Part four in the 10-part series previewing the 2003 Oklahoma volleyball team is the season outlook. Check back to SoonerSports.com in the coming days for previews of the outside hitter and middle hitter positions.
Last season left a sour taste in Kalani Mahi's mouth. The ill felling came about as a rash of injuries spoiled what was expected to be a rise in the Big 12 and NCAA ranks. The formula for 2002 was a solid core of seniors, plus a group of experienced veterans mixed with a talented contingent of rookies. Unfortunately, the injuries came and the consistency on the court, and in the lineup, suffered.
With the disappointment no longer lingering, optimism and excitement reign within the Oklahoma volleyball program.
"We definitely have more answers than questions heading into training camp," said Mahi as he prepares for August two-a-days. "We've been comparing this team to the best in the Big 12 and country since last November and believe that we match up physically with every team we'll face this season."
A new season is here and the level of excitement around the program is cranked up to 10 for a number of reasons. First, 10 is the number of newcomers and twice the number of returning starters. Second, the newcomers have rejuvenated the program and bring a No. 4 Big 12 recruiting ranking (Student Sports Magazine), the highest in Oklahoma history.
The best thing about the rankings which were released in December, is that it was premature. The Sooners had just begun assembling their 2003 class and Student Sports Magazine based the assessments on the first three signees (Laura Tomes, Anna Monsen and Joanna Schmitt). During the late signing period, OU added 6-4 middle hitter Keri Coats from College of Southern Idaho, which has won seven of the last nine junior college national championships, and Kelli Albers, a powerful prep hitter who was just a hop, skip and a jump away in Cheney, Kansas.
Mahi and staff weren't done yet. They convinced Kelly McCarter, a Fab 40 setter out of high school, to finish her collegiate career in Norman after four seasons (one redshirt year) at Arkansas. More transfers followed. Stephanie Tengram, a libero at Pittsburg State, made the venture south and brings a 2002 digs per game average that would have ranked No. 3 in the Big 12 last season.
It didn't end there. OU, which had recruited Connie Davis and Daphne Leach out of high school, received commitments from the top two prep Oklahoma players in 2001. Leach played at University of Arkansas-Fort Smith and was the leading hitter on the juco squad that went 54-5. Davis attended OU for a year before realizing she missed volleyball and wanted to get back into the game. The Sooner staff has welcomed the Tulsa native with open arms.
To round out the group, OU went into Texas and stole Arlington's Rachel Jackson, who turned down scholarship offers from other schools to walk on at OU. Jackson is a savvy gym rat who carries the ideal qualities of a walk-on.
"Many of the questions from last have been answered this year," said Mahi. "With Keri Coats and Kelly McCarter on the right side blocking, we add six to 10 inches on our blocks. Every position has improved from last year."