Replacing a great player is never easy but in college athletics, it's just another part of the game.
The Oklahoma volleyball team is working through the unenviable task of replacing one of the better players in program history this year, middle blocker Sallie McLaurin, who left her name all over the Oklahoma record books over the past four years.
The job of replacing McLaurin has fallen on the shoulders of true freshman Marion Hazelwood. The Beach City, Texas native is a bit taller than McLaurin and OU coach Santiago Restrepo says she is a bit farther along than when McLaurin came to Norman.
But Hazelwood got a jump on things by doing something some football players do, but is rarely seen among volleyball players: she arrived on campus in the spring. In doing so, she was able to go through spring practice with the team and went on the team's trip to Europe. The value of the extra practices cannot be understated.
“In that aspect, between Julia (Doyle) and Marion, it was very key to have her during the spring to have that development and to have that connection and to be able to go through some plays,” Restrepo said. “It's a work in progress, it still needs a lot of work between the two of them, but they have been beneficial for the two of them being here in the spring.”
Much like Trevor Knight has had to work on his connection with the Sooners' new wide receivers, Doyle and Hazelwood have had to work hard on their connection. It's not something that just happens overnight.
“Losing Sallie was horrible but it happens; people graduate,” Doyle said. “Marion really came in and she was willing to work super and make changes to be the best middle she can be. Just in a short amount of time, our connection has gotten so much better and it will only get better this season. I'm looking forward to see everything she can do.”
The transition wasn't easy for Hazelwood, jumping straight out of high school and into the middle of a Division I college program. The pressure to play well wore on her and there was a level of intimidation as well. But she found open arms and an atmosphere that eased all her concerns.
“They were really welcoming and they helped me if I got stressed out or if I wasn't playing very well,” Hazelwood said of her teammates. “Plus I got to go Europe and that was a really fun experience. It was really awesome getting to come in and grow accustomed to everything before summer, whereas the other freshmen had to just grow used to everything really fast and I got to do that.”
Hazelwood is very aware of McLaurin's legacy at OU and the burden that comes with replacing her.
“It does put stress on me but at the same time, she played here and she doesn't play here anymore so you just have to keep building on what you have now,” Hazelwood said. “Everyone is a different player so you just can't ever be the same as someone. Giving all you have is all you can do.”
So far, Hazelwood has been impressive for the Sooners, who begin Big 12 play Saturday night in Norman against Kansas. Through the first 13 games of the season, she's fourth on the team in kills (112) and kills per set (2.29). She's hitting .322 and averages 0.76 blocks per set, second on the team.
Restrepo knows about the pressure and stress Hazelwood is under to perform. The Sooners' success this season depends in part on how she and fellow middle blocker Micaela Spann fill the void left by McLaurin. So far, things have gone well despite the Sooners dropping four matches, all to tough competition. But the veteran coach doesn't want to ask too much of Hazelwood, knowing that's more destructive than positive.
“We don't have her do too much, but rather be herself,” Restrepo said. “We know that as a freshman, you're going to have your own faults. We don't put too much on her plate. We just let her know, just do the best you can.”
Players come and go. However, it's rare a player the caliber of McLaurin comes along and even rarer another comes along to take her place. That's the situation facing the Sooners right now. It's a tough reality, but a reality OU and Hazelwood are tackling head on.
I think it was huge. It was huge in the aspect when you have a new wide receiver for example, and the quarterback has been starting for a year or two. They have to have some kind of connection and routes and some kind of development between the two players. In that aspect, between Julia and Marion, it was very key to have her during the spring to have that development and to have that connection and to be able to go through some plays. It's a work in progress, it still needs a lot of work between the two of them, but they have been beneficial for the two of them being here in the spring.
It's extremely important. She's 6-4, 6-5 that's extremely long and has very good qualities. She's a lot like Sallie, but I think she is a little farther along as a freshman than Sallie was when she came in. Hopefully Marion can learn about positioning and going faster coming off the net, to call for a set and make decision about where to place the ball like Sallie did. In that aspect, we're extremely happy she can early and that she's replacing such a talented player like Sallie.
