Program believes younger leaders will emerge
Coming off the team’s most wins since 2000, the Rutgers volleyball team knew last year’s success would be difficult to repeat.
The Scarlet Knights (4-24, 0-14) collected 18 wins last season in the Big East including four conference wins, the most since head coach CJ Werneke took over six years ago.
The coaching staff knew replacing some of the Knights’ key leaders from last season would be tough. With four starting spots up for grabs, inexperienced players had to fill the void.
“I think we definitely knew we would have a learning curve having kids that haven’t started yet,” said assistant coach Rachel Refenes. “They need the experience out there in a match during key moments, and you can expect them to make those first year errors and get better and better.”
The four starters lost from last year’s squad included setter Stephanie Zielinski, who was named the school’s New Jersey Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women athlete of the year.
Zielinski’s 1,352 assists last season were the second most in a Rutgers single season. She also ranks fifth all time for the Knights in digs.
The Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., native signed a contract to play for the professional team of Toggenburg, Switzerland, in October.
Along with Zielinski, the Knights lost three other key players in their attack from a year ago.
Outside hitter Kylie Orr and middle blocker Alex Jones graduated from Rutgers, while last year’s kill leader, middle blocker Sarah Schmid, transferred to Denver to play closer to home.
The trio accumulated more than 60 percent of the Knights’ kills last season and combined for an efficient .248 hitting percentage.
Sophomore outside hitter Alex Lassa finished third on the team in kills last year, but losing that supporting cast has led Lassa carrying more of the offensive load.
“I’m taking a lot more swings than I did last year,” Lassa said. “But people have stepped up and contributed a lot. You can’t replace those players, but we have a lot of young talent and we just need time to learn how each other plays and mature and grow with the game.”
The Knights have only two seniors opposed to four last season in defensive specialist Tracy Wright and outside hitter Brittany Bozzini.
The experience lost and inexperience on the court might both contribute to the team’s struggles this year, but Wright feels that’s not to blame.
“They were good leaders and good players, but I feel like every team every year has to deal with losing people, so I don’t think that’s an excuse for us not performing as well as we should be,” Wright said. “I see more and more people stepping up every day as a leader, so I think we’ll see more leadership throughout.”
Although Wright leaves at season’s end, she believes new leaders are starting to emerge.
“As we leave and new people come in, we’ll be an older team and mature more,” Wright said. “I have bright hopes for the future.”
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