Auburn Volleyball 2011 Season Outlook
Aug. 22, 2011
First-year head coach Rick Nold and his staff of Eysha Ambler and Floyd Deaton are continuing to prepare for the 2011 season, which begins this weekend in Gainesville, Fla., with matches against North Carolina and Boston College. Last week, Coach Nold sat down with AuburnTigers.com to preview the season and give us a position-by-position breakdown of the 2011 Auburn Tigers.
Though the team loses its best outside hitter from a year ago (Morgan Johns), the Tigers have a wealth of depth at the position. Junior Sarah Bullock (Allen, Texas), who led the team and ranked 10th in the SEC with 354 kills last season, will be one of the focal points of the Auburn offense in 2011. She is also a huge help on the defensive side of the net as the team's leading returner with 306 digs last season.
"We need Sarah to have a big season," Nold said. "She's obviously got great ball control and she understands the game. We need her to be a person out there we can rely on. We can put her in tough spots and give her some out-of-system balls and things like that. That's something she usually does a good job with. We'll need to see a lot from her."
Fellow junior Katherine Culwell (Dallas, Texas), who had 126 kills in 87 sets a year ago, will be unavailable throughout the first part of the season after undergoing surgery in the offseason. But Nold emphasized the team's depth, pointing to senior Kelly Fidero (Temecula, Calif.), junior Brittney Rhude (Spring, Texas) and sophomores Vesela Zapryanova (Sofia, Bulgaria) and Kathia Rud (Buenos Aires, Argentina) as strong competitors who will be fighting for playing time.
Fidero ranked third on the squad last season with 202 kills on 554 attacks (.197) while playing in 105 sets. Rud saw action in 57 sets with 59 kills on the year, and Zapryanova and Rhude will look to earn more playing time this season.
"We've got a lot of depth out there," Nold said. "We're waiting to see who's going to step through and be one of our go-to players. Kelly being a senior has the most experience, and she's got a lot of ability. We're looking at her on both the left and right sides. She's one that when she's on, I feel like we can give her the ball against anybody and she can make the play. Vesela is a sparkplug, really quick. We can move her around and take advantage of that quickness. Kathia and Brittney both have a very good skill set, we're looking at them on both the left and right side. We've got some experience, just need to see who's going to step through."
Nold and his staff have instituted changes in the early going that will likely see more of the Tigers' offense run through the middle of the floor. That means increased responsibility and opportunity for the middle blockers, most notably sophomore Camila Jersonsky (Buenos Aires, Argentina).
Jersonsky led the Tigers with a .354 hitting percentage last season, registering 157 kills on 311 attacks with 47 errors while playing in 103 sets. She also finished second on last year's team with 72 total blocks and tied a school record for a three-set match with nine blocks in Auburn's 3-0 win over Missouri State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. During the summer, Jersonsky has been playing for the Argentinian Senior National Team, including a month-long tour with the squad during the FIVB World Grand Prix.
"The experience she has had throughout the summer has been...I can't even describe how important that is to us," Nold said. "She's been playing against the best in the world. When she comes in, that's going to help us along with her experience from last year. But I think it's also been good, her not being here, the other middles have been out there battling for time, getting repetitions. And I think in the long run, that's going to help us out a lot."
One of the main beneficiaries of extra reps in practice has been redshirt sophomore Courtney McDonald (Palmetto, Fla.). After redshirting a year ago, McDonald is ready to be a major contributor after registering 13 kills and nine total blocks in 29 sets as a freshman in 2009. Sophomore Chloe Rowand (Spokane, Wash.) brings a year's worth of experience to the position after playing in 16 sets a year ago, and the team's lone freshman, Claire Ham (Newport Coast, Calif.) will also be an integral part of the blocking unit.
