MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Its first season in the Big 12 Conference was one the West Virginia University volleyball team would rather not talk about.
The Mountaineers were thrown into one of the most-talented volleyball conferences in the country in the middle of a rebuilding year.
Three long months and 30 matches later, West Virginia found its 2012 season completed with just eight wins to tout – zero of which came in conference play.
This year, though, coach Jill Kramer and the Mountaineers have made one thing clear – they are not the same team who took the court in 2012.
After a 10-0 start to the season – the best start in program history – Kramer and company were just getting started.
“I scheduled similar this season to last season, but what a difference a year makes,” says Kramer. “The turnaround in our record can be attributed to their whole-hearted commitment to our program and all of the work they have put in, both in the gym with our staff and on their own time.”
When the Mountaineers fell to TCU in their season finale a year ago, they wasted no time to begin the turnaround.
“I believe at this level, the difference you see between a good team and a great team is the time players are willing to put into training on their own consistently in the off-season,” Kramer says. “Our girls have been committed to that idea.”
As a result, the 2013 and 2012 seasons have been night and day:
WVU is 3-2 on the road this season; it was 0-10 on the road last season. WVU started the season 2-1 in Conference play this season; it was 0-16 last season. WVU leads the Big 12 in opponent hitting percentage; it was next to last in 2012. WVU is No. 48 in the RPI; It was No. 192 to end last season.
Most importantly, the Mountaineers are now 15-2 on the season.
Besides the work ethic, what else has attributed to the vast improvement?
“As a staff, we have been able to focus more on X's & O's this year, where last year we were needing to focus in on things like teaching the players what it really means to focus-in, to work hard during play and what it really means to compete,” Kramer says. “We had a lot of players coming straight from high school who really didn't know how to push themselves and gave themselves some limitations.”
Perhaps the most apparent improvement has been on the defensive side of the net. WVU ranks fourth in the Big 12 and No. 38 nationally in blocks after ranking last in the Big 12 and No. 265 nationally in 2012.
“The success our team is beginning to see in blocking has a lot more to do with them being comfortable at the net and how they see the game,” Kramer says. “They know what to look for and when. They trust themselves a lot more now. They trust their reads at crunch time and our staff does, as well.”
Junior middle blocker Evyn McCoy
has led the way in the middle, ranking No. 48 nationally in blocks.
It all started for the Mountaineers well before summer workouts began.
“We spent the majority of our time in the spring working on defense and transition,” Kramer says. “When it came to blocking, we spent a lot more time on executing footwork consistently and covering more ground. Basically, the team has executed well to this point in the season and you can see it in the stats.”
Another message Kramer has preached to her team this season is not looking ahead, but focusing on the task at hand.
For the sport of volleyball, one where a team could play up to two matches a day, and even four over the course of a weekend, it is easy to find yourself looking ahead.
“We have a lot of season left and it feels like it's just getting started. I think a lot of that has to do with our team just taking it point-by-point, set-by-set and match-by-match,” Kramer says. “Of course, we have a dream, a wish, a goal, whatever you choose to call it, but we don't get too far ahead of ourselves, we prepare consistently and we prepare well and we play with purpose. We stay focused on very basic principles both on and off the court and that seems to work best for us.”
With about half of the season still left to play, Kramer knows the Mountaineers can’t be satisfied with what has been accomplished to this point.
And, for a team who starts three freshmen, three sophomores and a junior, there is still plenty to learn for the young Mountaineers.
“This team is built of very determined, very committed people - people who are dedicated to the process we need to go through to be our best, and people who are very good teammates,” Kramer says. “Without the players’ commitment to one another and willingness to trust our staff, a successful outcome simply would not be possible. Everyone is doing their part to make each other better.”
WVU faces Big 12 Conference foe Baylor tonight at 6:30 p.m. at the WVU Coliseum. The event has been tagged Dig Pink Night. The Mountaineers will be wearing pink and all fans are encouraged to wear pink in support of breast cancer awareness.