ever been in Farina's three years on the Plains. Ashlee Johns is the top returnee for the Tigers and is joined by red-shirt junior transfer Jennifer Amobi and a trio of freshmen in Jelena Sekulic, Rachel Shanks and Sara Behring.
"Ashlee and Jennifer both have a ton of experience behind them," Farina said. "They are both very good athletes. They hit with a very fast arm and are able to hit multiple shots."
Johns, a senior from Nixa, Mo., who transferred to Auburn from Missouri prior to the 2002 season, had a very successful first year in Farina's system. Posting a career-high 328 kills in her debut season at Auburn, Johns also had a career-best 3.90 KPG and a .230 attack percentage. Look for those numbers to go up after spending an entire year with returning setter Maira Mogollon.
Amobi could be the biggest addition to the front line. Forced to sit out last season as a two-time transfer, the former Conference USA All-Freshman team selection brings an athleticism and arm swing to the team that has not been visible in recent memory. While a freshman at Marquette during Farina's last year there, she put down 366 kills and 3.36 KPG. Those numbers would have been first and second on the 2003 AU squad, respectively.
"Having to sit out a year allowed Jennifer time to adjust to academics, a new strength coach and a new team," Farina said. "Last year was her third year of college and her third school, so she basically had the freshman experience all over again. The best thing that happened for her was she was able to go through surgery in the late fall and now she is healed and ready to go."
Shanks is next piece to the outsides. A native of Alabama, she was a first team all-state selection and an all-area selection multiple times and is yet another athletic outside that can bring some swagger to the outsides.
"Rachel is very athletic and explosive, but she will have to learn to be quicker to beat a block at this level," Farina said. "However, I think Rachel will learn our system very quickly and be a big asset to us."
Behring and Sekulic bring a lot of unknown to the Tigers as they have not been seen by too many of AU's opponents and will be working their way into positions once they step onto the practice court. Coming from overseas, the Auburn coaches have not had as much time to watch them as the other freshmen, but all reports suggest their work ethic and athletic ability will help them in becoming big contributors this season.
"I think Sara and Jelena will have to wear a lot of hats this year, but that means we have options."
The middle blockers are one year older but seemingly many years better. Bailey Veit and Julie Bosler figure to be the go-to people in the middle, but Jennifer Buckert and Whitney Jacob will provide solid reinforcements for the two front-liners.
A junior and the team captain this season, Veit has made tremendous strides in her volleyball career on the Plains. In 2003 she led the team in digs (2.54 DPG) and was second on the team with 67 total blocks. Her kills per game also increased from her first year to 2.36 in 2003.
"Bailey has the most experience of the group. Now she is learning how to be more efficient and quicker," Farina said, "but she has also learned how to play in the backcourt with her passing and serve-receive."
Bosler, in her second season, has put on some muscle and kept her smile. After watching from the sidelines and learning the first part of last season, Bosler started 10 of the Tigers' 16 conference matches and had an immediate impact. Her 19 solo blocks and 67 block assists both paced the Tigers. All of her hard work earned her a spot on the USA Development Team, which traveled to the Czech Republic to take part in the Spring Cup and play against European National teams. This season she will look to up her offensive numbers (1.28 KPG, .185 Att. Pct.) to give the Tigers another offensive threat at the net.
"Julie has done the most extensive work of anyone on the team," Farina said. "She has utilized every opportunity to play and improve. She was pretty young and raw last year. Now she is a lot stronger, more efficient in the way she moves and she understands the game better."
Buckert's biggest contributions may not be at the net, but rather 15 feet behind it. Over the past three seasons, she has transformed from almost strictly an offensive player to a very reliable defensive asset. In 2003 she saw her digs per game mark hit a career-best 1.67, more than three-times what it had been in her first two seasons combined.
"Jennifer spent a lot of time passing and playing defense this past year," Farina said. "We have talked to her about embracing and owning that role because it is a vital part of our success."
Jacob could be the surprise of the group. The District 7-5A MVP in Texas in 2003, she has been the top blocker in Texas over the final two years of high school. She also has championship experience under her belt as her team won the District 7-5A Championship in 2002.
"Whitney is going to continue to blossom every year," Farina said. "She jumps very well. She is very smooth when she moves. She comes in knowing how to win. She will find a role on this team very quickly."
The one position on the court for the Tigers that lacks depth is the setter position. But when a freshman was named the MVP of the team from the prior year returns after putting up record-setting numbers, depth may not be so much of a concern.
Maira Mogollon's freshman campaign has already placed her in the Auburn record books. As a freshman, she hoisted 1,105 assists and played in all 100 games for the Tigers. Though her 11.05 assists per game mark was only seventh-best in the SEC, it was less than half-an-assist out of the top five, a list that includes some of the best setters in the country.
"What we worked on with Maira in the spring is consistency in delivering the set. Maira spent a lot of time trying to be deceptive, which we like, but we need her to be consistent for our hitters to be successful. We want to bring in a lot more jump setting with her. I expect her to be able to communicate better with her hitters this year because she knows the language, the players and the flow of the game a lot better," Farina said.
Besides being a deft setter, Mogollon's other weapon is her serving ability. Her 49 service aces led the team and sometimes were relied upon to keep the Tigers within striking distance.
Should trouble strike, Veit has been testing her skills as a setter during the spring.
Freshman Jordan Elliott will be looked to contribute early to a thin corps of defensive specialists. Named to the All-District First team in Kyle, Texas, for the past three years, she is the only designated back row player on the roster. Fortunately for the coaches, there is a firm belief that she can handle to the load in her first season with Farina and company.
"What a fireball Jordan is," Farina said. "She gives 110 percent all the time. Her heart is about winning. Her mindset is about competitiveness. On her recruiting visit she saw one of our toughest practices of the year and she decided that was what she wanted to do. She will be a great addition to the team."
The Tigers have beefed up the toughness of their pre-conference schedule in order to better prepare themselves for the dogfight that is the Southeastern Conference. This season the Tigers will again host two tournaments, bringing in in-state foes Birmingham Southern and UAB amongst others, and they also head west to Oregon State where a match with St. Mary's, a west-coast powerhouse, looms.
As it has been in the past, the SEC shapes up to be another fight for second behind the Gators of Florida, who were national finalists in 2003. However, there will be a good race to be the team leading the next tier. Despite having just one conference win over the last three seasons, Farina believes that as the Tigers have gone through the rigors of the SEC as the doormat the last three years, this year will be different.
"I think the SEC is going to be a much stronger conference than what we have seen the past two years," Farina said. "I think there are a lot of good teams. In order for us to get ready for that we had to schedule a tougher pre-conference season. I am still expecting to come out on the winning side of the pre-conference schedule which should, ideally, help us improve our standing in the conference."