Aug. 21, 2009
NEW ORLEANS - It is a rare occasion when a program entering its 34th varsity season uses the term "new" to describe itself.
For the 2009 Tulane University volleyball team, however, that is precisely the case as the Green Wave will enter a new era with a new coaching staff, veterans playing new roles, five new student-athletes and a new system to go along with a brand new attitude.
One year after winning the Conference USA regular-season and tournament championships to advance to the NCAA postseason for the first time in school history, the Tulane team has a new head coach in long-time assistant Sinisa Momic, a pair of new assistant coaches in Amy Williamson and Kallie Noble, and will make the transition to a 5-1 offense after running a two-setter system for the majority of the last three seasons.
The Green Wave return a pair of starters - sophomore outside hitter Visnja Djurdjevic and junior middle blocker Lindsey Shepard - as well as senior libero Jenn Miller among seven returners from last year's championship team, and two more key veterans return in the form of seniors Rachel Lindelow and Ksenija Vlaskovic.
The roles for the two seniors, however, will be a bit new as Lindelow - who split time with starter Luna Rebrovic at setter the last three years - will play in all six rotations for Tulane in 2009. Vlaskovic, meanwhile, starred at outside hitter her first two years before switching off with AVCA honorable-mention All-American Bridget Wells on the right side in 2008. Vlaskovic is expected to return to the outside hitter position for her senior season after earning AVCA Midwest Region and C-USA Freshman of the Year honors in 2006 and claiming first-team all-conference recognition in 2007.
"We have four people who played every day, plus our libero," Momic said. "Jenn Miller is back, she's been our best libero all of these years and now she'll be a senior. That's a very important position, and the same thing goes for Rachel. Now, she'll be in a bit of a new role and will set from all six rotations.
"Ksenija will probably go back to playing all six rotations, so as a senior, we need her to provide more of an impact, expand her role and lead more. She's the one we need to step up like Sara (Radosevic) did last year. And of course, last year's Freshman of the Year is back in Visnja Djurdjevic and I expect a lot from her."
In addition, the Green Wave welcome five new faces to the team - four of which will be eligible to play in 2009 - in true freshmen Elysa Jackson, Milica Jovic and Marija Milosavljevic, along with senior transfer Jaye Loyd and junior college product Hanah Rasmussen. Jackson and Loyd are expected to provide depth at both setter and defensive specialist. Jovic is working exclusively on the right side and Milosalvjevic is tentatively penciled in to man one of the starting middle blocker positions. Rasmussen, meanwhile, will redshirt the 2009 season and train with the team before vying for playing time at libero in 2010.
"This team realizes what it was able to accomplish last season, knows how we did it and knows what it took to get to that point," Momic said. "We also realize it took us four years to get to that point. Now, we have five new players and it will take time. We have to find new chemistry and define new roles for the players on the team. We'll need to learn which line-ups and systems we'll use. We know how we became champions in 2008, but saying that we know what it takes, we know it takes time, too."
And while talks of a repeat of last year's superb performance have been mum, there is an underlying feeling that the program has to prove that it is no one-year wonder. With so many key players returning and the influx of talented newcomers, the buzz surrounding the Green Wave team is every bit as loud as it was a year ago when Tulane was picked to win the league title and represent C-USA in the NCAAs.
While the team has nothing to prove to itself, they now have to go out and prove it to the rest of the college volleyball world.
"I think they know what they are capable of," Momic said, "but I think they are realistic and know that just because they've done it before doesn't mean they are going to walk through the season and do it again. We have to do everything all over again - rebuild, train, deal with all the problems that come up during the season. Then we have a shot to do it. I don't think we have a mentality that just because we did it last year, we're going to do it again.
"We talked about it a lot during the spring, but it doesn't matter what you did nine months ago. Every year is a new start."
The Green Wave return half of the two-headed monster at setter in senior Rachel Lindelow. Despite splitting time for most of her career, Lindelow enters her senior season ranked sixth in Tulane history with 2,063 career assists.
"Rachel was a big part of our success and fit perfectly with the team we had and the system we ran," Momic said. "With Rachel at setter, we have a proven defender and a good server. Now, she needs to step up her blocking and run the team in all six rotations. She's a team captain and the setter, so the team success will greatly depend on her since she'll have a bigger role."
Providing depth and learning the trade in 2009 is true freshman Elysa Jackson. As a prepster at Stephen F. Austin High in Texas, she was tabbed District 23-5A Outstanding Setter, claimed first-team all-district honors and was named varsity MVP as a senior.
Jenn Miller returns for her fourth season holding down the Green Wave's back-row defense and enters her senior season as the most prolific passer in Tulane history with a school-record 1,580 digs.
"Jenn is a senior captain who seems to break her own records every year," Momic said. "Again, she will be very important to our serve-receive and defense of course, and her leadership will be big as well."
Jaye Loyd, a senior transfer from the University of Tennessee will assist on defense and step in at libero when the occasion is called for. In three seasons with the Lady Vols, Loyd saw action in 75 matches and 221 sets from 2006-08, posting 319 digs, 266 assists, 16 aces, two kills and a pair of blocks.
