Aug. 26, 2009
By Sarah Tarasewicz
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - In only one season at the helm of the UCF volleyball program, Todd Dagenais has already begun to transform the Knights into a Conference USA contender. In 2008, he led his squad to a 15-17 record, its best mark since 2003, and to a 6-10 C-USA record in the fifth-toughest volleyball league in the country.
With a rookie season full of firsts for the UCF volleyball program under his belt, Dagenais looks to push his young squad, which includes eight newcomers, to the pinnacle of his expectations in his second season as the Knights' head coach.
Dagenais recently sat down with UCFAthletics.com to give fans a preview of what to expect from his fresh-faced team.
In your first year with the program last season, the team finished with a 15-17 record, its best finish since 2003, and recorded its most Conference USA wins in school history. What are your expectations for your second year with the Knights with eight newcomers on your roster?
"Our goal this year is to do everything that we can to become a top-75 program, and that is going to be a big challenge. We lost a big percentage of our offense when we lost (Stephanie) Serna, (Jenny) Heppert and Janine (Williams) to graduation. But, the good news is that I think, athletically, we are superior to what we were last year, but experience-wise we are not even close. So, it depends on how quickly the experience-factor starts to take hold with the younger players. If we can get them experienced and get them game-ready then we are going to have a lot of options to be able to score points. But, I am also realistic. Sometimes those things can take two or three months before they actually kick in, so it is really just going to be based on the learning curve of everybody to be able to make up those points. If we can make up those points then we are going to be able to start reaching our expectations."
You arranged for the team to play a pretty tough schedule this season, which includes 16 matches at The Venue at UCF. How is this schedule going to challenge the team and prepare it to reach the expectations you set for it this season?
"The nice thing about this year is that we have so many more matches at home. Opening at home is going to be a big deal with all the younger players. Then we have some big things on the horizon.
"I think that the non-conference schedule is going to be challenging for us. We are going to see a wide variety of teams and a wide variety of styles and I think that is going to be really good for us to face that kind of diversity, because once we get into our league schedule, it is going to be a war.
"I really think that Conference USA is going to be tough this year. I just think there are going to be so many teams that are going to be so much better. All I know is that all we can do is prepare week-by-week for whatever we have in front of us, because if you look at the totality of it, it can get pretty ominous. But, the schedule itself is going to provide us with a big test this year. Looking at it as a whole it allows us to grow a little bit and it allows us to give some people some experience on the floor. But, on the flipside it really is going to test us and we are going to find out how good we are. If we are lucky enough to get through this conference and we can get a winning record, we are certainly going to be in the top-100 and on our way to being a top-75 program."
Two of your three setters from last year are back to run the offense. How do you think each is going to contribute to the success of your offense?
"The one setter that we have that has stayed consistent is Andee Youngblood. Andee played a lot of time for us last year, especially in a 6-2 offense. Now, we will probably look more for her to run a 5-1 offense. Athletically, she can play in the front row, she can block and she is not a liability in any way. She has worked so hard on her location and her selection in the offseason and right now she is doing a really nice job of running the offense. I know for sure she is going to factor into the setting, because being a senior now she has that leadership behind her and she is really raring to go. She has really prepared for this year.
"Renele Forde spent the entire summer setting for the Trinidad and Tobago National Team, so she has played against the elite teams in the world as a setter, and you cannot discount that type of experience. If she comes along the way that we think she can, it would make a lot of sense to run both her and Andee on the floor.
"We also had Jennifer Belew join us this fall. She is very eager to learn, works really hard, has this really great competitiveness about her and the team loves her. She comes from a great family of hard-workers and I would expect nothing but the best out of her."
Despite the return of Erin Campbell at the outside hitting position, the team lost a big chunk of its offense to graduation. Who do you think will step up and compensate for those missing points?
"I think that the outside position is one of the positions that are wide open right now. Erin Campbell obviously comes back as our returning kills leader, point scorer and has all of the experience. So, I think that on paper it makes sense that she should probably be in that outside hitting position. But, we brought in a couple new people this year, including Brittanie Wallace. She transfers in from Sam Houston State and has two years of collegiate experience. She is a nice all-around player and comes from a very high-level club program.
"The wildcard is Angelica Crump. She doesn't have a ton of high-level experience, but she has been trained pretty well. One thing that we are noticing already is that she is learning very quickly. Another factor is that she has been jump-tested at 10-4, which is elite. That could very well be the highest jump-touch of anyone in the conference. So, you cannot ignore that kind of athletic ability.
