John Denton's Knights Insider: Young Knights Gear Up for 2010 Volleyball Season

Aug. 23, 2010

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - With no true seniors, just one fourth-year player and a host of sophomores (four of them) and freshmen (five of them), UCF head volleyball coach Todd Dagenais had to think outside the box while attempting to build team chemistry at warp speed this preseason.

So before camp started, Dagenais had his youth-filled squad go through a team-building ropes course designed to instill trust, fearlessness and togetherness. Players and coaches alike had to trust others to hold them up some 40 feet in the air, knowing that their fate lay in the hands of their teammates.

And based on how the team has jelled already in the preseason, the course seems to have paid big dividends for a UCF team looking to make major improvements this season.

"I was struggling and was nervous being up so high. The girl who was holding me up was screaming, `I'm holding you, it will be O.K., you can do it!' It helped me because I'm usually the type who doesn't trust too many people and I like to do things myself," said 6-foot-1 sophomore Evija Vilde. "But that course helped show me that this team is really together and wanting to see each other do well."

With promising young players such as Tory McCutcheon, Marie Reiterova, Angelica Crump and Vilde, combined with the veteran leadership of Kristin Fisher and Meredith Murphy, the Knights believe that they can improve greatly on last season's 12-18 record. Their inexperience could be an issue when the regular season tips off Friday in Ft. Myers at the Florida Gulf Coast Tournament, but the hope is the overflowing talent will override the team's youthful nature.

"This is the first year where I know what we have and who we are going to be," said Dagenais, who is in his third season as UCF's head coach. "It's going to be one of those years where our success will be within a range. We'll be better than we were in the past. That will be the low end. But we could be really good, too. With all of the freshmen and inexperience, you know it will be somewhere in the middle of the range. We've come far enough now that we won't be at the bottom of our potential anymore.''

Fisher, a 5-foot-10 outside hitter from Clearwater, is the team's unquestioned leader after being unanimously voted team captain. She played in all 30 matches last season and led the team in service aces (24) and ranked second in kills (113) and third in digs (254). A redshirt junior who plans to graduate in the fall with a degree in nursing, Fisher is the lone remaining member from UCF's Class of 2007 recruiting class. And she takes her leadership role on the team very seriously.

"It's an honor being in this role and knowing the girls who have had this role before. Our team trusting me in that role makes it really special," Fisher said. "You have to give out a lot of tough love, but the respect is there. They know I'm in this position, but I'm their friend, too. I try to give them their space and let them be grown-ups in college. Everyone is going to make their own mistakes, but I just try to keep everybody going in the same direction and toward the same goal.''

The goal is to finish in the top half of Conference USA, and the Knights think they can do just that with the emergence of freshmen Reiterova and Crump. Reiterova, a 5-foot-9 setter who joined the team last January, has a vast array of experience with the indoor Luxembourg National Team and the Czech National Team's beach volleyball squad. And Crump, a redshirt freshman, is easily the team's most athletic player who regularly draws raves with her kill shots.

"Marie's a very accomplished beach player, one of the top beach players in the Czech Republic. She still comes in as a freshman and has to adapt to our style, which is a little faster and more defense-oriented," Dagenais said. "She's had some injury issues, but when she's healthy she's as good as anybody we've ever had here.

"Angelica has the size to be our best attacker. She's 6-foot-3 and jump-touching 10 feet, 4 inches," Dagenais continued. "She's a fantastic physical athlete. There are times when she goes up and smacks the ball world class and times she looks like a high-schooler. But once she stabilizes by the middle of the season I think we'll see somebody who sets a lot of records here."

And then there's the promise of Vilde, who has volleyball in her genes and is loaded with tremendous promise. Vilde's father, Raimonds Vilde, played professionally in the former Soviet Union, Latvia and Greece, and Evija wanted a similar lifestyle for herself. The powerful lefthander sent tapes of herself to Dagenais and eventually earned a scholarship.

The preseason ropes course taught her to trust her teammates, but she said it really wasn't that necessary considering how open her fellow UCF players have been assisting her while making the transition from Latvia to the United States.

"I think the people are different because they are so friendly here," she said. "In Europe, you are my opponent and trying to take my spot so I see you as my competitor. But here it's friendlier and everybody is trying to help you and I really appreciate that.

"I think we can be really good," Vilde continued. "I'm surprised how quickly the freshmen are growing up. I think we can get much further this season than last year. We have a lot of talent and potential."


John Denton's Knights Insider appears several times a week on UCFathletics.com. E-mail John at jdenton@athletics.ucf.edu or follow him on Twitter at @JD_UCF.