By LEE ADAMS
Avoiding injuries will be key to the Mississippi State Bulldogs for reaching their goals this volleyball season.
Mississippi State’s program has been hit hard with injuries and the most recent was Faith Steinwedell. Steinwedell sat out most of 2010 after suffering an ACL injury during the first weekend of the season, which hit the program pretty hard.
“She is one of our best all-around players,” said third-year head coach Jenny Hazelwood. “It was a big blow to us and we just didn’t have the depth last season to overcome that.”
Major injuries are something Hazelwood did not have to deal with very much over her coaching career until she got the MSU job, but that changed quickly when she arrived in Starkville.
“In my two years here, I’ve had a player go down with an ACL injury,” said Hazelwood. “We are due for a season without a major injury.”
Hazelwood understands that volleyball is a tough game and injuries can easily happen.
“We are an overhead sport,” said Hazelwood. “Injuries are going to happen, but we have a great training staff doing all they can to prevent those injuries.”
Despite the injury to Steinwedell in the first weekend last season, the Bulldogs were able to start the season 7-0, but the lack of depth, experience and being over confident took its toll as the season progressed.
“We were way over-confident,” said Hazelwood. “I think it was eye opening when they didn’t do as well the next weekend.”
If the Bulldogs are hit by the injury bug again in 2011, it won’t be as bad since they have a lot more depth this season.
“We struggled to find a consistent replacement when Faith went down last season,” said Hazelwood. “One of the great things about this year is we have depth at every position.”
That depth is motivating the players to work hard and stay on top of their game.
“Our depth is pushing our starters, because they know if they don’t perform well, that there is somebody there ready to take their spot,” said Hazelwood. “I think it’s holding people more accountable in the gym to take care of their job and do well in their position and that’s making us a better team.”
Lack of experience shouldn’t be much of a problem for State this year as they have three seniors in Hannah Wilkinson, Caitlin Rance and Hillary Parker, who all have game experience. Mandy Mellencamp and Steinwedell are also returning this season after both suffered ACL injuries over the past two seasons.
“We have a ton of experience this year,” said Hazelwood. “We won’t have to rely so heavily on freshmen like in the past.”
The Bulldogs, whose goal is to make it to the NCAA Tournament this year, will start their 2011 campaign this weekend with three home matches. Then they will hit the road for the following two weekends before returning home to start SEC play against Florida on September 16.
“To reach our goal, we have to take care of business and win our home matches and be as competitive as possible on the road,” said Hazelwood.
Winning at home could be made a little easier due to the environment and noise level in the Newell-Grissom Building.
“We have a huge advantage at our facility. It’s a loud place,” said Hazelwood. “When we have a lot fans there, it can be tough for opponents to come in and play.”
Just like in every other sport, SEC competition is tough with every match being a battle. Starting conference play with Florida, which is picked to win the SEC, MSU is aware of the challenge ahead of them.
“What a great way to start off the SEC season,” said Hazelwood about opening against Florida. “The girls are going to be pumped for that first game, but if they play well in the first game, they have to turn around and be ready for South Carolina on that Sunday.”
If there is one SEC match that Hazelwood is looking forward to, it has to be the October 2 and November 18 showdowns with what she refers to as “the school up north” but she isn’t focused on just those two matches.
“You can’t help but look forward to those matches,” said Hazelwood. “There is a lot of excitement around them but right now we are just look at one game at a time.”
The first game Hazelwood is looking at is Friday night’s season opener against Souther Illinois that is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Newell-Grissom Building.
After opening the season on Friday, the Bulldogs will play two games at home on Saturday against UT-Martin at 12:30 p.m. and Southern Louisiana at 7 p.m.