"It is going to be interesting to see how our offense evolves. Are we going to go with the experience, are we going to go with the athleticism? I don't know how we are going to do it, but I know that both Brittanie and Erin are athletic enough to score in this conference and they have the experience, but you cannot discount the athletic ability that an Angelica Crump brings.
"We also have Kristin Fisher. She has been another one of those solid players all the way through. As Kristin continues to develop in the back court you cannot discount the possibility that she can start a match at any given time and we would be just fine."
How do you replace AVCA All-Midwest Region Honorable Mention selection Stephanie Serna on the right side?
"Right now it looks like Renele has put herself in the leader's position to start on the right side. Her attacking has really come along in the last six months and her blocking is superior. She is one of the best blockers in the conference.
"Also, I was really excited about seeing Katie Riley after one year from the first time she walked in and she is so much more technical and so much stronger then what she was before. We are still working on getting the velocity of her attacks up with her, but blocking-wise she is solid.
"Another wildcard that we brought in on the right side is Evija Vilde. Her father was a very high level international player for the former Soviet Union, so we are hoping that the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. She is a very accomplished, well-rounded player and she is already showing little glimpses of what she can really do. I think that it is going to be really difficult to not have her on the floor."
Lauren Williams returns at the middle position after ranking second on the team in blocks per game and total blocks. Now that she is a junior what do you expect from her? Who else do you see making an impact in the middle-blocker position?
"This year, that is the position that I am most excited about. We return Lauren Williams, who hit almost .300 last year. She has been working hard on her blocking, so she could become one of the conference's elite blockers.
"Sara Rex comes back in great shape. Of all the players, she took to the training better than anybody else in the entire program. She is so fluid and so solid technically right now that it is going to be really hard to ignore her in that position.
"I am also really excited about the freshmen in this position. They come in with a lot of high-level experience. Nichole Riedel played with two elite clubs in Colorado and played an elite national schedule, and it has rubbed off on her. Right now, we could put her in a college match and she would be fine. I don't know how many points she would score, but she would block. She wouldn't make mistakes in the front row and she would read the right things and the right cues. She could come in and play right now.
"Tory McCutcheon is a longer body than Nichole and she was one of the top middle blockers up in Canada. In practices, she has shown glimpses of brilliance."
You have a couple of new faces at the libero position this season. Who do you see taking over that position?
"I thought that one of the things that we sorely lacked last year was consistent ball control. This year, it is a complete 180. We have terrific ball control. Kristen Petrasic returns having two years under her belt, and she has vastly improved over last year. We have Meredith Murphy coming in from Austin. She has played with the best recruits in the country and that is a high level of experience. I think that she is also game-ready right now. She hasn't quite seen the speed of the collegiate game, but I feel that she could probably adapt pretty fast.
"Lastly, I am very pleasantly surprised with how efficient Dani Harrison is right now. She is just gutsy. She is just a gutsy gamer, hard-worker and smart player. She also transfers instruction quickly into the game.
"One of them is going to be the libero and the other two are going to be defensive specialists. Either way we have three quality back-row players, and that is a luxury that most teams do not have."
Who do you think is going to stand out this season in a team full of newcomers?
"I think this year is really going to be a year of team. I do not think that we are going to have any stars this year and I am okay with that. I am okay with having seven people on the floor and not one of them being a star, everybody just does their job. I told them that I want each of them to do their job to the best of their ability. We are not going to get by with having a star; we are not going to get by with setting someone 50 times a set. It is just not going to work with this group. I think that if we get people to function within their role and get everybody to really be in it for the team, I think that we can be way better than what our experience level says we should be. Our experience says that we shouldn't be as good as we were last year, and I am not sure that I am going to buy into that. I feel like we can be as good as we were last year, maybe even a little bit better. But, the caveat is that we have a lot of work to do to get to that point."
The Black and Gold opens the 2009 season on Aug. 28 when it hosts the Radisson-UCF Invitational at The Venue at UCF. The Knights will kick-off the tournament with matches against in-state rivals Jacksonville and North Florida, before wrapping up the event on Aug. 29 against Florida Atlantic and DePaul.
Season tickets for the upcoming season are on sale now for only $30, with the Knights hosting 16 regular-season matches at The Venue at UCF throughout the year.
For the latest news on the Knights, log on to www.UCFAthletics.com - the official site for UCF varsity sports. The site, which also contains ticket and Golden Knights Club donor information, is also the home of UCF's new online apparel store. Also visit www.UCFPhotos.com, the exclusive fan source for UCF action sports pictures.