2003 Season Outlook
Aug. 11, 2003
The Air Force volleyball team has many reasons to be optimistic about the 2003 season. For starters, they are no longer young and inexperienced; the team returns five starters. They also had a solid 2002 season; after a slow start, the team won two tournaments and defeated BYU for the first time ever to notch one of its biggest upsets under head coach Penny Lucas-White, who is starting her eighth season at the program's helm. The Falcons are poised to build upon the successes of last year and expect the team's experience to translate into wins.
"I truly expect to be successful this season," Lucas-White said. "We can no longer say that we are young and inexperienced. There is no excuse for us not to win matches."
Lucas-White's optimism is not unfounded. She has worked with the core group of starters for the past two seasons and is starting to see the fruits of her labors. Based on spring training, where the team played several professional teams in Puerto Rico as well as region college teams in a spring tournament, Lucas-White has reason to anticipate a successful season.
"How we played in the spring is a major factor in how we will perform in the fall," Lucas-White said. "Our spring was very productive and successful. We were highly competitive against the top teams of Puerto Rico and this instilled confidence in our players."
The Falcons returned home to host a spring tournament in which their only loss was a one-point defeat against Northern Colorado. The team was able to shut down Northern Colorado's Erin Deffenbaugh, the 2002 AVCA Division II national player of the year.
"One of the best things to come out of spring training was that our players saw that they could compete at a higher level," Lucas-White said. "Our players competed against top current and former collegiate players in spring training. Their confidence increased dramatically when they realized they could challenge these players."
The coaching staff is continuing to work on eliminating the mistakes that hurt the team in the past. The Falcons were fifth in the league in hitting percentage and assists and second in service aces, but the team also had a high number of service and reception errors.
"Last season in the Mountain West, there were very few matches where we were dominated statistically," Lucas-White said. "When you can compete statistically with your opponents, it will eventually translate into victories. What hurt us were the errors, both service and reception errors and the mental mistakes that don't show up in the box score."
Assisting Lucas-White in her coaching duties are Verna Julaton and Maj. Scott Nelson. Julaton has been Lucas-White's assistant for the past seven years. She understands the system and will continue to provide valuable instruction to the players. She works directly with the setters, having a vast amount of playing and coaching experience at that position. Nelson, a 1988 graduate of the Air Force Academy, returned last season after a six-year hiatus from coaching to bring a vast amount of experience to the program. Nelson's primary responsibility is to train the outside hitters.
The players, particularly the upperclassmen, understand that this is the year when everything is in place to be successful. They have the tools and experience necessary to make their way to the top. They have chosen "Find a way or make one" as this year's theme, with an emphasis on breaking away from the prejudices of years past and constructing their own pathway to success.
"We are on a mission," team captain C1C (Sr.) Kristin Huitt said. "We are going to achieve our goals anyway possible."
The team leader and captain is C1C Kristin Huitt, who will again be expected to lead the team's offense as the starting setter. She has three year's experience behind her and had a breakout season last year. She notched 1,163 assists on the year, climbing to fifth on the Academy's all-time career list for assists (2,351). She is also solid defensively, finishing second on the team in digs per game with 2.21, which ranked 15th in the league. She earned all-tournament honors at the Air Force Invitational and won the team's best all-around award.
"Kristin is our little general," Lucas-White said. "She runs a very clean offense and leads our team emotionally. Her serves are very effective and so is her defense."
If Huitt, who is 5-foot-6, had one weakness it would be her blocking. The team's goal is to support her when she is in the front - to make sure the best attackers and blockers are up front with her and the best defenders are behind her.
C3C (So.) Carly Siefken will be the team's back-up setter. Siefken showed her mettle last season, working her way from the junior varsity squad to a varsity call up midway through the year.
"Carly is one of our quickest players," Lucas-White said. "She is also a great defender, especially in tough situations. We are working on improving her ability to run the front court and have a bigger block."
C1C Katie Dildy has shared time with Huitt at the setter position in the past, but with the demands of cadet leadership (she will be serving as wing commander in the fall), she will have a very limited role on the team.
The Outside Hitters
Once again, C1C Delavane Diaz will be leaned on as the team's physical leader. A powerful hitter, Diaz has led the team in kills and attacks for three consecutive seasons. Last year, she was named team most valuable player, the second time winning the award. She finished the year averaging 3.70 kills per game, which ranked sixth in the conference. She also led the team with 39 service aces, which ranked fifth in the league.
"Delavane has really worked hard on her agility," Lucas-White said. "She can pass from the middle and hit from the left or right. She has done an excellent job increasing her repertoire of attacks. She is not a one dimensional player."
