Dec. 18, 2012
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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- The NCAA women's volleyball tournament ended Saturday in Louisville, Ky., where Texas defeated Oregon for the title.
UVa coach Dennis Hohenshelt was at the KFC Yum! Center for the championship match. He also was there Thursday for the semifinals, in which Texas and Oregon beat Michigan and Penn State, respectively.
Hohenshelt, a former Penn State assistant, acknowledged Monday that the NCAA final four can be a humbling experience for a coach who, watching from the stands, is reminded of the gap between his team and the semifinalists.
"Because those teams are such at such an elite level," Hohenshelt said. "But it also gives you the target to shoot for. And anything can happen. Four years ago or five years ago, Oregon was not in that elite category. They were toiling in mediocrity in the bottom of the Pac-10."
Hohenshelt (pronounced HO-en-shelt) has seen plenty of high-level volleyball. Before leaving in late January to become head coach at UVa, he spent 16 season as a Penn State assistant, the first 10 with the men's team. On the women's side, he helped the Nittany Lions capture NCAA titles in 2007, '08, '09 and '10.
"Was it a surprise to me how good those teams [in Louisville] were? No," Hohenshelt said. "But I hope the kids all watched it. That's one of the things I've gotten them doing a little bit this year that they never did in the past. I tell them, `Hey, there are matches on TV all the time. Watch the good players.' That's how you learn. You watch good players and say, `Why can't I do that?' I know some of the kids watched it, because they texted and stuff like that. I'm excited that they got to watch it."
He's excited, too, about the long-term potential of his program, even if his first season did not produce impressive results. Virginia finished 9-22 overall and 3-17 in ACC play -- the first time Hohenshelt has been part of a losing team as a college coach.
"One of the things we talked to the girls at the end of the year about was that when you build anything, there has to be a strong base," he said. "And so I thought that even though we didn't win a ton of matches, we built a strong base and at least we established where we want this to go."
When he came to UVa last winter, Hohenshelt took over a program that went 53-70 overall (28-52 in the ACC) in four seasons under his predecessor, Lee Maes. The Wahoos finished 10-20 and 4-16 in 2011, after which Maes stepped down.
Hohenshelt hoped the `Hoos would fare better this fall, but he's not discouraged.
"I wasn't here for a one-year fix," he said. "[The team] talked a little bit about that, and I felt good about that. And after I've had individual meetings with the kids, I feel even better, because every one of the kids says, `I can't wait.' And that's when you know you got `em a little bit: when you're meeting a week after the season and they go, `I want to start right away.' "
UVa was notable for its inexperience this fall. Freshmen Vivian Burcescu, Kayla Sears and Natalie Bausback started at least 18 matches apiece. Bausback made the ACC's all-freshman team.
"I think with those three, the sky's limit for them right now," Hohenshelt said. "They haven't even tapped their potential, and they know it. They're like, `We got a long way to go.'
"I think Vivian's going to be one of the best middles in this conference. It's all there, and she tells us all the time, `I want to be great. I want to be great.' And then she shows you, because she's the kid that's watching video, she's the kid that wants extra reps. You can say you want to be great all you want, but you gotta show me. Saying and showing are two different things."
Two other freshmen -- Amanda Barnes and Manon Greskovics-Fuller -- started six matches apiece this fall for a team whose regulars included only one senior, Jessica O'Shoney, and one junior, Emily Rottman. Moreover, one of the Cavaliers' best players, 6-3 Mallory Woolridge, redshirted while recovering from shoulder surgery.
At times during matches, Hohenshelt said, he would get frustrated by his team's breakdowns. "And then you go, `Well, we're playing three freshmen, four freshmen or five freshmen out there. The freshmen are taking all the major swings.' And you can't change that. You can't make a kid a fourth-year."
Woolridge has two seasons of eligibility remaining. She'll be able to participate when the `Hoos begin workouts in January, Hohenshelt said, "so that's a real positive. She's worked real hard in the fall, and I expect her to be ready to go and help this team win with her play and with her leadership."
Four high school seniors signed letters of intent with UVa last month -- 5-10 Jasmine Burton, 6-2 Haley Kole, 6-3 Meghan McDowell and 6-3 Alex Thorson -- and the class is likely to add another member or two before the start of the 2013-14 academic year.
"We got some size," Hohenshelt said. "We got some very good volleyball skill. This group's going to come in and be very competitive right away. They're ready to play."
His first year at UVa has been an educational experience for Hohenshelt too. Early in the season, he tried to accelerate the learning process with his players, a strategy that didn't pay dividends.
"I was like, `OK, next step, here's next step, here's the next step,' " Hohenshelt recalled. "And then after a week I'd be like, `OK, let's go back down the steps and make sure we got it all right.' If you look, we had a pretty good last half of the year. We started to win some matches, we were really competitive in some matches, and I think part of that was because we just simplified stuff and said, `OK, no more steps up the rung until we're good at Step 1. When we get to Step 1 and we feel good about it, we're going to Step 2.' And the kids really bought into that concept and worked to be good at those things I asked them to be good at."
The Cavaliers' season ended on a Friday night in Blacksburg, where they lost in three sets (28-26, 25-14, 25-17) to Virginia Tech. Three days later, Hohenshelt said, his players "were in the weight room at 8 a.m., attacking it. That's the way you get better. That's the most exciting part about it for me."
His players' work ethic since the season ended has been tremendous, Hohenshelt said. "And to me that's the first part of how you build it: The kids have to get what you're trying to accomplish and what it takes to be there. I feel really good."
Hohenshelt smiled, looking ahead to 2013. "I'm ready to go right now," he said.