GREENSBORO-Tuesday was the first day of practice for the North Carolina A&T volleyball team. What a difference a year makes. On Day 1 in 2011, the Aggies had six players on their roster. This season, with a full complement of 15 student-athletes, the Aggies were able to have an engaging practice at the Greensboro Sportsplex.
"We were able to compete right away today," said head volleyball coach Hal Clifton. "Having the numbers that we have, it was nice that we could just get right into competition and into getting our girls to start focusing on competing every day, every drill and every touch."
For the Aggies, the addition of eight new student-athletes means not only having depth at every position but also competition for starting spots. Clifton, who is embarking on his second season at the helm of the program, is hoping that intra-squad competition will translate into elevated performance by his Aggies come match time.
"The girls were really out there hustling, they were giving a great effort in going after the ball," Clifton said. "It was a lot of fun to see them out on the court finally for the first time after waiting all summer."
Twelve athletes competed in half-court doubles for about 10 minutes, while the other three remaining players kept score. Then, once time was called, the winners reported the score to Clifton, who then switched up the pairings for the next round of competition. Returners competed with and against the incoming recruiting class, and everyone was able to get a good grasp on the playing style of their teammates. Smiles, cheers and words of encouragement bounced around just as much as the volleyball during practice.
Senior middle blocker Andrea Evans, who was one of the team's offensive leaders last season, was pleased with what she saw in practice from the team.
"It was good. It was mostly about fun and getting to know each other before we get into the technical part of volleyball," Evans said.
For Clifton, starting off the preseason with doubles competition instead of a 6-on-6 scrimmage was important. He just wanted everyone to relax and play without worrying about drills. The goal was to get everyone acclimated to one another. Clifton was excited with the results on Day 1.
"I think I was more pleased with what we were expecting on paper was happening on the court," he said. "So those were good things. We saw some girls doing some things that we hoped they would be able to do. That's always a good thing."
Also a key positive out of practice was the effort and energy of the seven returning players.
Evans added that this preseason for the returners will be easier than last year, not just because of the additions to the roster, but having a year's worth of experience in Clifton's system will be immeasurable.
"It was like starting all over again [last season]," she said, explaining that the team had to adjust to new technical plans and a new coach. "It'll be easier to adapt this season. We pretty much know what to expect."
The expectations have increased slightly for the rebuilt Aggies, who are trying to vastly improve on a 2-27 season in 2011. But Clifton says there is a lot of work to do before the Aggies are ready to compete in their season opener on August 24.
"We'll do a lot of serve/receive, a lot of ball control," said Clifton. "We have to start identifying the players who are going to be passers for us. We need to come up with our primary passers will be fairly quickly, so for the rest of preseason, we'll do a lot of serve/receive and stating our passers. That's probably the most important thing for us to do is establish who is going to be handling the ball for us."