The USF Volleyball Preview: Yup, We Still Love Them

Mari, Britt, Marcela, That Guy, Boaz, and Juju at the volleyball team reunion last year. They win on looks, but I win on highest BAC.

The old blog policy holds: This team is our favorite, and always will be. This should be an unbiased preview, but it won't be because we simply love them too much. OK, I do. Jamie, Gary, Andrew, Corrina, Mike... don't hold them accountable for anything that's ever written about this team. It will always be my fault. Also, TL:DR. Whatever. Bite me.

I held off on writing a volleyball preview for a while for many reasons. I'm busy with real job stuff, it's the middle of other seasons, but there was another one that was overriding; I needed to see how I'd feel. After 10 years of working for, with, and cheering on USF Volleyball in various capacities, it's a new era as Courtney Draper takes over head coach. Friend of VoodooFive and former coach Claire Lessinger resigned in June to spend more time with her Mom during her cancer fight*. Claire and her assistant Nikki Shade were such a big part of the reason I love this team, I didn't know what it would be like to watch them play with someone else out there.

I also held off because after the first few matches I thought they played just terrible. Like unconscionably bad volleyball, with an galling ability to spit out a lead late in a set. Even my green-and-gold tinted glasses for them are only so shaded. I was in Raleigh for their first road tournament at NC State, and was just as frustrated as I was the opening weekend in Tampa with a blown leads to NC State (which I saw) and Kent State (which I missed, but am glad I did since they were up 2-0, as I would have broken things and/or people). They would show flashes of cohesion, but maddening stretches of inconsistency, and their passing chart looked like a Busch Gardens roller coaster. Brilliant at times, and cringe-inducing at others. But a new coach needs time to put in her system and bring in her players, and to judge based on the first six matches would have been totally unfair.

Fortunately the last two weekends have been much better, and they're on a six-match winning streak heading into conference play starting tomorrow. Though their consistency is still a work in progress (see dropping eight straight points to FGCU on Tuesday night in the third set), they do have some weapons and an ability to compete for a Big East Tournament berth. The top 8 of 15 will make it to Marquette, and that's a reasonable goal for this group.

It's been mostly a 6-2 system for the Bulls far this season, meaning eight players for six positions (you switch your right side hitter for your setter every three rotations so your setter is always in the back row and you have more blocking and attacking options at the net). The longest volleyball team preview in Big East blogging history follows.

The Outside HItters

Valerie El-Houssein is the Bulls O1, and the type of player allowing 15 substitutions per set hurts. She's a quality hitter from the left antenna, can block effectively at the net, and is an excellent passer out of the back row. The sophomore from Belgium is a jack-of-all-trades, and doubles as the best server on the team. She shows the consistency and steadiness of a senior despite being just a sophomore, and never seems to rattle no matter the pressure of any situation. She's the rock of the team, and the Bulls will lean on her in all six rotations all season long.

Freshman Erin Fairs looks to have won the job for the second outside position. The Texan shows great promise with flashes of elite athleticism, and has improved dramatically early in her young career. She still hits too many errors as young outsides are prone to do, but some of those come from sets many other freshman couldn't even attack. Fairs has a chance to be a four-year starter for the Bulls, and should continue to improve with experience.

Senior J'Beria Davis has been used on both pins in a reserve role lately, and still has eye-popping athleticism and talent. If she can increase her consistency, she might be able to jump back into the rotation during conference play. So far Midori Harrison has seen very limited time so far in her freshman year.

The Middles

Andrea Rodriguez-Gomez looks like a walking ball of sunshine on the court. The Face of USF (literally) came to America with her family as political refugees from Chavez's Venezuela, where her father was part of a coup attempt. But she's more than a kid with a great backstory, she's also a candidate for All-Big East in 2012. The junior is dynamic presence in the middle, and has great feel for the game even in the middle. Her hitting and blocking numbers will need to improve to garner that all-conference honor, but if the Bulls are expected to go anywhere this year, they'll need her in the middle.

Senior Caitlyn Breen, who's got a pretty cool story herself with her father working in Afghanistan, has won back her M2 slot. She's not as strong a hitter, but has a bigger body and is a strong blocker for the second three rotations. When her offense is in rhythm, she can be a dominant player.

