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Colleges

First-year USF coach strives for unity first

By GREG AUMAN
Published September 1, 2004

Entering her first season as USF volleyball coach, Claire Lessinger knew her No. 1 priority would be forging a quick chemistry on a team with only three holdovers from last season.

Weeks of practice and summer camps worked well, she found, but when it came to establishing a natural bond on a team that included seven first-year players, she needed help. Category 4 help.

Cue Hurricane Charley, which threatened the bay area long enough to keep Lessinger and her players holed up for almost 24 hours in an evacuation site - an isolated, windowless room in the cafeteria of USF's Fontana Hall.

"I thought, "This could be the best thing to happen to this team,' " said Lessinger, a 29-year-old who spent five seasons as a Bulls assistant before being hired to replace Nancy Mueller in March. "We spent all day playing board games and watching DVDs. It was great. Some things happen for a reason, and it was really good for our team."

Lessinger is an old pro at making the most of unfortunate circumstances. She six knee surgeries while at the University of Florida, where she started as a middle blocker and found her niche as a defensive specialist, helping the Gators to five SEC titles and three trips to the Final Four.

She graduated from UF in 1997, as did former teammate and current USF assistant Nikki Shade, and she returns to Gainesville today for her coaching debut.

Each year, Florida gives its top defensive player the "Claire Roach Defensive Award," established in honor of Lessinger, and Gators coach Mary Wise said she was never surprised to see Lessinger step into coaching.

"She's as competitive a player as we've ever had, and even then, we could see in her the makings of it, so we'd just hope she would choose coaching," said Wise, who has another former player coaching in UCF's Meg (Fitzgerald) Colado.

"She always had the love of the game and the ability to lead, and if her players learn to enjoy their experience half as much as she did, I have no doubt she'll do well."

Lessinger, who was a three-sport standout at Clearwater Central Catholic, returns three players from last season's 12-20 team, notably sophomore outside hitter Johari Williams, who started as a freshman. Two defensive specialists, junior Kelsi Andrew-Wasylik and sophomore Ashley Reavis, also return.

The newcomers give USF's 10-player roster an eclectic geography, with as many Canadians (three) as Floridians, the remainder split equally between Brazil and Colorado.

At setter, the Bulls will turn to junior Juliana Nogueira of Rio de Janeiro, who played in two junior college national championship games while at Southwest Missouri State-West Plains. Another Brazilian junior, Flavia Silveira, likely will start in her first season with the Bulls.

To unite her players, Lessinger has used hurricanes and more practical tactics such as housing the team together, having them eat all their meals as a group and reading from the same bulletin boards that show USF's preseason ranking, eighth out of 14 teams by Conference USA coaches.

"It wasn't shocking to me at all, when you look back at who we were returning from last season, but it's a good thing for our players to see every day, as a goal to beat that," Lessinger said.

Another thing they have in common is all were recruited to USF by Lessinger, who won't have to wait to have a team that can take on her personality on the court.

"Not many new head coaches have the opportunity to almost call their team their own instantly," she said.

Lessinger's head-coaching career begins today against last year's NCAA runnerup, a program ranked No. 4 nationally.

It will be a sentimental trip for her, but she hopes it shows her players not just a look at her past, but a glimpse of the future USF can aspire to.

"The best thing about opening at Florida is the experience for our players," she said.

"To play a team of that caliber in their environment is going to help set the standard at USF and give them a really good visual about where they want to be."

[Last modified September 1, 2004, 01:10:40]


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