This Friday at noon, the UCF volleyball team will put on its black and gold jerseys, walk into The Venue and play its first match of the season against Northern Colorado.
But that has yet to cross the team’s mind.
Former U.S. Olympic assistant coach Todd Dagenais is focusing on replacing six seniors who graduated last year and acclimating eight freshmen to the college game.
“Right now, we’ve got to improve the things we need to improve on. And we’re keeping track of that every day,” he said. “We haven’t even talked about Northern Colorado yet.”
Even though the No. 1 ranked team in the American Athletic Conference preseason poll may have a target on its back, the defending AAC champion Knights are focused on learning one day at a time during practice.
And they’re certainly not worried what people think of them, even if they’re tabbed as the favorites.
“Even if we were fourth or eighth, whatever we came in, in that poll, we’re still going to work just as hard,” said Kia Bright, who averaged a team-second 3.02 kills per set as a sophomore last season. “Yes, we’re No. 1 right now, but we’re still going to go for it as if we’re at the bottom.
“We do have something to prove.”
Dagenais said the team’s offense “can run pretty well with just about anybody,” but they still need some work individually.
He knows that volleyball is a sport of making mistakes. And with almost half the team holding a freshman status, the learning curve may be slightly more circular than previous seasons.
“Anytime a freshman makes a mistake, they’re always looking over their shoulder,” he said. “The first thing you have to do as a coaching staff is get them comfortable making mistakes.”
Freshman setter Miranda Watkins sees the competition among the eight freshmen as a good thing, though.
“All the freshmen are very competitive right now, trying to win over their positions.” Watkins said. “The older girls are just very welcoming and very helpful teaching us the way it goes.”
Among the older girls on the team are Abbie Fleener and Dana Faught, who Dagenais said have the ability to help deep in the season by becoming role models for the young squad.
“I think their [leadership roles] are going to be astronomical. I don’t know if there’s another word bigger than that, put that in there instead,” the 2004 Athens Olympic Games U.S. assistant coach said.
Faught’s steady, calming tone has already been making a positive impact on some of the freshmen.
“The growth and development of our younger players has been compounded by Dana’s ability to keep everything calm and focus forward,” Dagenias said. “People are looking around for somebody to believe in, and it’s to be Dana right there looking at them saying, ‘Hey, we’re fine.’
“That’s going to be important when we’re in those tight matches.”
Fleener brings a different mentality, but each is just as vital to the team’s success.
“Abbie has the energy and the passion day in and day out in practice, on the court and off the court. She’s certainly the life of the team, and she’s going to lead us through those moments when it’s hard and we’re just trudging our way through,” Dagenais said. “It’s going to be her sunshine personality that’s going to get us through days sometimes.”
Leadership may only take a team so far, but that’s where raw talent takes over.
Enter junior outside hitters Jale Hervey and Bright. The one-two punch in the front who combined for 6.49 kills per set through 123 sets played last season. Bright was also second on the team with 330 digs, which are balls kept in play off of an opponent’s attack.
“You can’t argue athletic ability,” Dagenais said about Bright. “There’s just some things that she can do that most people can’t do. But she doesn’t rely on that. She relies on her intelligence. She relies on being able to place the ball. She relies on being a good defensive player.”
Hervey brings another piece of the puzzle to the table: a strong attacking arm.
“She has one of the best arms that I’ve seen in a player [who] I’ve coached,” Dagenais said. “She can score anywhere, anytime, any place, on any set.”
Coaching under the tutelage of 2000 and 2004 U.S. Olympic head coaches Toshi Yoshida and Mick Haley, Dagenias has seen his fair share of talented volleyball players.
But, right now, he is focused on the present.
Jarrod Heil is the Sports Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow him on Twitter at @JarrodHeil or email him at JarrodH@CentralFloridaFuture.com.