North Texas has begun a trend under head coach Cassie Headrick: Win more matches than the year before. The Mean Green’s victory total has risen in each of Headrick’s four years as head coach and after winning 22 matches last season, the Mean Green’s first 20-win season since 1995, NT will have its work cut out for in 2004 if it’s to follow that trend.
Since Headrick’s arrival in 2000, the Mean Green has won 59 matches for its most wins over a four-year span since winning 61 from 1980 to 1984. With the loss of five seniors, including Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year Corina Marginas, the Mean Green will have to capitalize on the building momentum of the last four years and rely heavily on some young talent to step up and fill the holes left behind by the graduating class.
"I think this is going to be an interesting year," said Headrick. " With the loss of so many seniors off last year’s roster, we are definitely going to be inexperienced at some key positions and our success will in part be determined by the ability of some young players to develop quickly. I feel that our players are excited to begin the season because of the fact that there are so many unknowns and they are looking forward to the challenge of winning despite their youth. Teamwork is going to be the cornerstone of our success."
The return of seniors Anne Pope and Amber Clearman and All-Sun Belt Conference performer Brittney Gregory should make the transition for the younger players easier as they step in and try to help make taking another step toward a Sun Belt Conference title more than just a goal, but a reality.
"Our returning players are going to have to step up and lead this young group and I know they are ready for that," said Headrick. "Pope has been a verbal leader for this team since she was a freshman and, along with Clearman, has welcomed the leadership role on and off the court. The younger players have responded to them in some amazing ways. Gregory is ready to blossom and explode in my opinion and her presence is vital to the temperament of this team. The players really respond to her on the court and she has a tendency to bring out the best in her teammates. Her attitude and tenacity is contagious."
Pope, Clearman and Gregory provide a strong foundation that North Texas knows it can depend on. All three had the best season of their careers in 2003 and will play even bigger roles in 2004. Behind middle blockers Pope and Gregory, the Mean Green’s play at the net looks to be its strongest asset heading into the upcoming season. Pope started 35 of 36 matches last season, recording career-bests for kills (262), hitting percentage (.214), service aces (17), blocks (89) and digs (96). Her 262 kills and 89 blocks ranked fourth and second on the team, respectively. Already ranked ninth all-time at North Texas for career blocks, the senior standout needs just 201 kills in 2004 to take over 10th place all-time for career kills at the school.
Now a junior, Gregory tallied a career-best 459 kills last season that gave her 775 for her career and made her the eighth all-time kills leader at NT. Not only that, her kill total from 2003 is the third most ever by a sophomore at North Texas. She ranked 10th in the Sun Belt Conference in kills last season and returns as the top blocks leader (101) from last year’s squad. Gregory also hit a team-best .295 last season and ranked second on the club in service aces with 37.
Clearman brings back some defensive and passing stability after recording a career-best 176 digs in 2003, which was the most on the team among returning players for the 2004 season. She had eight matches with double-figure digs, including four in a row from Oct. 17 - Oct. 31.
Minus Pope, Clearman and Gregory, the rest of the roster is made up of freshmen and sophomores with limited playing time but huge potential.
The freshmen class is loaded with talent and is praised by Headrick as one of the strongest recruiting classes she’s had. The previous year’s class brought outstanding credentials with them, but saw limited playing time behind the departed seniors that included three of North Texas’ top 10 all-time kill leaders, the school’s all-time assists leader and a starting libero.
Among the sophomores, Heidi Johnson and Tara Hooser saw the most playing time last year and performed well when called upon. Johnson, a versatile player who saw action as both a libero and setter, played in 26 matches, including 11 as a starter, last season after redshirting in 2002. Originally a walk-on before being awarded a scholarship, Johnson completed the 2003 season with the second most assists on the team (1.12 apg) and the fifth most digs (2.21 dgp). Among players on last year’s team that return for 2004, she ranked first in assists and second in digs.
Hooser played in 25 matches, starting two of them, and 85 games as a true freshman. The 6-0 outside hitter’s 37 blocks were the third most on the team and gives the Mean Green its top three blockers from last year’s team back. She also had 56 kills, which were the seventh most on the team but the third most among returning players.
The remaining sophomores, Ashley Hull, Taylor Lawrence and Kaydee Fuller, played in a combined 40 games between them.
Lawrence, another versatile player that can line up in the middle or on the outside, saw the most playing time of the group. In 27 matches she recorded 19 kills, a .132 hitting percentage, seven assists, three service aces, 15 digs and six blocks. She showed her potential at times, posting a season-best five kills on a .400 hitting percentage in two games against Prairie View A&M and a season-high .500 hitting percentage (three kills in six attempts with no errors) against Sun Belt Conference runner-up Western Kentucky.