A transfer from North Carolina, Shelbey Bleke has fallen back to the bench after playing most of the early matches. Her offense isn't an issue, as she's an effective hitter particularly on a quick-tempo set, but her defense is lacking. She'll need to find a way to block more effectively to get back in the rotation. Kayla Bivins is USF Football's Chris Bivins sister, and was in a walking boot at the last few matches. She hasn't seen the court yet, and might be a candidate for a redshirt during her freshman year.

The Right Sides

Kayla Walton is 6-3 and can hit a "D" set as hard as anyone in the Big East. And with her size, she's very tough to block in a fast-tempo offense. Getting her off on the right foot is key, as she's like a streaky shooter in basketball; if the first one goes in, they're all going in. She'll need to be an offensive threat as well as blocking one by impeding the opponent's better hitters for the Bulls to be successful. She's often the Bulls bellwether; when she plays well, so does the team.

Freshman Ciara Brown looks to have the other RS spot heading into conference play. Another young player with lots of upside, the Colorado native is from the same town as former four year starter Ashley Reavis. It looks like there's plenty of athleticism and talent is there for Brown, and it should be fun to watch how high her ceiling is as she develops.

The Setters

Natalia Soares is the latest in a long line of Brazilian players for the Bulls, who have had at least one Portuguese speaker on the roster in 17 of the last 18 seasons. Her court sense and super-soft hands show she's got that feel for the sport that makes Brazilian players with a good TOEFL score so prized in Division I. Call it Samba-Setting. She's got plenty of upside, but at just 5-7 she'll be most effective as the S1 in a 6-2 attack. If the Bulls are forced to go 5-1, she might struggle a bit at the net, but under NCAA rules she's the perfect player for the way college volleyball is now played.

Her setting partner looks to be Wylie Devlin, who was brought to USF as a defensive specialist, but has been converted to setting. The Winter Park High grad (and hopefully a friend of Asiantii Woulard who will assist in getting him signed and on campus) is still learning the position, but will be crucial in moving the Bulls through rotations 4-6 as she improves.

Senior Jessica Burghart is the third setter presently, but in a 6-2 system with none of the setters capable of extended minutes in the front row, she might see more floor time later in the year.

The Libero/Defensive Specialists

Being a defender only isn't the most glamorous job in volleyball, but it is absolutely essential to get into your offense with three options. Claudia Cabrera has won the libero job for the Bulls, taking over back row duties for both the Bulls middle hitters. She has made some ESPN highlight level digs this year on a bevy of monster attacks, but has also struggled with consistency at times, especially in serve-receive. The senior from Lima, Peru will at least once a match give you a "Whoa! She dug that??" moment.

Sophomore Casey Albano will come in to defend late in sets as an extra passer, and looks to be in line to be the starting libero in 2013.

* * *

The Bulls sit at 8-5 heading into conference play tomorrow, but have fallen to all better competition such as Wisconsin and NC State. Two wins in New Jersey this weekend against Rutgers (14-1, but tons of cupcakes consumed) and Seton Hall (11-1, still plenty of delicious cupcakes) are possible, but the toughest test will be the following weekend against perennial conference powerhouse Louisville and rebuilding after full-scale implosion Cincinnati, who the Bulls have been facing over the same weekend my entire adult life. We should know by the end of next weekend how for real this team could be.

As for the future, a full off-season and recruiting cycle should be great for Draper to begin to implement her style and system. It's really hard to lead a team your way when you get dropped into the middle just weeks before training camp starts, but the improvement over the last two weeks shows the coaches and players are getting more comfortable with each other. Plus the girls are smiling more. There's no stat for that, but years of watching our teams has taught me that USF teams that smile and celebrate tend to win at a much greater clip. Let's hope they're all beaming the rest of the way.

As for me, I've been to most of the matches this season, and not much has changed. I think the refs all suck, I hate when we can't close the block, and I still curse like a sailor when we shank a pass. Same as it ever was. And the same as I hope it'll be for a long time.

*FYI Lessinger's Mom is doing great, and just got some wonderful news from her doctors a couple days ago. No matter what happens this year, that's the biggest victory of all.

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