By Times staff writers
Published September 1, 2004
COACH: Claire Lessinger (first season).
2003 RECORD: 12-20, 6-7 in C-USA.
LOCAL TIES: USF has three Floridians on the roster, all freshmen: middle blocker Rachel Reichert of Sebastian, the team's tallest player at 6-1; Michelle Stalbaum, a 5-10 outside hitter from Gainesville; and Shardae Thorne, a 5-7 walk-on from East Lake who will line up as a defensive specialist. Stalbaum was a standout for Gainesville High, helping her school to state championships as a freshman and senior, including a 32-0 record last year.
OUTLOOK: USF hasn't beaten Florida since 1990, so tonight's match is more about establishing an identity on the court, one that will start with the same defensive intensity that Lessinger sought as a player. The schedule includes seven games against teams that played in last season's NCAA Tournament, giving USF ample competition at a level needed to begin a return to the form that won the Bulls Conference USA crowns in 2000 and 2002. Stalbaum could be a future star and Lessinger has zero seniors on the roster, which points to strong continuity over the next two seasons. The Bulls host their annual tournament this weekend against Chattanooga, Jacksonville and George Mason, then don't return home until Oct. 1 for the C-USA opener against Charlotte. - GREG AUMAN, Times staff writer
COACH: Mary Wise (431-43, 14th season; 512-106 overall).
2003 RECORD: 36-2, 16-0 SEC. NCAA national champion runnerup.
OUTLOOK: The Gators open the season ranked No. 4 in the USA Today/CSTV coaches preseason poll, its tenth Top 10 preseason ranking in the past 11 years. Florida is coming off the best season in school history, but three All-Americans from that team are gone. Among the top returners are All-America middle blocker Sherri Williams, All-SEC setter Lauren Moscovic and All-SEC outside hitter Jane Collymore. They will team with the nation's No. 2 recruiting class to try to stay among the nation's elite and help Florida earn a 14th consecutive SEC championship. The incoming freshman class includes one of the most sought-after players in the nation, 6-foot-1 outside hitter Marcie Hampton. Wise's penchant for scheduling the toughest opponents before the conference season continues: The schedule includes No. 5 Minnesota, No. 14. Kansas State and No. 21 Northern Iowa, as well as perennial powerhouses Texas and UC Santa Barbara. "We try to schedule as tough as we can every year," Wise said.
- ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times staff writer
COACH: Todd Kress (37-30, third season; 189-105 overall).
2003 RECORD: 16-17, 5-11 (eighth in the ACC). OUTLOOK: Coach Kress may reap the benefits of relying so mightily last season on freshmen, including outside hitter Cassie McLaughlin (360 kills, 271 digs, 81 blocks), the ACC and East Region rookie of the year, setter Jessica Skower (604 assists), and hitters Nikki Anthony (276 kills) and Sarah Griffin (170 kills, 166 digs). "That's really going to help us a lot that they've already been through the rigors of the ACC and they know what to expect as sophomores," Kress said. The strength of the team, however, figures to be senior middle blockers Aisha Carr (329 kills, 126 blocks) and Amanda Santos (224 kills, 137 blocks), two of the team's captains. Said Kress: "The offense will definitely be centered around those two." Two junior college transfers, hitter Andreza Santos (Amanda's older sister) and middle blocker Lauren Scott, are talented and should help as will another impressive freshman, hitter Summer Weissing. Another newcomer might have a bigger impact, associate head coach Rita Buck-Crockett, a former Olympian and head coach at Iowa. If FSU is to "accomplish great things," as Kress hopes, it will have to do so against a daunting schedule; seven opponents reached the NCAA Tournament last season, including NCAA runnerup Florida (at Tallahassee on Sept. 14). - BRIAN LANDMAN, Times staff writer