Aug. 25, 2011
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By Sarah Tarasewicz
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - When he first took the UCF volleyball coaching job three years ago, Todd Dagenais figured the team would be a quick fix to turn into a winner because of the vast resources on campus.
History has since taught Dagenais that such turnarounds usually happen in a matter of years instead of a matter of months. But now, with elite recruits in place, several talented returners on the roster and competent depth, Dagenais feels UCF's volleyball squad is on the verge of a breakout season.
"It took longer than I thought it would and I guess I didn't understand the history of volleyball. There's only been two teams go from last in their conference to first in a five-year timeframe. I thought we'd come in and turn it around, but it just doesn't work like that," said Dagenais, who is entering his fourth season at UCF. "We set out to build this right. We thought we could do it maybe in three or four years, but it's going to be four or five to do it right by the book. We've started with academics and social decisions, and then comes winning on the court. The first two parts are in place and now it's about winning on the court."
Winning as in cracking into Conference USA's top four teams along with traditional powerhouse programs Tulsa, SMU and Houston. And winning as in possibly getting a bid to play in the NCAA Tournament. Because volleyball programs recruit in two-year cycles, Dagenais has two fully-stocked recruiting classes and he feels his fourth season leading the Knights will be the best yet.
The season begins Friday night with the Knights hosting the Courtyard by Marriott/UCF Classic. Michigan State, South Alabama and North Florida are scheduled to compete in the event.
"I picked us fourth (in C-USA) and I don't apologize for it," said Dagenais, whose Knights were 16-16 last season and 9-11 in league play. "Last year, we were two matches out of fifth and we had two five-set losses. I felt we should have been in the top half last year. I think we'll have a breakout year this season, but I don't know to what degree. This is the year that we want to be knocking on the door on Selection Sunday (for the NCAA Tournament). We want our name on the board. To do that we have to have a 20-win season and finish in the top-four in the conference and we have to have an RPI in the 60s."
UCF's rebuilding project can once again be witnessed in the youth of the roster. A season after having no seniors, Rachel Vukson (Oakville, Ont.) is the lone senior this time around. And team leader Kristin Fisher's 495 kills are gone.
But UCF's hopes are buoyed by the promise of sophomore standouts Angelica Crump (Atlanta, Ga.) and Nichole Riedel (Denver, Colo.) and a solid junior class led by Evija Vilde (Riga, Latvia), Tory McCutcheon (Milton, Ont.), Meredith Murphy (Austin, Texas) and Dani Harrison (Tallahassee, Fla.).
Crump, a 6-foot-3 outside hitter from Atlanta, will be replacing Fisher as UCF's top offensive threat. The coaching staff has worked to change her attack angles to make her a more efficient player.
"She's as athletic as any outside hitter in the country. She hasn't been playing the game as long as some of the players, but she just jumps high and she hits hard," Dagenais said. "Now, she's starting to figure out the game. When she does that she's going to be a lethal attacker."
Riedel bounced back nicely last season after suffering a season-ending injury during her true freshman season. The middle blocker had 210 kills last season, but that doesn't tell the true story about her consistency and effectiveness.
"We've got some pretty complicated blocking schemes as to when to leave, when to stay and go, and Nichole is 95-percent accurate. It's unbelievable to make those kinds of reads that consistently," Dagenais said. "She doesn't jump what the young kids jump and maybe doesn't hit as hard, but she is so smart and you have to have somebody like her on the floor because she just doesn't make mistakes. That's critical to have from someone in the middle. She's becoming more than we thought she could be because we didn't know she was this intelligent as a player."
Dagenais said that Vilde has had an exceptional training camp and will be a big contributor following a down sophomore season. Harrison and Marie Reiterova (Luxembourg, Luxembourg) have also made big strides and figure to bolster UCF's depth this season.
Dagenais said one look at the talent on UCF's roster from top to bottom suggests that the program is on the right track. That has been clearly apparent in the classroom where the Knights had a 3.562 team grade-point average last season and was honored by the American Volleyball Coaches Association with a team academic award.
Now, Dagenais thinks the Knights are about to win in the classroom and on the court this season because of their wealth of talent.
"At this level the difference is not your first or second player; the difference is your third through sixth players and then your depth. What happens when you have an injury? I think we're as strong as we've ever been in that area as far as who fills in for whom," he said. "Our strong players - we'll have the Angelica Crumps of the world from here on out - but where we're improving is in the backups. You see it in our freshmen. In a lot of ways they're more athletic than the players ahead of them, but the older players have the experience. Volleyball isn't just a run and jump game. The exciting side of it is we have these young, athletic players for years to come.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.