Mississippi State volleyball head coach Jenny Hazelwood is excited to finally have something every other coach in America has – upperclassmen.
In her second season, she hopes the experience difference of a roster with players who have handled the pressures of Southeastern Conference action will result in a better record than last season’s 9-21 performance.
“The last number of years it's been mostly freshmen and sophomores on the court,” Hazelwood said. “The experience is wonderful and our 6-on-6 work now is played with the starters behind at the start and now we have the poise to handle that.”
After two weeks of preseason practice, the MSU players are quick to point out that they are simply tired of playing each other and are looking forward to a different colored jersey coming to Starkville this weekend.
“We’re really excited to play another team and have people watching us play because it gets to a point where we need something different or something to look toward,” junior outside hitter Caitlin Rance said.
Mississippi State will take to the floor this weekend when they play four matches on two days starting today with a 12:30 p.m. tilt against Arkansas-Little Rock.
Hazelwood took the job in 2009 at her alma mater and said her first preseason couldn’t have been more productive but was hit with a devastating injury to middle blocker Mandy Mellencamp that sent her first season in Starkville into a deep tailspin.
“When she went down that was the wow moment for me and this program because we just didn’t have the depth to counter a projected starter being out for a long period of time,” Hazelwood said.
Hazelwood has spent this summer wearing two different job titles as she’s spent time between program promoter and recruiting coordinator.
The first job started in May after Scott Stricklin was named the school’s newest athletic director and Hazelwood had multiple meetings with her new boss about simply how to grow the sport of volleyball in the state of Mississippi.
“Scott being an alum is huge for our program because I feel like we both have a genuine interest in seeing our building filled with fans every home game,” Hazelwood said. “The major question I get is where do y’all play? We’re going to have banners all around campus and trust me, if you’ve tailgated for an MSU football game, you're going to know where we play.”
One of those promotional ideas will occur this weekend when Bulldogs head football coach Dan Mullen will be the guest coach for Saturday night’s finale of the Maroon Classic when the volleyball team hosts Montana at 7:30 p.m.
“He doesn’t have to do that but he is going to help promote our sport,” Hazelwood said. “I’ve got a ton of other coaches asking when do we open up and encouraging their student athletes to come.”
Hazelwood knows that all the marketing in the world won’t turn a program around unless the Bulldogs can wins more games in 2010.
“A lot of people in Mississippi have never even been to a volleyball game but I think no matter what the sport, our fan base likes to come watch MSU win, no matter what it is,” Hazelwood said.
To ensure more winning ways, the MSU head coach embarked her first full recruiting season with the seemingly ironic main goal of finding another Jenny Hazelwood.
It was 14 years ago when Hazelwood stepped in as an unknown from Texas and claimed the starting setter's role as a freshman, setting the school freshman single-season record with 1,541 assists. In 2010, Hazelwood signed Frisco, Texas native Paris Perret to be the Bulldogs starting setter after she was a two-time all-state performer in high school.
“I can say there’s a lot of similarities between us through the recruiting process and I thought immediately she could come in, win that role and handle it in SEC play,” Hazelwood said. “These freshman are going to be able to handle the struggles of playing in this league.”
MSU has three players that started every game in 2009 including Rance, senior middle blocker Ashley Newsome and libero Iwa Belisario.
“The leadership on this team will help this season when we’re fighting for positions every day,” Rance said. “This preseason was the best we’ve had in my opinion since I’ve been here so I’m excited about what we can do.”
Mississippi State will open its conference season Sunday, Sept. 19, with a match at Ole Miss and will have its first home league match five days later against Arkansas.