Last year, the UT Arlington volleyball team pursued an NCAA Tournament berth in hopes of rekindling the magic of their Final Four run 25 years before.
Although the Mavericks fell short in the conference tournament, middle blocker Briana Sharratt emerged as the school’s first All-American since 1989.
But instead of taking that success into her junior year, Sharratt’s career was cut short by a career-ending back injury.
“[We] thought [we]’d have Bri for a couple more years and she would be the leader in that middle blocking position,” coach Diane Seymour said. “We’ll miss her play, but more importantly you have two freshman middle blockers that don’t have an upperclassmen do it right every day. That’s probably the biggest loss.”
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With the raw talent still around, however, the Mavericks have the potential to improve on the fifth-place finish predicted by Sun Belt preseason polls.
It all starts with senior Caitlyn Cooney, who was only a freshman backup when her team stumbled to a 9-22 record in its only season in the WAC. But in the two years since she took over as libero in 2013, the Mavericks have won six more games (44) than in their previous three seasons combined (38).
I want a conference championship. My sophomore year … that kind of slipped through our fingers in that championship against Texas State, because that was doable.Caitlyn Cooney
The undeniable leader of this year’s team, Cooney is one good season away from becoming UTA’s all-time leader in digs. She spearheaded one of the top defenses in NCAA volleyball last season, one that averaged 18.16 digs per set, and she needs 649 digs to break the school record. She had 671 last season.
Although she admittedly wants to break the record, she’s determined to finish what UTA fell just short of in 2013’s conference title game.
“I want a conference championship,” she said. “My sophomore year … that kind of slipped through our fingers in that championship against Texas State, because that was doable.”
If the Mavericks are going to reach the top of the Sun Belt, they need to figure out what to do with all the athletes on the roster.
They return Qiana Canete, who burst onto the scene last year by earning all-conference honors with 376 kills and 480 digs. Canete is on a pace to rack up individual accolades over her next three seasons.
But Cassidy Wheeler, who’s taking over at setter, is the dynamic athlete with whom Seymour wants to experiment. While UTA has run a 6-2 offense in previous years, Wheeler gives her a chance to see how she looks running a 5-1, a system designed to get more offense from the setter.
“Cassidy is a phenomenal athlete that jumps as well as any of our middle blockers. She’s fully equipped to run a 5-1,” Seymour said.
Freshmen Mikail Russell, Zhanelle Geathers and Marisah Ingram are long, athletic defenders who just need to adapt to the speed of the game. Once they do, the Mavericks are intent on making it tough for anyone to score on them.
Whether they have the guns to outduel the rest of the conference remains to be seen.
College Park Center
vs. Campbell: 7 p.m. Friday
vs. Grambling: 1:30 p.m. Saturday
vs. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi: 7 p.m. Saturday
UT Arlington volleyball key dates
Sept. 12: at Arkansas
Sept. 18: vs. La.-Lafayette
Oct. 3: vs. UALR
Nov. 20: Sun Belt Tournament