GREENSBORO-- The season that the North Carolina A&T volleyball team put together this fall lays a solid foundation for building a championship program.
"I think it was a big step for our program this year. We may not have gotten all the match wins that we wanted, but it was definitely a step in the right direction," said A&T head coach Hal Clifton, at the end of his second year at the helm of the program.
"We've done things that haven't happened in this program since 2007, 2006, so it's kind of an exciting time for us to build off of that," he continued. "We set the bar at this level, now we've not only got to reach the bar, but we've got to raise it."
While finishing 3-29 overall and 3-7 in the MEAC, A&T showed progress from previous seasons. Those three wins were the most by the Aggies since the 2008 season, and their most conference wins since 2007. The Aggies won 31 sets in 2012, which is more than the last three seasons combined and the most since they won 33 in 2007.
The Aggies also played in six five-set matches this fall, more than in the last three years combined and the most since they played six in 2005. Even though they went 0-6 in those five-set matches this fall, the Aggies proved they once again have a competitive program.
"We were resilient, I think, is probably the best way to describe how our team reacted," said Clifton, adding that his team had to conquer the challenges of youth and inexperience as well as a difficult schedule this season. "Our kids played well against some very good teams, and we lost some close matches, but they never quit fighting. I think they kind of withstood the test and came out better at the end for it."
The team's improved record came from having a full complement of talented players. Last fall, the Aggies began the season with just six players-the minimum needed to field a team. Fifteen players were on the roster this season, including seven talented freshmen who were able to contribute immediately.
Clifton's hard work in recruiting his first class for this season paid off when freshman libero Ashley Johnson was named to the All-MEAC first team for her success this year. She led the conference with 461 digs, which places her fourth on the all-time A&T single-season list, and makes her just the fourth Aggie volleyball player to record 400 or more digs in a season.
"The thing about it is, AJ was tremendous," Clifton said. "But it takes a team effort for her to achieve those goals. That's what we had this year. We were able to have really good practices and a lot of intrasquad scrimmages. Those types of things helped prepare the team a lot better for competition. We're happy for AJ, but it's a reflection for all of us."
Clifton noted that the team finished last or next-to-last place in every statistical category for conference teams in the past, but that this season A&T finished several spots higher. But even with the slight improvement in their won-loss record, including a season-finale upset win over S.C. State, the Aggies missed out on one of their big goals, qualifying for the MEAC Tournament for the first time since 2007.
"It's going to be a huge motivating factor for them to get back out there and compete, maybe try and finish some unfinished business. It'll definitely be motivating for us in the gym, going through the strength training, the conditioning and the individual stuff in the spring," Clifton said.
Clifton said that the Aggies will spend their spring season polishing their skills, and becoming better, faster and stronger. They will also focus on improving their techniques in individual workouts, and then there will be team workout session, where Clifton and the Aggies can put those revised techniques into practice in a competition setting. Clifton added that A&T will also face some other teams in exhibition-style matches.
The spring season is a crucial time for the volleyball team, Clifton added, since it provides them extra time to finesse their performance.
He will also be spending the offseason scouting for new players to come in and replace middle hitters Andrea Evans and Jeana Daniels and outside hitter Devonte' Reese. His goal is to bring in three new players to supplement the loss of those players. He will be returning a seasoned sophomore class. Three of those sophomores - Brooke Stamnes, Aleena McDaniel and Te'Borah Hawkins-Hollingsworth - all had more than 100 kills in 2012. There will also be two seniors in 2013 as setter Chelsea Fox and defensive specialist Murphye Williams are scheduled to return.