The University of Miami’s 3-2 loss to College of Charleston in last week’s first round of the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament was a big surprise.
The Hurricanes were ranked 23rd in the country. College of Charleston was unranked.
Despite the loss, the Canes exceeded expectations this season. Proof of that is the fact that Nicole Lantagne Welch was named the Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year, earning the honor after UM finished the season second in the league.
“I was really disappointed,” Lantagne Welch said of the loss to College of Charleston. “It’s a bummer when you have such a great year and only play poorly in four matches but one of them was that last match.”
Had the Canes won that match, they would have played their rivals, the Florida Gators, in the second round, and perhaps Miami got caught looking ahead.
“As coaches, we try to prevent that, but everyone sees the brackets,” Lantagne Welch said. “It just confirms that you have to bring it every match.”
The coach added that Charleston played inspired volleyball and had talent, including an outside hitter who won a national title at Penn State before transferring.
Before the season, the Canes were predicted to finish fifth — having graduated four players the previous year, including three who were named to the All-ACC team.
Outside hitter Lane Carico and setter Katie Gallagher were thought to be particularly tough to replace because they rank among the greatest players in UM history.
But the UM surprised the experts by placing six players on the 2012 All-ACC team, tying a league record. Of the six, only setter Nrithya Sundararaman will not return.
That means five Canes all-stars are expected back next season, including middle blockers Emani Sims and Alexis Mourning, libero Ryan Shaffer and outside hitters Alex Johnson and Taylor Hollins.
Also returning is outside hitter Savanah Leaf, a rising star who played for Great Britain in the 2012 Olympics.
The Canes will have to replace Sundararaman at setter, and that could be rising sophomore Caitlin Donahoe. She started one match this season when Sundararaman was applying for medical school.
Donahue will battle junior Blair Fuentez for the job.
“They are going to have to earn it on the court,” Lantagne Welch said. “Caitlin played really well this season, pushing Nrithya in practice, and she did well when she started. Blair has a wicked jump serve and is more of a converted setter.”
Other youngsters who will be seeking more playing time next season are sophomores Kelsie Groot, Awele Nwaeze and Misty Ma’a. Of those three, Groot was most impressive in limited opportunities, recording the most kills per set.
In addition, the Canes have signed 2013 freshman Lauren Howard-Chavez, a 6-0 middle blocker from Long Beach, Calif.
Assuming the setter situation is resolved in successful fashion, the Canes appear to be strong contenders for their fifth consecutive NCAA tournament berth.
But can they make a deep run? Can they get to the elite level of powerhouse Florida?
To do those things, Lantagne Welch said she wants stronger and more vocal leadership from her players.
“We can’t have a flat match like we did against Virginia Tech or College of Charleston,” she said. “Hopefully we can add a little more competitive fire.”