Aug. 22, 2005
Entering the 2005 season, the UCF volleyball team has a new look. Make that new everything. A new conference. Six newcomers. A fresh start.
For head coach Meg Colado, this UCF squad will not resemble last year's team. With all of the changes, the Golden Knights are looking ahead, ready to continue the winning tradition at UCF.
"We are not at all focusing on last year. It is not important to us anymore," said Colado. "What is important to us is that our returning team members had a really good spring. We look forward to them being extremely helpful and inclusive to the new six (players) who are coming in."
Many of the newcomers should see playing time immediately. The incoming class features three junior college standouts, including two who garnered All-America honors in 2004. Colado envisions the three transfers - Leah Alexander, Maina Heming and Vesna Ukic - contributing right away.
"I expect them (the newcomers) to be at a high level," said Colado. "I expect them to be more mature than a typical freshman. I also expect them to have an understanding of the game. They will carry responsibilities from day one, unlike a true freshman."
The players on the court will not be the only noticeable change for the team. UCF enters its first campaign in Conference USA after winning nine A-Sun titles in 13 years. C-USA have made 15 NCAA appearances in the last 10 seasons. UCF will face a challenging league slate and will have to get accilmated with new opponents.
"The Conference USA schedule is tough week after week. That is going to be a challenge for us," said Colado. "There is no downtime. Most of these (league) schools are used to playing tough competition match after match."
UCF does return seven letterwinners from last season's squad. Three starters are also back: junior Jana Mitchell at middle blocker, senior Katie Kohnen who will be the team's top libero and sophomore Schanell Neiderworder on the right side.
A year ago as a freshman, Kim Clonan appeared in 17 matches for the Golden Knights. She averaged 11.80 assists per game and is the team's most experienced returning player at setter. Clonan was named to the A-Sun All-Freshman Team following the regular season.
Alexander enters the mix at setter after starring at San Jacinto College Central in Texas for two seasons. As a sophomore in 2004, she averaged 12.60 assists per game and was named to the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division I All-America Second Team. Her assists average ranked fourth nationally. Both players will compete for the starting spot.
"Kim has the advantage of knowing our system," said Colado. "But Leah has a whole year more experience than Kim. It will be a good battle."
Alexander and Clonan will enjoy a deep group on the outside. Sophomore Lorin Lukas, Heming and Ukic will give the Golden Knights impressive power at the attack positions
Lukas had a solid rookie campaign last season, playing in 16 matches and averaging 1.26 kills per game. UCF's coaching staff is looking forward to seeing Lukas the court this year after she posted an impressive spring season.
Heming, a native of Brazil, comes to Orlando after a standout career at Independence Community College in Kansas. In 2004, Heming earned a spot on the NJCAA Division II All-America First Team.
"Maina is an extremely experienced player with an international flare," said Colado. "She has a great understanding of the court and a wide array of shots. She will bring maturity to the team."
At 6-2, Ukic is the tallest outside hitter to play for Colado at UCF. Ukic is a native of Croatia but played on the junior college level at Garden City Community College in Kansas. She was an all-region selection following the 2004 season.
"Lorin, Maina and Vesna will fight for the left side position. As I see it right now, it will be a weekly battle," said Colado. "All of them bring something different, which is really great for us. That makes us really versatile on the outside."
Sophomore Schanell Neiderworder secured the starting position on the right side last season. An impressive athlete, she averaged 2.30 kills per game in 2004. As a freshman, she played in 21 of 23 matches for the Golden Knights.
"Schanell is a great athlete," said Colado. "She is incredibly fluid on the court and a solid point scorer for us. This season, she will definitely be a player to watch."
Ukic could also see some right side playing time.
Mitchell and senior Chaz Arah lead a deep core at middle blocker. Mitchell was one of three UCF players to appear in all 23 matches a year ago. She totaled 119 kills and added 58 blocks on the front line.
"Jana is a great worker," said Colado. "She has gotten stronger and faster over the summer. We are looking for her to be a dominant force in the middle."
Arah is one of two seniors on the team and has the most experience in the middle. During the 2004 campaign, Arah posted 142 kills and was second on the squad with 60 total blocks.
A pair of freshman will also fight for playing time. Jenny Heppert, from Lawrence, Kan. brings maturity and a defensive mindset to the position.
