Since James and I are one of the few dedicated volleyball writers in the Big Ten, we take our jobs seriously. At times, we are the main, and sometimes the only, voice outside the Athletic Department promoting not only the Purdue program, but Big Ten volleyball as a whole. With Purdue Volleyball entering this season with what could described as their own "Dream Team", as many players are coming in with 4 years of experience, covering the squad during the season will become an important task, much like H&R's coverage of the baseball team this year. My interview with Coach Shondell Wednesday morning gave me a chance to view the program through the eyes of an experienced coach and player, something that most fans cannot see. Coach Shondell also gave me a tour of the new volleyball facilities that was part of the Mackey Renovation project. Pictures of the facilities, as well as the newly painted Belin Court will be featured below.
Since this was a lengthy interview, I am only posting the abridge version on Hammer and Rails. For my complete interview with Coach Shondell, visit my personal blog: The Juan, The Only.
Juan Crespo: Before the Big Ten/Big East Challenge last season, you discovered libero Carly Cramer had what seemed to be a stress fracture and ended up redshirting the remainder of the season. How has she progressed in her recovery, especially since she sat out of most of the spring games? Is she projected to be the libero at the beginning of the season, or will that title be given to someone else and who will have to step up to fill in that void? (Partial credit to JAZ1142)
Dave Shondell: Doctors told us there is probably a 50% chance she can play in the Gold and Black match (August 18th), and 75% chance for opening night after she re-hurt her shoulder during camps. It is frustrating for her...after sitting out for the year, but she has been handling it pretty well. The million dollar question is who is going to fill in that void. We have a lot of good candidates for the position... Amanda Miller and Hillary Fox [have been] doing a lot of our ball control. Of course Ariel Turner had to step in and do a lot more passing than she had done in the past, and did a remarkable job; that is one person who you will see do more serve receive. [Turner] will have to become a complete player this year.
We normally play a libero and 2 defensive specialists. We look to be doing the same thing, but also have some of the front court players that may be able to go all the way around as well as play a 2 setter offense (6-2). We played this during the spring games where Val Nichol would set 3 rotations and Rachel Davis would set 3 rotations so she could come out of the front row. This does limit the amount of substitutions since there are only 15 per game, and only let use 1 libero and 1 DS. The great thing about this team is that it has great versatility; we can do some different things. We want to have the option of going very quickly from a 5-1 offense, which we normally use with 1 setter who stays in the whole time, to a 2 setter offense.
JC: Amanda Miller was the libero during the spring games as Cramer sat out. I also noticed that she is no longer wearing her protective helmet due to her previous accidents. How has she progressed not only in her vital roles during the 2011 season but also during the spring games?
DS: She has progressed better than we expected, we didn't know if she would ever play and at times advised her to not continue to play due to the risk factors involved. She has been a great player for us, and in the gym she is the most positive player we've ever had. But as a coach we don't want to put that player at risk at banging her head again after her multiple concussions. The doctors have said she is fine, that there is nothing to be concerned about and that she didn't even have to wear the helmet last season. She wore the helmet more for comfort feeling so she wouldn't worry about things and would be able to focus on playing. Yet it hindered her vision, because if the ball went up and back, she couldn't find it because of the padding of the helmet. She started to wean herself away from the helmet during the spring and now feels totally comfortable playing without it. Our trainers and doctors have done a great job with that situation and weren't going to put her into a situation that would put her at risk.
JC: After Anna Drewry tore her ACL against Louisville in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, she didn't seem to have fully recovered during the 2011 season. How has she progressed from her injury during the offseason and do you think she will perform at the same level she did before her tear in 2010?
DS: Much of that is up to her mentally. When she came in she was a middle attacker, but with Fisher and Arthurs in the middle, we had to find some place for "Boom." We then groomed her and developed her as an outside hitter, which started late in her freshman year but certainly in her sophomore year. She had some big matches on the outside her sophomore year and we thought that worked out really well. That was until the match against Louisville where she lands awkwardly and tears her ACL, and then we go to the Sweet 16 without our 6'3" bomber on the outside. When we got her back, we wanted to put her in a position that would make her feel comfortable where she didn't have to judge a lot of outside sets, which is my opinion on why she got hurt. We want to get her out of that situation and put her back in the middle. During the spring, especially during the last 2 tournaments, she was back to the "Boom" that we knew and loved. After working really hard in spring, she feels really good about herself with great confidence, and I think there is no bigger key to our success this season than to how she responds this fall. I feel really good about our season because I can't see her not responding very well.
