Volleyball: 'How do we turn good to great?'
USF volleyball is coming off a 19-10 season -- the Bulls' most wins since 2002 -- and a strong third-place showing in the Big East tournament. With all but one player returning, how can USF take its program to the next level?
The Big East preseason poll comes out Friday at noon, and USF's returning cast -- 12 letterwinners -- should have the Bulls projected higher than the 8-6 league record they had in 2007, finishing in a three-way tie for sixth place. Coach Claire Lessinger wants to build off last year's strong showing, getting into the conference tournament and making a splash there.
"That's the driving force," Lessinger said Wednesday. "Something we talked about in our first meeting was 'How do we turn good to great?' We know we had a good season last year, and our goals were to come out and shock people, prove what we were capable of doing. We ended the season with a real sense of satisfaction of doing that, but now we have our eyes on bigger sights. That's what has to drive us every single day: These girls want something bigger and better. Finishing third was nice, but that's not what we want this year."
Leading the returning cast is junior outside hitter Marcela Gurgel, a first-team All-Big East selection after leading the team with 469 kills and 69 aces. Freshman Alli O'Connor will challenge senior Cynthia Danthon and junior Jarka Havlickova as well. The Bulls return two veterans at middle blocker in senior Nakia Williams and junior Alli Arbogast, with two freshmen providing depth. Junior Brittany Castelamare is the most experienced of three returning setters.
"When I was a freshman, the big mindset for our team was just to try to make it to the Big East tournament," Williams said. "To now know we've been there and got third, that we were up there with the top dogs like St. John's and Louisville, we know we have the talent and people to do that. We have to work just as hard as they do if not twice as hard."
Along with an improved finish in the Big East, Lessinger said the team aspires to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002, with a schedule that includes matches against five teams who made last year's NCAA field.
"Our sights are on championships, and our sights are on the NCAA Tournament," Lessinger said. "Those 19 wins were great, but it's not good enough for my standards. I think this program, with the players who are in it and the dynamics we have, we're capable of accomplishing a lot better than that."
The Bulls opens their season with the USF Invitational on Aug. 29-30, hosting Grambling, Eastern Kentucky and Northeastern. Big East competition starts Sept. 26 at home against Notre Dame and wraps up with the conference tournament Nov. 21-23 at Pittsburgh.