"Jenny is an unbelievable workhorse and has a high level of experience," said Colado. "We look forward to her competing right away for a starting position."
A Houston, Texas native, Keesha Hagan is a great athlete who should improve once she learns the Golden Knights system.
The group will have to replace Amanda Stoutjesdyk, who graduated after leading the A-Sun in blocks per game (1.10) last season. She posted 171 kills in 2004 and was a second-team all-conference selection.
Kohnen returns as the squad's top libero. A year ago, she was the lone Golden Knight to appear in all 78 games. Kohnen recorded 4.09 digs per game. That mark led the team and was fifth in the A-Sun.
Sophomore Alesha Busch spent last season learning the UCF system. She played in 12 matches as a freshman.
Also expected to see time on the back row is freshman Lindsay Randazzo. Randazzo prepped at St. Mary's Dominican in New Orleans, La. and was one of the nation's top high school liberos as a senior.
"At this point, Katie is the most experienced, most technically sound libero," said Colado. Alesha has been here for a year. Randazzo is just a sparkplug and we really look forward to some great defensive play in our game."
Traditionally, the Golden Knights face a challenging non-conference schedule. This season is no different as the team will face four teams that competed in the NCAA Championship in 2004.
UCF opens the season with consecutive road matches at programs that participated in the postseason last year. The Golden Knights kickoff their 2005 campaign at Florida A&M (Aug. 26) and then face Jacksonville on Aug. 31.
After opening the campaign close to home in the Sunshine State, UCF heads north to Minneapolis, Minn. to participate in the Diet Coke Classic, hosted by Minnesota.
At the event, UCF will play Xavier (Sept. 2), host Minnesota (Sept. 3) and North Dakota State (Sept. 3). In 2004, Minnesota advanced to the national championship match. The Golden Gophers posted a 33-5 overall mark last year. Traditionally, Minnesota enjoys extensive support in the stands and usually are among the nation's leaders in attendance.
"The tournament will not be easy at all," said Colado. "Facing that kind of adversity early on will define our team. Minnesota is going be an environment that these kids have never been in before."
The trip to Minnesota will also serve as a homecoming for Mitchell, who starred Osseo High School in nearby Champlin, Minn.
Following the tournament, UCF returns to Florida to face a pair of in-state rivals on the road. The team visits Bethune-Cookman on Sept. 9 then travels to Tampa to face USF on Sept. 16.
After seven matches on the road, the Golden Knights finally make their home debut on Sept. 20 against Florida Atlantic.
The team plays its inagural C-USA contest on the road, visiting SMU on Sept. 23. The two teams will be meeting for the first time.
UCF is paired in the C-USA East Division with East Carolina, Marshall, Memphis, Southern Miss and UAB and will play those teams at both home and on the road.
The Golden Knights open a four-match conference homestand on Sept. 25 versus Tulsa. Southern Miss (Sept. 27), UAB (Sept. 30) and Memphis (Oct. 2) visit during the stretch.
Unlike the A-Sun, which featured a Friday/Saturday conference match format, C-USA contests are played on Fridays and Sundays. The scheduling aspect is one of the many items that UCF will have to get aquainted with in the new league.
"The travel has greatly increased," said Colado. "It is not just bus trips anymore. There are going be some logistical things that we will have to adjust to."
The Golden Knights visit East Carolina on Oct. 7 and then Marshall on Oct. 9.
A pair of Texan foes - Rice and Houston - visit UCF Arena on Oct. 14 and 16, respectively.
UCF then embarks on a four-match road swing. The squad plays at UTEP (Oct. 21) and visits Tulane (Oct. 22) before matches at UAB (Oct. 28) and Memphis (Oct. 30).
East Carolina comes to Orlando for a Nov. 4 match. UCF then hosts Marshall (Nov. 6). As the season winds down, the Golden Knights have a mid-week non-league match at home against North Florida (Nov. 8). UCF and the Ospreys will be meeting for the first time.
UCF concludes the 2005 regular season on the road, facing Southern Miss on Nov. 11. Rice will host the C-USA Championship in Houston, Texas, starting Nov. 17. The winner of the tournament garners the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Championship.
"The overall competition (in C-USA) will be greater from top to bottom," said Colado. "It will be a challenge each night but we are looking forward to some exciting matches."