"I look for Courtney to have a big role," Nold said. "They're all going to be battling for playing time, and that's a good thing. Both she and Chloe are right there together. Courtney has been able to have more time in the gym during preseason so far, and I think she's taken advantage of it. Claire has come in off an injury, so she's got a lot of rehab. She's been out there playing and I know she's not back to where she wants to be. That's just going to take time, there's no way around that. But she's got the skills we need, it's just a matter of her getting her body back to where she needs it."
The team's most experienced unit may be the setters. Senior Christina Solverson (Tucson, Ariz.) and sophomore Chelsea Wintzinger (Huntsville, Ala.) shared time at the setter position last season as the Tigers ran a 6-2 offense. Solverson led the way with 740 assists (6.17/set) last year, while Wintzinger had 514 helpers as she was the only Tiger to play in all 121 sets in 2010. The two will also be relied upon for their serving ability. Wintzinger led the Tigers with 25 service aces last season while Solverson recorded 17.
Nold said that while both were more than capable of carrying the load at the setter position, neither had stepped to the forefront as one who would be getting the most touches.
"Last year they ran a 6-2 and shared a lot of time," Nold said. "So we're looking a lot at that right now. Obviously, we have other options, too. I don't know that either one has stepped out to say they're better than the other. For us, it's important that they're both ready to compete. I think they both offer different things, so again, it's a great thing for us to have two setters."
Gone is Auburn record-holder Liz Crouch, who owns both the single-season and career records for digs in a Tiger uniform. She recorded 469 digs last season in 117 sets as the primary libero for Auburn in 2010, ranking her seventh in the SEC. But a pair of Tigers are ready to step into her role.
Sophomore Sarah Wroblicky (Irvine, Calif.) has emerged as the team's likely starting libero heading into the season. In limited action last year, Wroblicky recorded 29 digs in 30 sets. Junior MacKenzy Harper (Lebanon, Ohio) is also in the mix to see lots of time in the back row. She played in 34 sets in 2010, recording 30 digs. She also posted six service aces in her limited playing time.
"Both `Wro' and MacKenzy have been doing a good job," Nold said. "Going into it right now, we're looking at using (Sarah) in the libero spot. We're also talking about ways we have to get MacKenzy out there. She's doing a great job in the back row, and in my mind, serve receive is a very important thing to us. A lot of that will depend upon how other players step up. But we've got to get them both out there."
With only 11 home matches and 11 of the first 12 contests away from home, the Tigers will be tested from the opening whistle. Auburn will play five matches against three opponents ranked in the AVCA Preseason Top 25 (No. 16 Oklahoma once; No. 9 Florida and No. 24 Tennessee twice) plus five other schools receiving votes (LSU, Missouri, Kentucky, Miami, North Carolina). In addition, 17 of the Tigers' 30 matches will be against teams that advanced to the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
It will force a relatively young team - just two seniors - to grow up in a hurry. While 12 letter-winners and four starters return from a 2010 squad that went 21-13 overall (11-9 SEC) and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, reduced depth at most positions - 14 players on the roster as opposed to 22 last year - will mean immediate and increased playing time for just about everyone.
"We've got experience back, but we also lost a lot of experience," Nold said. "It's an interesting thing with so many people on the team last year. I think the schedule itself is going to be challenging. Being on the road so much is difficult early in the season, but I also think it's a schedule that will prepare us for conference play. We've got to come out ready to go, and if we do, I think it puts us in a good position with our RPI. But obviously we've got to get the wins. A lot of those matches are good measuring-stick matches, and we get a chance early to see where we are."
Ten of those 17 matches against 2010 NCAA Tournament teams will come in conference play. Including the Tigers, six SEC schools advanced to last year's postseason. And Nold knows the league will be as tough as ever in 2011.
"I think this year you're going to see a lot of balance in the SEC, which is fun," he said. "You go out there every day and you've got to play your best to get a win. We're going to be battling with a lot of teams trying to fight our way up and position ourselves to be competing for a championship. I think it will be tough as always, and we're looking forward to it."
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