Sophomore Slump? Not a Chance

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Briana Holman

The late, great Marquette basketball coach Al McGuire was fond of saying that the best thing about a freshman was when he became a sophomore.

That was college sports then.

This is volleyball now:

In 2013, Missouri welcomed Hawaiian Carly Kan to campus as a 5-foot-9 libero. She not only earned a starting outside hitter spot on the Tiger squad, which went unbeaten until losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but was also named the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year in a league that was loaded with talented first-year players.

The SEC had three other future starsLSU middle blocker Briana Holman, Florida right side Alex Holston, and Alabama’s redshirt-freshman Krystal Riversany one of whom in another year could have been the one recognized by the league.

But not after Kan averaged three kills and three digs a set and frustrated opponents all season long.

It was not what I was expecting at all, Kan admitted. It’s just been a crazy year. I wouldnt have expected any of this to happen at all. And Im really grateful for it.

Kan’s game was astounding. She’s strong, quick, and has an array of shots that baffled opposing blockers.

I was an outside hitter all my life, she said, although she was recruited to Missouri as a libero. [After arriving in Columbia] the coaches told me I could stay in the hitting lines. I was very confused at the beginning of the year, but I thought This is perfect. So I just kept going with it. I kept getting more reps and all of a sudden I was an outside hitter. It all happened so quickly that I didnt have time to think about it. It was like, Oh, Im an outside hitter now.

Kan, from Punahou High School, a place that has produced a ton of talent including many great men’s players competing in the NCAA right now, said playing from the age of 10 has given her a high volleyball IQ.

I just try to put the ball where people arent expecting, said Kan, who benefits from what she said is a 30-inch vertical.

Which, incredibly, is 10 inches less than Holman, who set an LSU freshman record with 200 blocksfifth best in the nationincluding 38 solo. She was second on the team with 391 kills, 1.59 per set.

Im going to be honest, said Holman, who is from the Dallas suburb of DeSoto, Ive always had low confidence in myself and sometimes I struggle, so I had no idea what I was capable of. When I got here I got really good trainingwe have a really good staff hereand I got stronger and bigger and just kind of ran with it.

She ran pretty well. Holman hit .327, by far LSU’s most effective attacker on a team that averaged .211.

She appears to have this great grasp of the game and she makes so many plays naturally, LSU coach Fran Flory said.

Honestly, about 75 percent of the time last year she didnt know what the heck she was doing within the system and within the play. Now she’s at about 50 percent of understanding how to, what to, and why to.

She’s that special at this point. She could be amazing.

She was pretty amazing when LSU upset Michigan in the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament: Holman had 15 kills and six blocks. Michigan coach Mark Rosen would later lead the U.S. Collegiate National Team to China with a roster that included Kan and Holman.

I was really impressed with [Holman]. Physically, she is incredible, said Rosen, who took the Wolverines to the 2012 final four. Her top end and her ability to improve are huge. I really enjoyed working with her on the trip. I thought her work ethic and her competitive spirit were extremely high. I think it was beneficial for our team to have her, and she got better as the program went on, which was really cool.

Ebony Nwanebu, the 2013 Volleyball magazine and AVCA Freshman of the Year from USC, is another Dallas-area product, from Lucas. She was a First Team All-American after a season in which she led the Trojans with 3.47 kills per set and a .358 hitting percentage. In USC’s regional final match versus Washington, in which USC lost a chance at the final four 17-15 in the fifth set, Nwanebu tallied 30 kills and hit .566.

She was as unstoppable as any player in the country, said Penn State coach Russ Rose, who watched that match in anticipation of playing the winner in the national semifinals. Nobody’s ever going to reach those numbers in a regional final match.

Nwanebu’s summer was cut short when she hurt her back in Switzerland while playing with the U.S. Senior National Team, which kept her from going on the collegiate national team trip to China. But Nwanebu was ready to go at the start of USC’s fall season, racking up a .364 hitting percentage in the first two weeks of play.