JC: Ariel Turner, Val Nichol, and Kierra "Kiki" Jones are coming off their experience with Team USA A2 Volleyball this summer. How will their experience, especially for Val and Kiki, be beneficial for them as they return this fall? How will Kiki help fill in Fisher's absence? Is she to stay strictly a blocker? Does Nichol get a larger role this year? (Kudos to Boiler Bandsman)
DS: Kierra has really developed the ability to go off one foot. When she came to Purdue she was strictly a 2 foot jumper, meaning she stayed in front of the setter when she attacked. Tiffany Fisher's strength was going behind the setter and going off one foot, and that's how she got a majority of her kills. Kierra has developed that ability, and so she will probably move into the M1 position (middle 1st position), which lines up next to the setter. That way it opens the door up to go behind the setter more often, do more things and she will be a much more offensive weapon than she was a year ago.
Regarding the experience, it motivated them to have their game at a high level. They didn't want to go into that event and embarrass themselves. It was a shot of confidence that they were selected to play on that team, the fact that all of them played well and that it wasn't a fluke that they were on that team as they all started for their respective teams. It gave Val quality setting experience as she was a setter the entire time, which will transfer well into the fall when she is going to be somebody we lean on more as a setter. Val has a real challenge ahead of her because she has got to be good in a lot of things, a hitter, blocker, setter, good server, defender and a good leader.
JC: Ariel Turner was named 1st team All-American, Academic All American, and Big Ten Player of the Year after finishing the season with 586 kills, and was a big reason why Purdue was so successful last year. However, it seemed as if the teammates became dependant on Turner, and when she did not have her best performance, like against Florida State, the rest of the team would try to fill in the void but would ultimately fall. This season, Ariel will have the spotlight on her, but how are you helping develop your other outside hitters and middle blockers to relieve Turner when she does not have a good game?
DS: You don't want to lean on one person that heavily. Yet there were very few times last season where I thought Rachel should have set the ball to someone else. When you have an outside hitter like Turner, they get a lot of sets. There's always going to be one player that is going to be the outlet player that gets a lot of sets. When you're out of system, that person gets the ball because she is the most effective at getting something out of nothing, which is Turner for us right now. There are many situations in volleyball where your only options are the left side or the back row, and Turner is always an option in those situations. When we get in system, we'll go away from the left side and establish our middle hitters and right side attack. However, you don't want to get to the point where all you are doing is giving Turner your out of system sets all the time, she's also got to get some good sets to help build some confidence. I sure hope we don't lean on Turner as much as we did last year. We're hoping that we don't get into the mindset where any time we're out of system we've got to give every ball to Ariel.
What people need to know is that Turner developed a sore shoulder as the season went on, and that's obviously a result of hitting a lot of balls. Ariel was not the same player when we played Florida State as she was when we played Nebraska here. She just did not have enough pop in the arm, which made it easier for Florida State to look good defending her.
JC: How is the team adjusting to the loss of Ehlers, Bashen, and T. Fisher to graduation?
DS: Things evolve and people have to step up to be a new core leadership, but we already have those leaders with Carly Cramer, Rachel Davis, Ariel Turner, and Anna Drewry. We are going to miss the ball control, quickness and defense of those 3 great athletes. My biggest concern is how we replace the quickness that the defense provided. We may have lost Tiffany Fisher, and though she is a valuable lose, as I mentioned earlier I think Drewry is going to hold her own in that spot.
It is possible we may not be as good defensively when you lose those kind of players, so you have get better somewhere else, like blocking, setting and most of our offense, which will be better.
JC: Purdue's incoming freshman class is ranked in the Top 15 nationwide. How do you plan on integrating this freshman class with the current team made up mostly of veterans? It may be too early to tell now, but do you see a few of the freshmen being part of the main rotation later on this year, and maybe even starting a few matches during Big Ten play?
DS: It is difficult to say as we sit here today. It is going to be very important how well those 6 freshmen are integrated into our program; volleyball is a chemistry sport, especially women's volleyball. It's huge to make sure you have everyone on the same page, and to make sure the chemistry is really good. There are some things a coach can do, but on the college level you rely on your players to incorporate those young people and get them on board and make sure they are a part of the team. You have to have quality veterans on your team that are going to pull those players in, which we've always done a good job of here at Purdue.
JC: Coming into this season, who do you see as the most improved player?
DS: I think Kierra Jones would have to fit in that category; her offense has blossomed a lot during the spring. Val Nichol has become more diverse and is a natural setter; she is a terrific athlete and can do so many things. Those two have improved quite a bit. Though Turner didn't play a lot during the spring, her ball control improved and her passing too, which is something that we are going to need. But we did have many players who were healing over the spring and could not make visible improvements on the court. I think we'll see some kids surprise us once we get started this year.
JC: What do you think is Purdue's greatest strength/advantage over most teams?
