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Freshmen make impact on UT volleyball squad

By ROD GIPSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000


TAMPA -- When the University of Tampa volleyball team opens it Sunshine State Conference schedule tonight against Florida Southern, it will do so with a distinct disadvantage -- at least on paper.

The Moccasins have a lineup that can boast four seniors on the court at any given time. Meanwhile, the Spartans will start three freshmen and play four before the match is over.

The results, though, haven't been as expected. Florida Southern comes into the 7:30 p.m. match at the Bob Martinez Sports Center 3-9 and losers of seven of its past eight. The Spartans are 8-2 and ranked No. 8 by the American Volleyball Coaches Association.

"This is a big match," said UT coach Chris Catanach, who was quick to dismiss Florida Southern's poor start. "They've been struggling a little bit but are a big, athletic and experienced team. This will be a tough match."

Which might be exactly what the Spartans need after a less than inspiring performance last weekend in California.

UT faced No. 19 Cal State San Bernadino and Cal State Dominguez Hills and came away with mixed results. The San Bernadino match went five games with the Spartans falling 15-13 in the finale. Against Dominguez Hills, a team that was 2-9 entering the match, UT again played five games before pulling out a win.

"We didn't play as well as we would have liked," Catanach said. "Against San Bernadino, we did some things well, and we felt like we could have won that match. In the other match, we won ... but we felt like we lost."

But all was not bad. Catanach's freshmen continue to play well.

In fact, very well, as setter Gretchen Naruta was named Conference Player of the Week. Naruta had 123 assists in the matches in California, giving her 505 for the season. That's on pace to match the record-setting 1996 season of former UT All-American Danielle Faggion.

"She is certainly playing well," Catanach said. "And all of our freshmen are contributing. There is a definite learning curve, and they are all making the adjustment to college volleyball, but they are coming along very well."

Naruta isn't alone. Fellow starting freshmen Ania Ruiz and Sandi Fox have performed well. Ruiz had 27 kills in the California matches and is among the team leaders in kills and attack percentage. Fox, meanwhile, has teamed with Yoshiko Ozawa to form a presence at the net.

"We've shifted the lineup a little now with three starting, Ania, Sandi and Gretchen," Catanach said. "Yoshi's not starting right now, but she is an important contributor. They all are."

And as impressive as the group's offensive numbers have been, Catanach said the foursome's real progress can be measured defensively.

"Defensively is where we've really worked with them, and they are coming along," he said. "Defensive ball control is where they are making the most improvement." That might come in handy tonight as the Spartans look to extend their three-match win streak. UT continues its SSC slate Saturday at home against Saint Leo, a team that hasn't beaten UT in 38 meetings. Matches with No. 18 Barry (Sept. 29) and Lynn (Sept. 30) loom as UT embarks on its seven-match home stand.

"It'll be interesting to see how we respond," Catanach said. "We know we have to get back to doing what we do well, and that's playing our style of volleyball."

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