Jenny Hazelwood - "Going into year two it has been a lot of fun seeing the progress we have made as a program. The things we are able to do in practice right now are a lot more advance than we were at this time last year because last year we were still teaching a lot. It was our first preseason with that group of girls. We were teaching them things like what it was going to be like in our two-a-days and how we expected them to perform in the skill drills that we needed them to do. This year, we are only having to teach those kind of things to freshmen, which is how it should be. Our returners know what to expect.
"That has allowed us to get right into our 6 on 6 work, which has allowed us to see where we are strong and what we need to work on. It has allowed us to really develop our all-around game. We still do our individual work but we can incorporate a lot more now than we could this time last year.
"When you consider how strong we finished last year, and see how much better this group is now compared to last year that makes you believe this is going to be a tough team to beat."
What are the strengths of this year's squad?
"We have a lot of experience on the court. We only lost three that played for us significantly last year. And we have a lot of experience coming back. The last few years there were a lot of freshmen and sophomores playing. They were really young playing in a great conference. That was a big adjustment for them. But this year we have those players back and they have two to three years under their belts of playing at this level.
"We have Ashley Newsome who is an unbelievable player. In fact, one of our freshmen who has played for one of the top club teams in the country and played with some great players said 'she is the best middle I have ever played with.' She is that good. Ashley is a player that we can run our offense around.
"We also have Faith Steinwedell and Caitlin Rance, both of whom have started for two years. They know what it is like to prepare at this level and come ready to play day-in, day-out. They know you have to practice hard every day no matter how your body is feeling.
"That experience will go a long way for us. We will also have a lot of freshmen on the court, but having that experience on the court with the freshmen will allow the freshmen be able to adjust a lot quicker."
You mentioned the freshmen. Your class was honorable mentioned in the rankings. What was about it that made them so good?
"All four of them are very, very strong but we knew they would be. They are still learning us and our system but they are very talented. They not only have volleyball ability in their given positions, but they have the work ethic, the heart, the experience at a high level of club competition. They bring a lot to our program. Due to that, it's not going to be as large of an adjustment to them. It's really impressive how far along some of them are considering how young they are."
Will any of them redshirt?
"I don't imagine any of them will redshirt. They are good, so they will be on the court or subbing in as a backup."
Dorey Gray is one of the three players who graduated last season. Who do you expect to replace her?
"Dorey Gray did a nice job of really dedicating herself to learning what we needed her to learn and do what we needed her to do. I'm really proud of how much she progressed. We wouldn't have had the success we had last year if she hadn't done that. Paris Perret, our freshman who has come in is already really good. A setter runs the offense, so they are trying to get hitters one-on-one. She does a lot of things naturally. Sometimes she sees things but other times I think she just knows things. She's tall so she is very good offensively. Hillary Parker, our sophomore setter, is doing a great job, too, but she knows she is too small to play setter in the SEC. It could be they end up sharing time or we may run a 5-1, which is just one setter. Paris is great in the front row and she can be an offensive threat as well. She has already shown that in our scrimmages. She'll start. It is just a matter of if we use both of them do we have enough hitters to run the 6-2? We have some different options. But Paris will have to play because Hillary is too small to play in the front row. But they are both doing a good job and battling it out."
Depth-wise, how are you with this team?
"We are actually pretty good everywhere. We have a lot of depth at the setter positions. We have three that can set. Kelsey Nichols is another one who can set for us, although she is undersized and won't be able to play in the front row. And most teams carry two. Having three really helps us.
"We also have a lot of depth defensively. We have Kayla Woodard, Iwa Belisario, who is another one of our freshmen who will get on the court because she is a great defensive player, and another freshman Sydney Knose who has been doing a good job in the back row and in the front row. Kellye Jordan has had some foot injury issues, so Knose's had to play back row defense. She has come on really strong. So, we are really deep there.
"Our outside hitter right-side position is one of the positions where we have an injury. Chanelle Baker is having shoulder issues, so we are trying to see how much she can handle. She will probably have to have surgery at the end of the season to tighten up her shoulder. But we have a lot of depth at that position. We have Faith Steinwedell and Caitlin Rance there as well as Dani McCree, one of our other freshmen. She hits the ball hard and she is very effective offensively. Due to several injuries, she has been getting a lot of work and a lot of experience. We will see her on the court this fall.
"The one position where we don't have a lot of depth is our middle blocker position. We have, arguably, our best player at that position in Ashley Newsome. She is so good. She can go against a solid double block and still get a kill. The girl can hit over people, she is just that high above the net. She and Paris (Perret) connected really, really well. We also look to have Mandy (Mellencamp) and the transfer Hannah Wilkinson as our other two middles. Our fourth middle was Chanelle Baker, but with injuries she can't swing right now on the front row. And Mandy has, of course, had the screw removed after her ACL surgery. But she will be fine because her ACL recovery has been fantastic. We just have to get her through the soreness of getting that taken out. She brings so much to the court personality-wise. She is a great player who started as a freshman. She brings a fire to the court and one of those teammates you love playing with. Hannah has been fantastic but like any new player she has a lot to learn about what we are teaching and how we expect her to do things. But she is a workhorse and will go at it 100%. We are a little thin at this position but we are better here than we were last year. We just need to stay healthy at this position."
You had a lot of injuries last year that really affected the team, didn't you?
"We did but our players learned a lot through all that adversity. They learned that if you put your mind to it you can accomplish it. Early on last season it could have very well been where our players felt it was going to be a bad year due to all our injuries. We had a stomach bug hit our team on a road trip. It felt like it was always something. But they didn't give up. They were fighters through all the tough things and it paid off. We won four SEC matches at the end of the season. That told them that if you do the work in every way you can and you will be successful on the court. They learned that lesson."
You mentioned height a few times. Is that something that is needed?
"It is important in our sport. Our setter is about 5-11, which is a good size for a setter. But we want our hitters 6-foot or taller. Or, like Dani, our outside hitter that we brought in, she is probably more along the lines of 5-10, but she can jump out of the gym. She is a lot like Ashley and Chanelle, an unbelievable athlete who can jump really high. And we need them to play high above the net."
Talk about your schedule.
"It is a good mix. We wanted our non-conference schedule to have some teams, if we played really well, we should be competitive and successful against. We wanted some teams that would challenge us. We are playing Austin Peay the first weekend and they are one of the top teams in their conference. Arkansas-Little Rock is one of the top teams in their conference. That is the kind of challenge that you want. We go to Southern Illinois, who was also one of the top teams in their conference. South Florida was a team that finished with an RPI around 60. We also have Southern Miss who went to the NCAA tournament this past year and had a high RPI. We are playing some of the mid-majors who are some of the best in their conference. So, we have to be fully prepared on gameday and execute. That is what you need heading into SEC play.
"As for our SEC schedule, we opened up on the road at Ole Miss, which is a tv game. Three of our home weekends are with home football weekends, one of which is homecoming. We play Ole Miss at home the Friday of homecoming. There are some neat things with our SEC schedule that will be really good for us."
There are a few improvements with your facility this year aren't there?
"Our facility is great because it is so loud. When we get good crowds it is so loud. That is something that we are really, really working on this year - getting a lot of fans at our games. That gives us a huge home court advantage. Teams will dread playing there because it is so loud.
"Some new things we are getting is a new scoreboard that will have the volleyball players stats on it. It's going to be on the end of the court opposite of the one we currently have. We are also having some banners added to the outside of the building at the main front entrance. The same company that did the football stadium banners and our inside banners are doing them. People will see a big Mississippi State volleyball sign on the front of our facility. We've also done some other minor work like painting and updating the concession stand which will make it look a lot better."
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.