Volleyball primer: Optimism high in spring season

Thirteen letter winners return for team that reached the Elite Eight

A year ago, Wisconsin head volleyball coach Pete Waite spent spring practice trying to figure out just what his team was going to look like in the fall. After losing four players to graduation and awaiting the fall arrivals of five freshmen, UW was something of a skeleton crew when the spring season rolled around.

This spring, that is anything but the case. The Badgers return 13 letter winners from last season, having lost only opposite hitter Jill Odenthal and outside hitter Marian Weidner to graduation.

"It's nice to have 13 players," Waite said. "A lot of times you have big graduating classes and you're left with nothing in the spring. We've got a big group so we can go head to head with each other every day in practice."

In all, six of seven starters return from the team that reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.

"It's a lot different, considering we had about half the people we have this year," middle blocker Sheila Shaw said. "It gives us a lot more ability to try people in new positions and try different lineups."

The nearly-full roster (UW will add three freshmen in the fall: hitter Katherine Dykstra, middle blocker Morgan Salow and libero Kaye McCormack) gives the Badgers the ability to not only scrimmage six-on-six in practice, but find playing time for a host of players in spring tournaments.

"This year, it's really nice because we have enough people when we go to tournaments," outside hitter Aubrey Meierotto said. "Everybody's getting playing time and everybody's getting better."

Both starting middle blockers return in Shaw and Taylor Reineke, as well as outside hitters Meierotto and Maria Carlini. Added into the offensive mix is outside hitter Audra Jeffers, who redshirted in the fall. Also back is setter Jackie Simpson, who participated in spring practices a year ago after graduating from Downers Grove South High School (Ill.) a semester early and enrolling at UW. Needless to say, matters are far less complicated this spring for the sophomore-to-be setter.

"This spring, I know what to expect, where last year everything was new," Simpson said. "It's more comfortable, it's more fun."

With the bulk of its core talent back on the court, Wisconsin has two main priorities this spring: finding a replacement for Odenthal at right-side hitter and shoring up the team's defense. The latter of the two may be the most pressing need, as defensive coverage proved to be the Badgers' Achilles' heel throughout the 2004 season.

Last season, Wisconsin's back-row picture consisted of three freshmen: starting libero Jocelyn Wack and defensive specialists Megan Mills and Amanda Berkley, who periodically subbed for Odenthal and Meierotto. Wack quickly established herself as a back-row mainstay, setting a school record for digs in a season with 567 (4.93 per game).

New assistant coach Colleen Bayer has been charged with improving the team's overall defensive performance.

"The three in the gym are doing a good job," Waite said. "Our entire focus this spring is to improve our defense, that's our No. 1 goal."

The effects of December's NCAA Tournament run have been obvious this spring. After knocking off undefeated Hawaii and losing only to eventual national champion Stanford, Wisconsin came into spring practice a team confident in its ability to play with anyone in the country.

"It's definitely carried over for us, just confidence-wise," Simpson said. "Everybody knows we can succeed and play well as a team. I think we're just really focused on what we can do better. The spring's all about improving and making little changes here and little changes there and in the end to be better in the fall. That's our focus."

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