Diaz has also improved her defense tremendously. She has increased her range of coverage and is now covering over 20 feet in the back court. Her diversity will allow the Falcons to run a faster offense.
Additional help on the attack will come from two-year starter C2C (Jr.) Lamecca Jefferson, who had an outstanding sophomore season. Jefferson ranked third on the team with 282 kills (2.82 kpg). She reached double figures in kills in 14 matches and was a solid force on the outside. Her defense also improved, as she had 121 digs in 100 games played. She won the team's most improved award.
"Lamecca really came into her own last season," Lucas-White said. "She has really improved and can hit the ball from anywhere on the court. She is starting to play like a six-foot-one big blocker. When she puts heat on the ball it goes down. Lamecca is one of the reasons we won so many matches."
C1C Brittany Edmonds is entering her fourth and final season with the Falcons. She was a major factor in last year's success, earning the team's unsung hero award. She tallied 55 kills on 199 attacks and was fourth on the team with 129 digs. With a career-high seven block assists, she was instrumental in the team's victory over BYU. Edmonds is recovering rapidly from off-season knee surgery. At full strength, she will be a force on the outside.
Returning at right side is C2C Molly White, one of the tallest and strongest players on the team. White saw limited action last season, playing in only 34 games, but much of her experience came late in the season as she developed as a player. She also had a solid spring and will enter this season as a front-runner for a starting position on the team. She will definitely see a lot of court time this year.
"Molly saw a great deal of playing time in the spring," Lucas-White said. "She has increased her speed and is learning to adapt to the speed of the game that we want to play. Molly loves to attack from both the back and front rows. She has done well hitting first tempos out of serve/receive."
C3C Ashley Harris and newcomers C3C Rebecca Gallegos and C4C (Fr.) Dierra Poland will add depth to both the right and left side attack positions. Harris didn't gain any match experience last year, but practiced with the team. She has nice hands and is a good blocker. Gallegos had a solid prep career at Robertson High School (Las Vegas, N.M.), but spent last year working with the women's basketball program. Poland joins the team after a successful volleyball season with the Academy Prep School.
The Falcons suffered a severe blow to the middle blocker position, losing three players. Tiffany Bishop will miss the 2003 season due to an Academy violation, while Elise Hickerson and Bethany Hamm both left the Academy.
The team will rely heavily on returning starter C3C Kristin Hamlett to fill the void. Hamlett, at 6-foot-1, made an immediate impact for the Falcons last season as a freshman. She was fourth on the team in kills with 258 (2.55 kpg). Her strength came in her blocking. She led the team in block assists and was second in block solos. She was selected to the all-tournament team at the Air Force Invitational and won the team's rookie of the year award.
"Hamlett was our 'true blue' freshman," Lucas-White said. "She is a great middle blocker who can carry her weight. She is agile and very diverse - she will be able to hit in all areas. Her attitude and tenacity really please me; she is a competitor."
C3C Trier Bryant is a back-up middle blocker. She is one of the most athletic players on the team but lacks experience. She is a great jumper who will continue to improve.
Newcomers C4C Lindsay Bengard and C4C Arianne Morrison will add depth at the middle blocker position. Bengard had a solid prep career at Visitation Academy in St. Louis, Mo., while Morrison joins the team after spending last season playing for the Academy Prep School.
Defensive Specialists and Libero
The Falcons don't have any 'true' defensive specialists, but they have a solid libero who will help the team defensively.
"Having a libero gives us additional flexibility on defense," Lucas-White said. "It adds a new dimension to the game."
C2C Jenalee Burke, a back up setter as a freshman, has transitioned to the libero position. After missing the 2002 fall season, Burke returned in the spring to gain experience as the team's libero. With soft hands and solid passing skills, she is a good fit at that position.
"Jena is such a graceful and poised defender," Lucas-White said. "She is very mobile and agile and can handle the demands of that position. Having a strong libero has taken our whole game to another level."
The Falcons will play in four tournaments to help prepare for a tough conference schedule. Traditionally, the Falcons have hosted two pre-season tournaments, but this year three of their four tournaments will be away from the Academy, giving the players valuable road experience. The team will face 13 non-conference opponents before its first Mountain West game. The team starts the season in West Point, N.Y., at the Army Invitational. They will then head to Atlanta, Ga., to take on four opponents. The following weekend, they host the Falcon Invitational, which includes an anticipated match against service academy rival Navy. Air Force finishes the non-conference schedule out west at the Portland State Invitational.
"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. 26, when the team hosts New Mexico. 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 and players are confident about the prospects for success this season.
"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. We are going to find a way to win or we are going to make one."