All freshmen, all the time.
University of Nebraska at Omaha coach Rose Shires, who opens fall practice Monday in preparation for the Mavericks’ second season of Division I volleyball, counts nine freshmen among her 14 players after redshirting a four-player class of newcomers last season.
Outside hitter Natalie Ebke and defensive specialist Amy Roberts, two of the three UNO seniors, are far and away the most experienced returning players from last year’s team that went 5-23 in its short-notice initial foray into Division I.
There is no junior class. Two sophomores appeared in a total of eight matches last year between them.
“Natalie and I have had a few conversations, and I told her to make sure to introduce herself to who is on her left and who is on her right,” Shires said. “It’s been the same for three years for her, but now it’s going to be a freshman on either side.”
Top contenders for playing time among the freshmen would figure to be either Bailey Baxter or Michaela Schimmer — possibly both — at setter, as well as outside hitter Kelley Wollak (a clone of UNO all-time kills leader Tracy Ankeny, Shires said), and middle blockers Valerie Hecht and Amy Taylor.
But that’s not all.
“Literally every freshman we have will be vying for a starting position,” Shires said. “And based on sheer numbers, 85 percent of them are going to start. Normally I’d be hesitant about starting even one freshman, but I feel good about this group. They worked their tails off this summer preparing to play at this level.
“If we make errors, it will be because we don’t know what to do yet and not for a lack of being competitive or not having the ability to do it.”
Shires is optimistic because of what she saw from her young players in the spring, when they were competitive with the likes of Kansas State, Creighton and others.
“This team gained a tremendous amount of confidence this spring,” she said. “It was an extremely productive offseason, one of the best we’ve had.”
She’s also pleased with the ability of her young players. Hitters Diane Banderas and Kimberly Bailey redshirted last season, along with Baxter and Hecht. Hitter Megan Schmale and setter Jenna Schlautman round out the Mavs’ five-player true freshman class.
“This group of players made a commitment to being not just better volleyball players, but to being competitive Division I athletes,” Shires said. “The amount of time they spent in the weight room, practicing, watching video and increasing their volleyball IQ has made this team a close-knit, high-chemistry team.”
Ebke, from Lincoln East, is back after averaging a team-best 3.0 kills per set last season. Roberts, from Norfolk, Neb., was fourth on the team in digs (2.2 per set) and third in service aces.
UNO has to replace four-year starting setter Emily Myers, veteran libero Angie Reicks, its team leader in hitting percentage and blocks in Brittany Hanssen, as well as Lizzy Mach, who showed some signs of her former self last season but reinjured the same knee that kept her out for most of 2010 and elected not to play her final season this fall.
Shires said two other regulars, hitter Abby Sorenson and defensive specialist Ali Jansen, transferred.
Enter the freshmen.
“We’re headed in the right direction, toward the Division I-type recruits we’re looking to get,” Shires said. “These are the type of athletes who are going to allow us to compete, and now it’s a matter of continually trying to outrecruit others. What we have as our goal is that by the time these freshmen are seniors, we’ll have the potential to qualify for the NCAA tournament by winning our conference championship.”
UNO, which played 12 Division I teams among its 28 matches last season, dives in head-first this season with a full Summit League schedule as well as a list of intriguing nonconference opponents including Syracuse (at home, no less), Kansas State, Tulsa and Connecticut.
“Our mission, our goal, is to be .500 or better this year,” Shires said. “Our seasons typically start out with loftier goals, but that’s a good goal to have and it would be an excellent steppingstone. If we’re in the upper two-thirds of the Summit League, we would be very happy with that.”
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