We have a fire under us to get to the final four because we were so close [last year], Nwanebu said. We have to do it.

At the beginning of the 2013 season, many lauded Nebraska’s 2013 freshman class as the top in the nation, with the highlights of that group being 6-foot-3 pin-hitting twins Amber and Kadie Rolfzen. Kadie was All-Big Ten; Amber had an outstanding season, too, for a team that also lost in a regional final.

Florida’s Alex Holston, a 6’1″ right side from Olney, Maryland, hit .382 last season. Alabama’s Krystal Rivers, a 5’11” opposite from Birmingham, not only averaged 3.57 kills per set, but set the Crimson Tide program record with her .404 hitting percentage.

It bodes well for the future of the league, veteran Florida coach Mary Wise offered after a season in which the SEC got seven teams into the NCAA Tournament but none advanced past the second round.

No freshman grabbed the spotlight more than Lauren Carlini, who led Wisconsin to the NCAA-championship match, and who, at 6’2″, was sometimes the tallest player her team had in the front row.

Carlini was an AVCA All-American second-teamer, All-Big Ten, and the conference freshman of the year. And she spent three weeks this past summer with the national team.

The question begs: What can she do for an encore?

Man, there’s so much to improve on, said Carlini, who is from the Chicago suburb of Aurora, Illinois, and played on the youth national team in 2011 and 2012.

There are so many things I look back on and say, Wow, I can do that so much better. Like I couldnt set a slide to save my life the first half of the season. Somehow people forget about that and look at the end-of-the-year performances and say, She’s great at setting slides.

Penn State’s Rose had plenty of opportunities to observe the standout rookie last year. We saw her three times and she got better each time, he said.

Carlini’s first goal for this season is for Wisconsin to win the Big Ten, a league in which it finished fourth last year behind Penn State, Nebraska, and Minnesota. It’s a goal that seems reachable.

This year we have such a stronger base to start with and already have such a high platform that we can only build on that, said Carlini. People are going to be expecting us to be good and will be game-planning us a little bit more. This will be a good test for us and Im excited.

Many observers think that if she stays on track, Carlini has a great chance to be our 2020 Olympic setter.

That was a great experience, she said of her time in Anaheim with the national team. I got to talk to some of the players to find out how they got to where they are and learn some of their tricks and get some really quality training with the national team.

The biggest thing was the speed and what theyre trying to get at. Kind of similar to what Wisconsin is trying to do this year, so that will help a lot.

It’s not unprecedented, of course, for freshmen to be stars. One worth noting is Kerri Walsh Jennings, who in her first two years of college, long before she became a beach volleyball star, led Stanford to back-to-back NCAA titles (1996 and 1997).

It would be nave to not recognize that every year since the NCAA has had outstanding freshmen. The young women at the top levels are experienced and go through tough club seasons and many of the best play on youth national teams.

You know, [last year,] now that I think of it, Michigan’s Rosen said, we were in our final-four run and they were talking about how many kids were in the elite eight who were starting as freshmen. So I think the last two years weve seen an influx of high-end freshmen. Theyre coming in and making an impact right off the bat.

Michigan had one of those freshmen last year, too: 6’5″ middle Abby Cole, a raw player with tons of potential.

But no one went where Carlini did.

Carlini’s a rare, rare player, Rosen said. That kind of kid doesnt come along that often. For her to make the impact she made, [it’s clear] she’s going to be ridiculously good for a long, long time.

Carlini seems to understand her place.

I think before I came to college I said, Wow, we have a really strong class of freshmen and there are a lot of kids who are going to be contributing to their programs right away. During the season last year I didnt think about that because I was just so focused on my team and what we were doing, Carlini said.

But after the season I realized that all these freshmen had good seasons for their teams and had huge roles. Yeah, we have a good class and it’s great to be a part of.

But dont think the youth movement is over.

This year? The kids are everywhere. Try starting with Ali Frantti, the freshman for defending national-champion Penn State who might emerge as the best player in the country when it’s all said and done.

Al McGuire wouldnt know what to make of it.

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