Having amassed a 49-0 Patriot League record over the past three years, it comes as no surprise that the AU volleyball team is again expected to be the class of the league in 2004.
Despite the graduation of 2003 All-American and three-time Patriot League Player of the Year Karla Kucerkova, 15-year veteran coach Barry Goldberg and his players have spent the past year focused on continuing their league dominance and breaking onto the national scene.
This year’s squad features seven seniors, including first team all-conference athlete Sabrina Vasconcelos, and second-team all-conference players Courtney Mulford and Natacha Cornaz. Junior Cutrina Biddulph was also a first team league selection for her strong offensive and defensive play.
With Kucerkova gone, Goldberg and his players have adapted to a new style of play and a new style of on-court leadership.
“Every year in college sports people leave and new [people] come in and different things develop between the team,” said Goldberg. “This group certainly has the ability to progress as a team this year because so many people are part of the equation here.”
Vasconcelos, who will be looked upon as a major part of that progression, said this year’s team is different in that many people are expected to contribute. “We are more homogeneous as opposed to last year when we went to Karla all the time. I guess we can be even better as a group rather than relying too much on Karla.”
Biddulph agreed. “It’s not just one leader, now everyone has to step it up,” she said.
When a star player such as Kucerkova leaves, a black hole can form in her absence. During her four years at AU, Kucerkova broke the AU records for most career kills and most kills per game. This year, however, Goldberg is confident that the void left by Kucerkova can be filled.
Vasconcelos, the team and league leader in assists and aces, will be looked upon as the team’s rock in the backcourt. Whereas Kuckerkova was considered the main ball-handler in the past, Goldberg said it was essential to find someone solid enough to handle those duties now.
“She’s doing really well, we like what we’ve seen so far,” said Goldberg of Vasconcelos’s performance in training camp. “She is handling it in ways we’ve never seen anyone handle it before.”
Goldberg said the major setting duties will be performed by Mulford, who set up 493 assists last year. Biddulph has also been practicing in the back row. After two years as one of the team’s star hitters, the junior hopes to help handle the ball more for the team. “I would really like to be successful in that position - I’ve been working hard on my skills in the back row,” she said.
After solidifying the back row with Vasconcelos and Mulford, Goldberg said the team is refining its major strength, which is infront of the ten-foot line.
“We have traditionally been one of the better teams at the net, and I think that is why we have been so successful. A lot of these games are won and lost at the net,” he said. “I’m hoping that we’re going to hit the ball and block the ball at the level of the top national teams.”
Biddulph, who Goldberg said is on the verge of exploding onto the national stage as a top player, is the top net player for the Eagles despite her work in the back row. At 6 feet 4 inches, she is the tallest athlete on the team. Joining her up front are seniors Erin Allgaier, Daria Bobko, Cornaz and Cathy Fluegman.
Freshmen Carly Barisich, Chelsa Brooks, Tara Stradling and Logan Striebel make up the 2004 recruiting class. Goldberg said all have done a good job adjusting to the college atmosphere and will work to develop as future team leaders.
With all the pieces seemingly in place, the team is readying itself for one of the toughest schedules it has ever faced. On Sept. 10, the Eagles will play USC, the defending national champions, at the Illinois Classic in Champagne, Ill. One week later, on Sept. 17, AU plays host to 17th-ranked Arizona at Bender Arena.
Goldberg hopes AU students will rally behind a team and program he thinks has a shot at something special this year and in the future.
“We would love these people (AU students) to get on the bandwagon,” he said. “If they get behind us now, we’ll do everything we can to get to the NCAA and win the thing. We need the fans.”
AU begins its Patriot League title defense on Sept. 23 at home against the Naval Academy, one of the team’s main league competitors this season. Goldberg is not promising anything, but is anticipating a record year for AU.
“There are very good possibilities for a team like this, but it’s not a given.”