Rasmussen, meanwhile, will sit out the year due to NCAA transfer rules and learn from the two seniors on the roster as she adjusts to life as a Division I student-athlete. As a freshman last year at Missouri State-West Plains - where she helped the Grizzlies finished seventh in the final NJCAA Top 25 - Rasmussen posted 232 digs, average 1.63 digs per set and recorded 13 service aces.
One of the strong points of the Tulane team in 2009 should be the performance of the outside hitters where reigning Freshman of the Year Visnja Djurdjevic and former first-team All C-USA honoree Ksenija Vlaskovic look to lead another high-octane Green Wave offense.
Vlaskovic, saw her numbers dip a bit in 2008, but not her importance. In an unselfish move, she made the transition to right-side hitter and still finished fourth on the team with 284 kills and 2.29 kills per set while sitting fifth on the club with 51 blocks and 0.41 blocks per set despite playing in only half of the Green Wave's rotations. Along the way, Vlaskovic became just the 12th player in Tulane history to post 1,000 kills and enters her senior season ranked 11th in the Green Wave record book with 1,182 career kills.
"Ksenija will move back outside, where she played her first two years," Momic said. "Last year she played only front row, so this year, she needs to understand that she needs to step it up on the back row and control all aspects of playing outside, which means doing everything - serve-receive, defense, offense, blocking and serving.
"Along with her we have last year's Freshman of the Year, Visnja, and she ended last year playing very well down the stretch. We need her to continue her improvement and control all aspects of the position. If she can do that, we will have one of the best two offensive players in the conference as far as outsides go."
While Tulane returns a wealth of experience on the outside, the same cannot be said for the other side of the attack where junior Amaris Genemaras and true freshman Milica Jovic are expected to battle for playing time.
Jovic, meanwhile, comes to Tulane with an impressive resume after playing on the Klek Volleyball Club and the Serbian Youth National Team. During her time with Team Serbia, she helped the team win the silver medal at the 2006 Balkan Championships.
"Jovic is a true right-side," Momic said. "She is a 6-3 lefty with a lot of potential, but there is a lot of work and development that needs to happen between now and the end of the season. Amaris has played both the right side and outside positions and she has a good set of all-around skills. She will be a junior and we will look for more from her."
The 2009 team returns two of the three middle blockers to see time during last year's championship season, including starter Lindsey Shepard.
"We're looking for our middles to contribute more," Momic said. "Steph and Shepard are both juniors this year, so we're looking for more from them as they provide leadership and maturity. Our offense will have to be more productive in the middle. We have to develop that part of our game."
One reason for optimism at the position, however, is the addition of Marija Milosavljevic. The other half of the Serbian signees for 2009, Milosavljevic played four seasons for Klek and has been a member of the Serbian Youth and Junior National Teams. With the YNT, she helped the club win the gold medal at the 2007 Balkan Championships, silver medals at the 2007 European Championships and 2007 European Youth Olympic Festival, and a bronze medal at the 2005 Balkan Championships.
"Marija has experience playing in Serbian Leagues and both the Serbian Youth and Serbian Junior National Teams for many years," Momic said. "She was actually a captain there and there is a reason she got to that level. She's a great pick-up for our program and we're all looking forward to watching her development over the next four years."
Eleven home matches and eight contests against opponents who qualified for the 2008 NCAA Tournament highlight the 2009 Tulane University volleyball schedule. The Green Wave will open the season with seven straight road matches before opening its home slate on Sept. 11-12 with the Allstate Sugar Bowl Classic at Fogelman Arena.
"Once again we are playing a very tough pre-season schedule against teams with high RPIs," Momic said. "We believe this is necessary for our team and program to continue to improve. We want to challenge our players to consistently compete at their highest level, and we feel that a tough schedule will help us improve quicker. Our tough preseason schedule will also better prepare us for our Conference USA opponents, which have greatly improved over the last couple of years."
The Green Wave open at the Bluejay Invitational at Creighton University when the team travels to Omaha, Neb., to take on Illinois, Texas Tech and the host Bluejays. From there, it is on to Baton Rouge for the Tiger Classic where the Wave will battle Louisiana-Lafayette on before taking on Nebraska and state-rival LSU.
Tulane will play its first match in the city limits on Sept. 10 when it goes to the Lakefront to take on cross-town foe University of New Orleans before hosting LSU, Long Beach State and UNO in the Allstate Sugar Bowl Classic in Fogelman Arena. From there, the Wave open the Conference USA portion of their schedule on Sept. 17, when they travel to El Paso, Texas, for a showdown with UTEP. Tulane follows that contest with the Arizona Invitational in Tucson, Ariz., where the team will face the host Wildcats before battling New Mexico.
It will be all C-USA opponents for most of the remainder of the season as Tulane will play home-and-home contests against Houston, Rice, SMU and Tulsa, an additional home match against UTEP and single matches with East Carolina, Marshall, Memphis, Southern Miss, UAB, UCF. The lone non-conference match along the way is an Oct. 1 trip to Nacogdoches, Texas, to take on the Ladyjacks of Stephen F. Austin.
Following the Green Wave's regular-season finale vs. UTEP on Nov. 14, Rice will host the 2009 C-USA Volleyball Championship from Nov. 20-22 in Houston. The winner of the conference tournament will earn the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, which is slated to begin on Dec. 3.