Volleyball team worthy of much more recognition

Well, it’s certainly no secret to a majority of people on campus that they have a team compiling a rather impressive winning streak, one bigger than what any other program has amassed in the nation at this point.

No, I’m not talking about the football squad’s 26-game win streak, although Larry Coker’s team continues to win over fans across the nation each and every day.

I’m talking about a streak that just a handful of people noticed when it first started, thanks to the storm that is Hurricane Football. A streak in a sport that just saw its resurgence in Coral Gables last season after a 20-year absence at the University of Miami. A sport that’s national coverage consists of the occasional Final Four telecast on ESPN2, probably during hours where curling is the only other option.

The sport I am talking about is women’s volleyball. And the streak I’d be referring to, of course, is the second-year Miami Hurricanes, a team inhabited by one senior, six sophomores and six freshmen, who on Sunday, recorded their 25th straight victory, defeating Big East foe Providence.

Now we all love to jump on the bandwagon of a winning team. Whether we are members of the media, or just casual fans, winning means popularity, and more so-called supporters. Of course, some teams attract more attention and more “fair-weathered fans” than usual. (Just ask all the Yankee fans to name the starting lineup of any Yankee club pre-1995).

The Hurricane volleyball squad is not in that first category, but nevertheless, they have attracted a gradual amount of attention on campus. The Knight Sports Complex is home to a full house on a regular basis this season, and even more importantly, the media now rallies behind the new kids on the block.

However, what the mainstream media doesn’t realize is what I do realize from watching and covering this team over the past two years: It was only a matter of time before Hurricanes volleyball would be something special.

Now, am I surprised by the 25-match win streak? Of course. Just as I am surprised by the 26-game winning streak that the Hurricanes amassed on the football field. But from the moment I first watched this team, at the inaugural Hurricane Classic during September of 2001, the chemistry that the young Miami team exhibited was beyond impressive. At that time, Miami head coach Nicole Lantagne-Welch built her team around her two veterans, Kristi Sprinkel and Marcella Gamarra. The rest of the lineup: freshmen.

Gamarra, coming off two years at powerhouse Miami-Dade, took the initiative of being the squad’s big hitter, coming to the net early and often. Sprinkel offered veteran leadership and great blocking. The Hurricanes had a lot of skill in their youngsters as well: great all-around play from Jamie Grass, string set-up from Mallorey James, the skillful all around play of Sandra Totten, and Gammara’s complement, Valeria Tipiana. Dare we also mention hard hitter Elizabeth Tyson off the Miami bench and into the starting lineup when James went down with an injury.

The streak began Oct. 11, 2001 with a victory against Tulsa. That put Miami’s record at an even 7-7. Six days later, the face of volleyball in Coral Gables took a turn for the better when the Red Storm of St. Johns, 15-2 entering the Knight Sports Complex, were blown away by Hurricane Miami 3-0. I was on the PA that game, and I can say that the Hurricanes were able to organize their team and everyone suddenly had set roles.

The winning continued last season, 11 in a row to be exact, as Miami ended with a stellar 17-7 record. Although Gamarra, as expected, led the team in most major statistical categories, the thing that separated the first-half ‘Canes from the second-half ‘Canes were the set roles. Grass and James could focus primarily on setting the ball, while Totten and Sprinkel came to the net as tremendous blockers.

Although the ‘Canes would lose Sprinkel and Totten this year, a tremendous freshmen class has stepped up to the court, and Miami continues to win. Robin Lewullis fills in for Totten, and so far, she has proven to be as good of an all-around player. Margie Young became the Hurricanes setter while James recovered from injury, and with Tyson as an everyday player, Karla Johnson has been Miami’s spark off the bench. Don’t forget about Carrie Frash, arguably the team’s best setter.

But of course, the Hurricanes have several of last year’s starters intact, and they have been the ones to get the big points. Jamie Grass, now used at the new libero position, continues to improve her all-around defensive skills, and Tyson offers a big third option as far as attacking, after Gamarra and Tipiana. As for the South American duo, they could be the two best players in the Big East.

How long will the streak continue? Nicole Lantagne-Welch and her players will tell you the team is taking things one game at a time, which is the right mentality to take. Penn State holds the record with 44 straight victories, and the Hurricanes would need to put together another 19 victories to tie that mark. Regardless, this is a special team, and now you have your oppurtunity to see a great bunch of athletes participating in the exciting sport of volleyball. And whether the ‘Canes threaten Penn State’s record or lose their next five matches, the publicity is there, and Hurricane volleyball will continue to get plenty of coverage, at least from this publication.

You can reach Jeremy Marks-Peltz at jmp310@hotmail.com.