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Oklahoma Volleyball Preview: Expectations Flying High In Norman

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NORMAN, Oklahoma -

Oklahoma volleyball coach Santiago Restrepo is a pretty laid back guy these days.

Last season, Restrepo took a team that had lost four seniors from the year before—three of those starters—and returned to the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight season, the Sooners' sixth trip in the past seven years. It's by far the most successful run in OU volleyball history, and the program is more and more becoming one to be reckoned with on the national stage.

Yet despite the recent run of success and growing expectations around the program, Restrepo says he isn't feeling any more pressure than normal.

"I don't feel pressure at all," Restrepo said in his office Monday afternoon. "I enjoy every single minute of it. I enjoy practice; I enjoy coaching these kids. I know what we're doing is the right thing for them, not just as a volleyball player, but as a human being. I don't feel like we need to put pressure on us or on them to perform. I think we just try to do our best and if our best is making it in the NCAA tournament, that's great."

In 2012, Restrepo had to replace a lot of his offense, including four-year starter at setter, Brianne Barker. This season, he has to do the opposite: replace the best defensive player in OU volleyball history, libero Maria Fernanda.

"Maria was very special; no one is going to replace her, period," Restrepo said. "It has to be a committee thing. We had Mindy Gowen and Eden Williams for three years in a row doing the same exercises as Maria. They are very capable of getting on the court and providing the same Maria did."

Restrepo said the offense last season connected very well, particularly for having as many as three true freshmen in the starting lineup at times, one of those being setter Julia Doyle. Restrepo said that connection is a big reason why he's optimistic about this year's offense.

"We have stronger hitters that are better hitters overall; we have better volleyball IQ with our experienced hitters," Restrepo said about this season's offense. "I think one thing that we talk about all the time is to get between 15 and 18 kills per set to try to build to something that will be great. Our offense has to be clicking on all cylinders for us to be successful."

In the past few seasons, OU has consistently had fewer kills than opponents, preferring to play good defense and force the other team into errors. It's been a successful strategy, but at some point, the Sooners have to pick up the pace offensively.

"When we go and play the stronger teams we need better offense and need to be more successful in that department," Restrepo said. "We've gotten taller and gotten better players.

"One of my philosophies is defense wins games, matches and championships. We continue doing that but we are adding some pieces to the puzzle that could take us over the top."

Despite losing such a key player in Fernanda—as well as outside hitter Morgan Reynolds—the Sooners are in great shape to make another run through the NCAA tournament. As always, things don't go perfectly according to plan, but Restrepo is excited about the prospects if they do.

"If everything goes according to plan, without any injuries and all that, we should go farther than the second round," Restrepo said. "That's the plan. We could potentially have five or six players that are in place for the following year."

‘The following year' refers to 2014, when the NCAA Volleyball Final Four will be in Oklahoma City. The OU women's basketball team has benefited greatly from playing NCAA tournament games in OKC and Restrepo would love for his program to take advantage of that home court edge as well.

Restrepo admitted having the Final Four in the Sooners' backyard and trying to take advantage of the rare opportunity has affected some of the decisions he and his coaching staff have made during the offseason. However, he also said he didn't want to overlook this year's team, whose four seniors can join Fernanda and Reynolds as the only players in OU history to make the NCAA tournament all four years of their career.

"I don't talk about it at all because I don't want to take away from what the seniors want to accomplish," Restrepo said. "Once December hits and it's over, then we can talk about what the next plan is."

The Sooners are in the midst of the best time in program history and hope to continue that with another NCAA tournament berth this season. However, the future holds even more promise for the Sooners. A Final Four berth would once and for all indicate the Sooners' arrival on the national stage. This year must be completed first, but it's a good time to be playing volleyball in Norman.

 

Oklahoma in 2012: 22-11 overall, 10-6 in Big 12 play

Losses- Libero Maria Fernanda, outside hitter Morgan Reynolds

-The loss of Fernanda is huge, as she finished her OU career first on the all-time digs list with 2,204. That number is good enough for second on the Big 12 list as well. Replacing her won't be easy. Expect the Sooners to use a committee approach, with senior Eden Williams getting the majority of the reps at libero.

-Reynolds stepped her game up as a senior, finishing third on the team with 2.62 kills per set and second on the team with 0.83 blocks per set. Her numbers won't be terribly hard to replace, but someone will need to step into the leadership void she leaves behind.

Best returning player- Middle blocker Sallie McLaurin

McLaurin comes into 2013 as a unanimous All-Big 12 preseason team member after being named first team All-Big 12 last season, as well as third team All-America. She's averaged 2.55 kills per set in her career and Restrepo said he wants to get her more touches offensively this season. Her biggest impact is on defense, where she's averaged 1.32 blocks per set for her career. Everything is going to go through McLaurin this season, who could have a monster year.

Biggest questions- Defensive back line, outside hitter

-The back line is a question mark because of the loss of Fernanda, but there are plenty of solid options to replace her. Seniors Mindy Gowen and Eden Williams have proven themselves capable of handling the pressure in their three years in Norman. Freshman Lauren English and sophomore Taylor Migliazzo should also contribute to the by-committee approach.

-The Sooners don't have a ton of proven experience at outside hitter, especially since 2012 leading OH Tara Dunn is out indefinitely after knee surgery. Senior Keila Rodriguez has steadily grown over the past few years and has cut down a lot on her errors. She has a lot of power. Madison Ward should contribute after coming off a medical redshirt year. OU will be looking to sophomore Kierra Holst, a transplanted middle blocker to have a big season and lead the unit.

Breakout player- Kierra Holst

Holst, at 6-foot-4 is a giant (literally) presence on the court. The sophomore spent last season at middle blocker, but Restrepo has moved her to outside hitter, first to give McLaurin more touches in the middle and second, to give the Sooners more power outside. Holst was named to the All-Big 12 preseason team after making the All-Big 12 Freshman Team a year ago. Restrepo said Holst and setter Julia Doyle have developed a nice chemistry and hopes that will turn into big production for Holst and the Sooners this season.

Three key games

9/7 vs. BYU (Portland State Tournament)

The Cougars swept the Sooners out of the NCAA tournament a year ago and come into the 2013 season ranked No. 13 in the nation. This will be the toughest non-conference game the Sooners play this season and it will be a great early season test for OU.

11/2 vs. Texas

The Sooners have pulled off a couple of upsets over the past few years against Texas, so a home game with your arch-rival, who also happens to be the defending national champion, is a great opportunity to get another one. What's more, the football team has a bye week that week, so all the attention in Norman should be on this match.

10/5 vs. Iowa State

While OU has had some success against Texas, the Sooners have had no such luck against the Cyclones, dropping seven of the past eight matches. Iowa State enters the year No. 15 in the country after finishing last season in the Sweet 16. If the Sooners want to continue to build a name for themselves in the Big 12 and across the country, winning home games against big-name opponents is a good place to start.

Projected lineup

Setter- Julia Doyle

Outside hitter- Kierra Holst, Kelia Rodriguez

Middle blocker- Sallie McLaurin

Libero- Eden Williams

Defensive specialist- Kaitlyn Drawe

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