Like fellow sophomore Johnson, Hull redshirted the 2002 season. She came back to play in 13 games last season, finishing with six blocks and 10 kills. The 6-1 middle blocker made the most of her playing time, averaging the third most blocks on the team with 0.46 per game.
Fuller, a walk-on, played in just one game last season, but has had a chance to learn the offense and looks to increase her role in 2004.
The latest signing class includes Ashley Bass, Brooke Engel, Jessica Hulsebosch, Katy Prokof, Erica Wendell and walk-on Brittney Hays. All six are Texas high school products that excelled at their respective schools and in club play.
With the loss of All-Sun Belt Conference setter Kristin Sheppard, Bass could come in and fill the starting position right away. She enrolled at North Texas in January after forgoing her senior season at L.D. Bell High School in Bedford, and was able to work out with the Mean Green during the spring. She is expected to compete with Johnson for the starting setter spot. The tallest setter on the team at 6-0, Bass was a three-year starter at L.D. Bell and was named First Team All-District as a junior and the district’s Setter of the Year as a sophomore.
Engel is a 6-0 outside hitter from New Braunfels that was a three-year letterwinner at Canyon High School. She was a First Team All-District selection as both a junior and senior, while named Second Team All-District her sophomore season.
Hulsebosch had an outstanding senior season at Klein High School in Spring, Tex., earning First Team All-District recognition after recording 220 kills, 197 digs, 37 blocks and 19 service aces. She is expected to play libero with the Mean Green and should strengthen the team’s passing game. She played club ball for Texas Tornados 18 Nike Team, which ranked as the No. 1 18’s team in the state in 2004.
Prokof will be a dangerous threat from the outside hitter position, evident by her numbers at Waxahachie High School. As senior, she recorded 332 kills, a .333 attack percentage, 50 blocks, 190 digs and 32 aces in 94 games. Those number were good enough to earn her the District 15-4A MVP in 2003. The school valedictorian, Prokof was also an All-District selection her junior and sophomore seasons.
Erica Wendell, a 6-1 middle blocker out of nationally ranked New Braunfels High School, brings possibly the best accolades of any recruit during Headrick’s tenure. The high school standout was listed as one of the top 250 recruits in the nation by PrepVolleyball.com when she signed with the Mean Green and LoneStarVolleyball.com listed her as a 2003 Honorable Mention Outside Hitter among the nation’s top high school talent. Wendell was a First Team All-District, All-Greater San Antonio Area and All-State selection as a junior and senior.
Hays was a three-year letterwinner at Paloduro High School in Amarillo, where she earned Second Team All-District honors as a senior.
"This is by far the most athletic class we’ve been able to recruit here," said Headrick. "We lose alot with the departure of our seniors, but we’re replacing them with high caliber athletes. This class comes in with a lot of experience and should be able to contribute right away. We were able to steal them away from some other good schools, and it makes me very excited about the future of this volleyball program."
The 2004 schedule looks to be challenging and will pit the Mean Green against tough competition. The schedule is highlighted by home matches against TCU on Oct. 26 and SMU on Nov. 10. The Horned Frogs and Mustangs each won 20 matches last season and went a combined 43-23 last season. In addition to the Mean Green’s Metroplex rivals, six other teams on the schedule won at least 20 matches and 14 had a .500 or better record. In nonconference play, NT will face two schools that advanced to the NCAA Tournament in Kansas (22-11) and Valparaiso (27-8). While those two matches will be played on a neutral court in a tournament setting, the Mean Green will catch Sun Belt Conference Champion and NCAA Tournament qualifier New Mexico State once at home (Nov. 5) and once in Las Cruces (Oct. 3).
"Having such an overall young team next season, we feel this schedule will really be a challenge to us," said Headrick. "Unfortunately, we were unable to schedule as many home matches as we would have liked, but the competition level will be tough and we are going to see what we are made of right away."
The Mean Green will open the season at Tulsa on Sept. 1 before playing in the Oral Roberts Tournament (Sept. 3-4), which is the first of three regular-season tournaments on the NT schedule. The Mean Green will also compete in the Texas Tech Tournament (Sept. 10-11) and St. Louis Tournament (Sept. 17-18).
"Our nonconference tournaments should allow us to develop and grow as a team before starting conference play," said Headrick. "Unfortunately, there is one less weekend of nonconference play this year, which I think would really be an and advantage to a young team and without that weekend we were unable to host the Mean Green Classic. We will hopefully re-establish our tournament again next season."
North Texas’ will host Texas Southern on Sept. 14 in its first home match and will host Louisiana-Lafayette on Sept. 24 in its first Sun Belt Conference match.