2002 Season Outlook
Aug. 8, 2002
There are many reasons to be optimistic about the 2002 campaign. For starters, the Falcons are much more experienced than they were a year ago, when there were only two juniors and no seniors on the squad. The team returns all six starters and 10 of 11 letter winners.
"Last year, we were forced to depend on a lot of freshman, and that is a large responsibility for the younger players to burden," said head coach Penny Lucas-White. "This year again we will have a large core of incoming freshmen , but we also have a great group of experienced returners who are highly motivated and determined to win."
Based on a solid spring season, the team has already made dramatic head way towards a successful season. "You will see a positive change this year" said Lucas-White. "During off-season tournaments we saw significant improvement in every statistical category. I'm confident these improvements will be built upon and enhanced in our preparation for the fall 2002 campaign."
Another clear impact the spring season had was a marked improvement of the Falcon mental toughness.
"We've never had a shortage of intelligent players at the Academy; we now are combining that intelligence with the athleticism and mental toughness required to compete in the Mountain West Conference" said Lucas-White.
Another change on the sidelines is the addition of assistant coach, Major Scott Nelson. Nelson, a 1988 graduate of the Air Force Academy, brings a vast amount of experience. Nelson returns after a sixyear hiatus, having coached with Lucas-White in the inaugural USAFA Division I '96 season. Nelson, with primary responsibility to train the outside hitters, complements the present staff, with assistant coach Verna Julaton having a vast amount of playing and coaching experience at the setter position.
"My staff and I are going to measure this team's success based on how we maximize our potential" Lucas-White said. "We will certainly develop strategies that take our opponents into account; however, our primary focus this year will be to optimize our unit's performance. We will accomplish this by taking our individual players talents into account and merging them into a cohesive unit."
The players recognized this need and selected their motto for the season - "CITIUS, ALTIUS, FORTIUS" - Latin for "FASTER, HIGHER, STRONGER." Each member of the Falcon family is committed to becoming faster, higher, stronger.
C2Cs Kristin Huitt and Katie Dildy will again be sharing time at the setter position. Huitt was ranked seventh in the conference last season for assists and tied for tenth in the MWC in double doubles. She is one of the quickest players on the team and her defense is solid. Last year, Huitt led the team in digs for the first time in her career.
Dildy is a smart player, who sees the game and understands it. Last year, she notched nearly 200 assists, but also had 13 blocks. She saw extensive playing time in the spring, playing both setter and outside hitter.
"We have two of the best setters in the league," Lucas-White said. "They complement each other, bringing different strengths to the position. They give us more offensive flexibility."
C3C Jenalee Burke will also challenge for playing time. She is a versatile player who can hit as well has set. Newcomer Ashley Harris, a setter from Missouri City, Texas, will add additional depth to the position.
The Outside Hitters
Once again, C2C Delavane Diaz will be leaned on as the leader of the team's offense. A powerful hitter, Diaz led the team in kills and attacks for the second straight season.
"Del is our physical leader," Lucas-White said. "She has matured so much in the last year. She has the experience and the physical tools to be extremely effective in terminating the ball."
Additional help on the attack will come from returning starter C3C Lamecca Jefferson. Jefferson, had a strong freshman year. She was second on the team in kills and blocks. C2C Brittany Edmonds got off to a quick start, notching 48 kills in the first four matches, before an ankle injury sidelined her for part of the season. At full strength, Edmonds will be a force on the outside.
Returning at right side, C3C Molly White, who is one of the tallest and strongest players on the team gained valuable experience last season as a freshman. White has the potential of becoming a premier blocker.
Newcomers Trier Bryant (Denver, Colo.), Ashley Harris (Missiouri City, Texas) and Elise Hickerson (Overland Park, Kansas) will push the hitters and add depth to to both right and left side attack positions.
Returning at the middle blocker position for her final season is C1C Christina Nigro. Nigro had 45 blocks last season to lead the Falcons. She was second on the team in attacks and is one of the hardest workers on the team.
Also returning is C3C Tiffany Bishop. Playing primarily in the front row, Bishop tallied a team high 13 solo blocks. She was second on the team in hitting percentage and is expected to have be a "dominate force" in the middle.
Newcomer Kristin Hamlett will also be asked to step in immediately and contribute to the team as a freshman. Hamlett, at 6'1", was a standout player at San Pasqual High School in Escondido, Calif. With her size and dominate net play, she is expected to make an immediate positive impact.
Rounding out in the depth chart in the middle is 6'1" USAFA prep school graduate Bethany Hamm (Lincoln, Neb.), who shows promise with her height and maturity.
Returning letterwinners C1C Melinda Findley, C2C Brandi Raifsnider and C2C Jaime Beatty will compete for contributing roles at the DS position. Findley brings a positive team-enhancing attitude to the court, while Raifsnider had a tremendous spring and is expecting a breakout season. Beatty has also improved her game after spending last season gaining experience at the junior varsity level.
Their work ethics, improvements and positive attitudes both on and off the court will help the Falcons tremendously.
For the first time in NCAA history, the lineup will include a libero. The libero will act as an additional defensive specialist, playing exclusively on the back row. The main difference is that the libero will not be allowed to serve.
"Having a libero gives us additional flexibility on defense," Lucas-White said. "It adds a new dimension to the game."
The position is wide open for the Falcons, as the libero must be near flawless in playing back row. The coaches are still experimenting with different players at the position and are not yet committing to any specific one. Whoever claims the job will help improve ball control, both in defense and serve reception.
The Falcons will play in four tournaments to help prepare for a tough conference schedule. The team will face 14 non-conference opponents before its first Mountain West game - seven more than last season. They start the season in San Marcos, Texas, at the Bobcat Classic, hosted by Southwest Texas State. They will then head to Fresno, Calif., to take on three opponents, including former Western Athletic foe Fresno State. The following two weekends, they host tournaments at the Academy.
"Our non-conference games will be great warm ups for us," Lucas-White said. "As we progress, each tournament gets tougher. We hope to build confidence in the first weekend then start looking for our key players and leaders to emerge. By our third tournament, we will have made the necessary adjustments that will ensure our success through the remainder of the season."
The conference schedule begins Sept. 28, when the team travels to New Mexico to take on the Lobos. This will be a crucial game for the Falcons, as they not only look to gain momentum for their 14-game league schedule, but also to establish themselves early as a formidable conference opponent.
The Falcons are much more experienced than in recent seasons and the roster is packed with athletic players who will make the team competitive. The returning players have gone through a season of pressures and challenges and know what sacrifices are needed to win. The coaches are confident about the prospects for success this season, but more importantly, so are the players.
"I really expect to win this year," Lucas-White said. "The good thing about it is that every player coming in expects the same thing. The attitude is right; the timing is right."