It's not often opportunities as good as the one the Oklahoma volleyball team has this year present themselves.
With the program in arguably as good a shape as it has ever been, the NCAA Volleyball Final Four comes to Oklahoma City in 2014, right in the Sooners' backyard. An opportunity like this can't just be ignored or wasted.
“Maybe it's not a reachable goal, maybe it is,” OU coach Santiago Restrepo said Wednesday. “Maybe it is putting expectations way too high, maybe it's not. We pretty much let them (the players) decide what they wanted to do and what they wanted to accomplish.”
Restrepo has been building toward this season since it was announced several years ago that the Final Four would be held in Oklahoma City. Almost every move he has made has been made with this goal in mind. Now, with what he says is probably the most talented and deepest team he has had in now his 11th season in Norman, the Sooners are ready to make a case for being a national player.
“We're capable of doing it,” Restrepo said. “Seeing what I have and comparing it to what I've had before, I don't think we shouldn't be there.”
That's not to say this team is the best Restrepo has had in Norman. That is still to be determined. The 2006 and 2010 teams made it to the Sweet 16, but so far, that is the pinnacle of OU's success on the court. This year's team has the potential, but right now, it's untapped potential, yet to be realized.
A lot of the reason behind that is the roster contains 19 players and just four of those are upperclassmen.
“It's definitely given us a different dynamic,” Restrepo said. “I think the more bodies you have the more help you're going to get. Sometimes it's harder because not everyone is going to play. That dynamic is a little bit tough.”
The Sooners got a head start on the season by taking a 10-day trip to Europe at the end of May. The overseas trip allowed the Sooners 10 extra days of practice and six matches against international competition. The trip also helped the Sooners come together as a team and build chemistry.
“We got a lot better at volleyball but we also got closer,” junior setter Julia Doyle said. “We were together for pretty much the entire month of May, all day everyday. Surprisingly, we all got along really well the whole time. A bunch of girls stuck together for that long can't be good but I was pleasantly surprised how our chemistry improved.”
As enticing as the Final Four can be, it can also be a distraction and a source of disappointment if the success of the season is defined by making it to OKC. Minor accomplishments can go unappreciated, a dangerous thing in sports. Restrepo said he doesn't want that to happen with this team.
“We have a lot of mini goals throughout the whole process,” Restrepo said. “We don't have just that one goal only because if you don't attain it, you will be disappointed and you set yourself up for failure.
“Obviously, one of those goals is always trying to get to the Final Four but when we get to the tournament, I tell them to take it one match at a time. Don't look at it as the whole process. Just look at it as one game at a time, one point at a time. That's a lot easier.”
An opportunity has presented itself, an opportunity the Sooners have been building toward for the past few years. Now, it's time for Oklahoma to take that next step as a program in order to make the short drive to its first Final Four.
Oklahoma in 2013: 24-8, 11-5 Big 12 (third)
Projected lineup: Julia Doyle, setter
Kierra Holst, Madison Ward- outside hitter
Marion Hazelwood- middle blocker
Taylor Migliazzo- libero
Kaitlyn Drawe- defensive specialist
Key Losses: Sallie McLaurin, middle blocker, Keila Rodriguez, outside hitter
-McLaurin left OU as one of the best players in program history. Her name is all over the record book in blocks, kills and hitting percentage. McLaurin hit .423 a year ago, best in the Big 12. Replacing her is an unenviable task for anyone, but it's something that must be done.
-Rodriguez was a key part of the Sooners' offensive attack a year ago, finishing the year third on the team in kills. However, she'll probably be missed more on the defensive side of the net. Rodriguez finished second only to libero Taylor Migliazzo in digs and digs per set. Rodriguez' ability to play all the way around was a luxury the Sooners will have to adjust to not having.
Best returning player: Julia Doyle, setter
Doyle had the tough task of replacing Brianne Barker two years ago, but she has done an admirable job the past two seasons. Coming off a summer with the National Collegiate Team, Doyle seems poised for a breakout season thanks to a large supporting cast that boasts a lot of talent.
Key Additions: Kimmy Gardiner, Marion Hazelwood
Gardiner and Hazelwood both arrived in Norman in the spring and were able to participate in the spring season as well as the practices leading up to the Sooners' trip to Europe in May. The importance of their presence on campus during that time cannot be understated, especially for Hazelwood. Several months' worth of unanticipated practice time for the player slated with replacing McLaurin is a terrific thing. Gardiner's presence helps the Sooners replace Rodriguez on offense and defense.
Breakout player: Micaela Spann
Spann had a solid freshman campaign, averaging nearly a block per set along with 1.24 kills per set. Spann hit .172, so that number needs to come up, but her blocking ability should go nicely with Hazelwood in the middle. Restrepo is expecting big things from Spann this season.
Three key games:
- Aug. 30 at Florida
The Sooners face a huge test right out of the gate when they travel to Gainesville, Fla. to open the season in the University of Florida Invitational. Florida is ranked No. 10 in the country and to compete in the rugged Big 12, you have to be a seasoned team. This will definitely get the Sooners' feet wet.
- Sept. 19 & 20 at North Carolina, at Duke
This is one of the toughest non-conference schedules the Sooners have played in recent years. These two games comes against a pair of ranked teams—UNC is No. 20 and Duke is No. 21—and is part of a three-game tour through the state of North Carolina (the Sooners take on Wake Forest on Sept. 18). Two wins against ranked teams in hostile environments would be huge for the Sooners.
- Nov. 15 vs. Texas
In order to be the best, you have to beat the best. Texas has been the class of the Big 12 for quite a while, even more so since Nebraska left for the Big 10. The Sooners have beaten Texas twice in the past six seasons, and have been competitive in several other matches. This matchup late in the season could have conference title implications, adding even more fuel to the fire of this rivalry.