We don't have her do too much, but rather be herself. We know that as a freshman, you're going to have their own faults. We don't put too much on her plate. We just let her know, just do the best you can and we are working on her jump-serving from the back row and staying in the back row for one rotation playing defense. That's a work in progress. That's something Sallie never did. Marion is right there with a pretty good jump serve. I don't know if we're going to utilize this weekend, but that's something we continue to work on her strength, to get better at serving.
It was kind of intimidating. I was really nervous to play well and just actually perform and not let my nerves take over because I was intimidated by the older girls. They were really welcoming and they helped me if I got stressed out or if I wasn't playing very well. Plus I got to go Europe and that was a really fun experience. It was really awesome getting to come in and grow accustomed to everything before summer, whereas the other freshmen had to just grow used to everything really fast and I got to do that.
Sallie is an amazing player, it was definitely intimidating trying to replace her, filling a spot that was empty now. Especially with that kind of player, you're always kind of intimidated to try and build the kind of performance they had. Sallie was a really key player, especially as a freshman and the other middle during spring, it was tough sometimes but I think it was good exposure and good practice for the actual conference games this year.
I feel a lot more comfortable than I would have had I come in the summer with the other girls. Chemistry is really important, especially with me and Julia's connection. It's definitely a lot better than it would have been had I just come in for summer. Europe was really fun and it was almost like a different kind of volleyball because they play different, the ball is a bit different and so it's a different style and the pace is a little bit different. It was fun to play with the girls but it was nice because our team doesn't have any drama or anything so we were together for 10 days straight and we didn't fight or get tired of each other so that was nice to see.
I think that youth is good because you stay hungry to come in and prove your position on the team. Disadvantages would be leadership but that's not one because our juniors and Drawe do a really good job of leading as a whole. We still have leadership without a bunch of seniors. There are some disadvantages, but there are advantages as well so I think we handle it well.
It was really exciting just because every year you get more and more excited and especially coming in early, it came a lot sooner than other's college careers do. I was really eager to build on that and try to make the team better and be apart of getting better every year and going farther in the NCAA tournament so that was fun.
No actually I didn't even know where Norman was before I visited. I found out quick and I've been in love with it ever since. Mainly just the team connection and like I said we don't have any drama and we're like sisters and they were really inviting and not intimidating at all so that was nice. Some girls want to hold a standard where you're coming into a really high program so you have standards to hold up but they didn't ever do that and I didn't ever feel intimidated. Santi is a great coach and I love the campus and the college town feel.
I think right now we're still building and working out all the kinks but I think it's anyone's game I think we have just as much hunger as you need to make it that far and we're all ready to start the road to the Final Four and I think we can do it.
I think it definitely puts a lot of pressure on players, but our team, we have players that handle pressure really well. I think as the season goes on it will get easier and we'll be more confident in our ability to handle it and go farther and farther. We have to handle it one game at a time.
We did and I think it is dangerous to set that as one of your huge goals. I think small goals will get you there and that's what we're focusing on. If we accomplish all our small goals then we're definitely on the road to the Final Four.
It does put stress on me but at the same time, she played here and she doesn't play here anymore so you just have to keep building on what you have now. Everyone is a different player so you just can't ever be the same as someone. Giving all you have is all you can do.
The change wasn't as big a deal as I thought but it really helped that Marion came in during the spring. It's like she's not even a freshman. I count her as a sophomore. It was nice to get that extra work with her but overall I think our freshmen have done a great job.
It was a huge deal. We were really excited she agreed to come in January. Losing Sallie was horrible but it happens; people graduate. Marion really came in and she was willing to work super and make changes to be the best middle she can be. Just in a short amount of time, our connection has gotten so much better and it will only get better this season. I'm looking forward to see everything she can do.
Since she's closer to the freshmen than us because she lives with them, she can pass on the dos and don'ts of the team from our coaches. I think that helps the freshmen a lot, knowing one of them has already made it through the rough part. It makes it easier for them to know that it may be hard now but they'll get through it just like everyone else did.