DS: I've always felt like our team played with great purpose and that there is an understanding is what we have to accomplish to be successful; they understand the game plan and who we are. Right now I'm not sure that we know who we are yet, that's something that comes together. Former Minnesota head coach, Mike Hebert, was the best that I ever watched from year to year taking a team, looking at their talents, strengths and weaknesses and figuring out what kind of team they had to be. I have taken some pride in the ability to do the same thing throughout my career. We haven't been like some of these programs that just reload; we have to take advantage of what we have and hide what we don't have. We have more talent on this team than we've had since I've been here as far as shear athletic ability. That doesn't mean we're going to be better...We have to continue to develop volleyball skills. Every year is different and this year's team is going to have to establish who they are.
JC: What's Purdue's greatest weakness?
DS: I don't think we have a lot of them, or that there are any glaring weaknesses on this team. I think until Cramer returns we are going to be a little weak in our ball control. Yet, we are putting the same people on the floor that we put last spring and they did a terrific job.
JC: The Big Ten Conference is considered one of the best, if not the best, conference in the nation, and is always competitive. How do you view the conference this year, and do you think that the champion of the Big Ten will go on to the Final Four and win the National Title in December?
DS: I think you are going to see some Big Ten teams in the Final Four; I would be very surprised if there is a Final Four sometime soon that doesn't have a Big Ten team in it. I think our conference has become the best volleyball conference in the country, with the Pac-12 close behind. Everybody in the conference worries me, as a coach that is a strength and weakness of mine, the fact that we work our tails off to be prepared for everybody. We certainly respect everybody and this year will be no different; it's not going to be a patsy in this league. When you look last year, the two worst teams on paper in the league (Indiana and Iowa) gave us the toughest matches on our home court, and we were lucky to survive. You have to be prepared when you play everybody in this league and I think it will be very tough again this year. I think there are teams that are angry after things went out in the end last year, like Penn State, Nebraska, as well as Purdue. There are some teams that have an agenda, which sometimes it's good, but I don't think it is necessary though it does keep your players focused. A majority would place Penn State and Nebraska in that upper echelon, and they're going to put Purdue in the next group with 3-4 other teams, but that grouping could be as large as 7-8 teams.
JC: Other than Purdue, what are your favorite Big Ten and other college venues to play at?
DS: I don't like any of them! None of them are fun places to go just because of the stress you have to deal with playing on the road in the Big Ten. But to answer the question, the two that I like the most mainly because of history would be St. John's Arena (Ohio State) because I've been going there since I've been old enough to walk. My dad coached Ball State Men's Team, and Ball State and Ohio State had one of the greatest rivalries of all time. He would take me over there and I would walk to the top of St. John's Arena when I was a young kid and I thought this was the most amazing place in the world. It has gotten a lot older since then, and as have I, but there are a lot of memories over there and we have played very well over there and won many matches over there. I also like Badger Field House (Wisconsin), a lot of history with many National Championships played there. It is a rickety old field house that reminds me a lot of the one I used to coach high school volleyball in (Muncie Central).
Outside the Big Ten: As a coach I want to go to places that I've watched all my life. I'd like to get out to Pauley Pavilion and play UCLA, but they just don't host tournaments at a convenient time due to their school starting later with the quarter system. But most places that are packed are great places to play in... it doesn't matter if it is home or away. I think our venue is the best in the Big Ten because the size is perfect. Some schools lose a lot of their crowd effect because they're in such a huge place. It's not the same effect as walking into [Holloway Gymnasium] and packing 2,500, making it is one of the toughest places to play in America. We have officials from across the country that walk up after a big match and say that that's the best environment they've ever seen in college volleyball.
JC: Going off a tangent from the previous question, a few games are going to played in Mackey Arena during the regular season (Active Ankle Challenge and vs Penn State), so how do you think that's going to affect the home court advantage?
DS: We have played 2 matches since I've been here and we've won them both. Both were great matches, great fun, and our kids love the opportunity to play in there in front of that kind of a crowd. Now the Active Ankle Classic is not going to have 10,000 people to watch the game, I hope we have our usual good crowd. But I think for the Penn State match we are going to try and make it a huge event. If both Penn State and Purdue are playing well, there would be no reason why we can't pack that place.
Below are the pictures from the newly painted Belin Court as well as the new volleyball facilities. For my complete interview with Coach Shondell, remember to visit my personal blog. Until next time, keep practicing those serves. Volleyball, Forever!
The new volleyball lounge
The new volleyball locker rooms. Probably the nicest in the Big Ten.
The new video room. Coach Shondell told me this, along with the other improvements, convinced some recruits to pick Purdue.
The newly painted Belin Court. They had just finished sealing it before our interview.