Eagles bump it up a notch

AU Volleyball is 32-0 in two seasons of Patriot League play, sweeping all but six of those matches, and has made the NCAA Tournament the past two years. The team returns four players this year who last fall earned all-league honors, including Karla Kucerkova, the 2002 Verizon Academic Player of the Year. But as the number of victories and honors rise, one thing remains constant for head coach Barry Goldberg's team: the drive to play better.

Goldberg has a relaxed demeanor and always has a wisecrack prepared. But behind that unshaven Western Pennsylvanian fa?ade is a masterful volleyball mind that has led AU to a 354-142 record since 1989.

With a dominating background like that, it's no wonder that winning has become business as usual for AU, while striving toward the next level of competition has become the order of the day.

"We're just thinking about playing the game, playing it better," Goldberg said. "Players get better as they go, and all that [winning] kind of happens."

While AU's 32-game PL winning streak has come to define the program for outsiders, it's not an issue for the squad. Goldberg said his players are aware of the streak, but it's never something they discuss.

"We know it's out there because we see the headlines," Goldberg said, "but we're not playing with that in mind. We're playing to get better, to keep beating Lehigh and Army, and whoever else is in the conference. And they're trying to beat us, for sure."

The Eagles' credentials have made them a marked team for the rest of the conference. Because of the team's overwhelming superiority to PL rivals, they must have a competitive non-conference schedule to prepare for the next level: winning in the NCAA Tournament.

Just as it has done the last two seasons, AU began this season with matches against top-flight opponents. The first four weekends of the team's season feature match-ups with Arizona, Florida, Michigan State, Penn State and University of California-Santa Barbara, all nationally-ranked programs.

The Eagles' 2-4 record this fall after facing such opponents won't catch much attention. However, Goldberg wants his players to be inspired by facing the country's best, even if they can't always beat them.

"You [play top teams] to get a vision of what you're trying to go after," he said of the competitive schedule. "We are getting a nice dose of that. Hopefully, together we can become the vision for others."

This year is an important step toward realizing that vision. Goldberg said that having a core of skilled veterans has allowed him to formulate a more complex defensive strategy.

In previous years, players would maintain one position during a game, but this year, he wants players to run more across the blocks, opening up more opportunities for the entire team.

This season also marks the last in the stellar career of Karla Kucerkova. The outside hitter from the Czech Republic who came to AU to find a balance between academics and athletics will graduate this year as perhaps the most celebrated player in program history.

If AU wins the PL title this year, it will be the fourth conference championship for Kucerkova, the most for anyone in program history.

Goldberg said that Kucerkova's senior season will be a test, as there are higher expectations for her than ever before. But, he's confident she's up for the task.

"There's nothing beyond her capability," he said.

With this year being Kucerkova's last, it will be a crucial one for the Eagles. If they want to finally advance in the NCAA tournament with one of the best athletes in school history, the time is now.

Goldberg recognizes the importance of this year, but he remains calm. He sees a program that has gradually improved over the years, and will continue to get more competitive.

"There's urgency for Karla's sake, but it's not time to panic," he said. "It's time to keep your head on your shoulders and keep getting better"

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