A Strong First Impression

Many of their opponents probably penciled in a victory next to the University of Miami column on their schedules this past summer. Why not?

Hurricanes volleyball was returning to the court after a 19-year hiatus, having been disbanded in 1982. Miami had to do some rapid construction of a new program, including the hiring of a first-year coach and the recruiting of an entire team. A new team meant having it filled with youth and inexperience. Hard times were definitely ahead for coach Nicole Lantagne and her fresh bunch, Only one problem. Somebody forgot to tell the Hurricanes.

After a slow start, Miami will be seeking their eighth consecutive victory Friday night, Nov. 2, against Arkansas State. Miami (13-7) has not dropped a match since the first week of October against the Seminoles. The Hurricanes have also done a solid job of defending their home court, winners 10 of 11 matches at the Knight Sports Complex.

The Hurricanes are coming off two consecutive victories this past weekend, a 3-1 win over Pittsburgh and a sweep of Atlantic Sun conference leader Georgia State. Miami's current winning streak also includes victories over Tulsa, St. John's, Central Florida and North Texas. With four matches remaining in the regular season, Miami is assured of a winning season- the sixth in school history. Miami's first volleyball season was in 1972.

Lantagne, in her first head coaching position at the Division I level, came to Coral Gables with the idea of one day having a team that could contend with the nation's elite volleyball programs. But with just two seniors on the roster entering the season, Lantagne hoped for a .500 record as the team made gradual improvement throughout the year. Surprise, surprise.

"It's definitely been a pleasant surprise," Lantagne said. "To be honest, I was looking for weekly progress in terms of getting better. I wouldn't say we're loaded with superstars. We have a lot of nice players and a big gun." That big gun is junior outside hitter Marcela Gamarra. Gamarra, a former member of the Columbian Junior National team, leads the Hurricanes in attacks (639) and kills (304). She has complied a .365 attacks percentage and a .304 kills average through the first 20 matches. Gamarrra finished with 16 kills on 35 attacks added four aces in Miami's most recent victory. Gamarra has been the Hurricanes main source of offense the entire season. Something the 6-0 footer from Medillin, Columbia is no stranger to. As a sophomore at Miami-Dade Community College, one of the top juco volleyball programs in the nation, she collected 263 kills, 111 blocks, 210 digs and 49 aces to lead the Barracudas to a NJCAA Division I national championship. In 1999, Gamarra recorded 220 kills, 92 total blocks and 41 aces.

"Marcela has a very quick arm and hits a very hard ball," Lantagne said. "She is just so efficient wherever she is on the court." Kristi Sprinkel, one of the two seniors on the squad, leads the team in serving aces (33) and total blocks (43.5), including 13 solo. Sprinkel, a starting middle blocker, has also provided the Hurricanes with much needed leadership and a voice throughout the season.

Prior to coming to Miami, Sprinkel spent three seasons at Boston College, where she led the team in kills as a junior. Sprinkel is the only player on the Hurricanes with previous Division I experience.

"Kristi just comes to play everyday and has a lot of qualities in her game," Lantagne said. One of those young UM players that was supposed to be learning the ropes has turned out to be quite important for the Hurricanes. 5-8 freshmen setter Jaime Grass took over as the team's setter early in the season after an injury sidelined Mallorey James. Grass has delivered, leading the team in assist (423) and digs (227). James is averaging 6.04 assists per game.

Aside from Gamarra's instant offense and the ability of her teammates to find her on the court, Lantagne says James' success has been as important for the Hurricanes. Like a quarterback on a football team or a point guard in basketball, James sees everything through her eyes. Grass had never played the setter position before this season.

"Jaime has really played tremendous volleyball," Lantagne said. "She is definitely one of the reasons this team has held up."

The Hurricanes have surpassed some of Lantagne's expectations this season. But now that the team is on a roll ...

"I'd like to see our team play better defense and close out stronger. We tend to get sloppy at the end of matches sometimes," Lantagne said. Any team in the Hurricanes position at this stage of the season would be setting their sights on the postseason. But Lantagne isn't keeping her hopes up to high.

"We're a first-year team and don't belong to a conference. Being that we're in a transition year of sorts, I'm sure they are going to look at that when selecting the tournament teams." Miami has four more chances to state their case. Next up: Arkansas State, Nov. 2 at 7 p.m.

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