August 5, 2017 10:11:02 PM
STARKVILLE -- David McFatrich isn't going to make any bold statements about the 2017 season.
It's not that Mississippi State's third-year volleyball head coach isn't optimistic about the campaign, which officially begins Monday with the start of practice. It's just that McFatrich has been coaching long enough to know there are a lot of pieces that go into a program reaching the NCAA tournament.
Still, McFatrich smiles when asked about the lead-up to the 2016 season and how senior Jazmyne Johnson said she wanted to be part of history and help MSU make the NCAA tournament for the first time.
Unfortunately, MSU wasn't able to build on the momentum of a 17-15 record in 2015, which was the program's first winning season since 2006, and finished 14-18 (6-12 in the Southeastern Conference). The 2015 campaign fostered a sense of confidence entering the 2016 campaign, but six 3-2 losses prevented the Bulldogs from building back-to-back winning seasons.
"I don't know what is going to come out of their mouths, but when that comes out of their mouths before the season starts, all of a sudden they set the expectations," McFatrich said, referring to Johnson's talk of reaching the NCAA tournament. "If you don't reach the expectation, you automatically think you fell short, but there were some great things we did last year. To be candid, there were five or six wins out there on the table."
McFatrich hopes to continue to "build" MSU into a program that can realize Johnson's aspirations. This season, MSU has five upperclasswomen (two seniors) on its 13-player roster. The Bulldogs will have to find replacements for five of their top six in total attacks in 2016, including Evie Grace Singleton, who was fifth in the SEC in kills per set (3.96) and tied for first in aces per set (0.43).
MSU will have to replace Emily Hill, Johnson (eighth in the SEC in blocks per set, 1.09), Chelsea Duhs, and Bali Lefall-Young. Singleton (1,398 total attacks) and Hill (1,031) were the only Bulldogs to eclipse 1,000 attacks. MSU was 10th in hitting percentage (.214) in the SEC last season.
MSU also will have to replace its setters from last season, Blossom Sato (team-high 968 sets) and Riley Duzenack (424). Junior Morgan Keith, a transfer from Stony Brook, and Carina Lehto, a freshman from Finland, will compete for playing time at the position.
Last month, Alabama, Ole Miss, and MSU were picked 10th, 12th, and 13th in the SEC preseason poll, which is voted on by coaches. Florida and Kentucky claimed the top two spots in the 13-team league. Vanderbilt doesn't play volleyball.
With such a young team (nine newcomers and four returners), McFatrich understands he will have to walk a fine line between the process and the results. He said he will have to work hard to keep his focus and not think too far ahead so the Bulldogs maximize their potential in the present.
"I have to change my mind-set a little bit," McFatrich said. "Break their comfort zones? Yes. Push them? Yes. Lead them? Yes. Guide them? Yes. But I can't let Ws and Ls dictate how I am going to respond to my team. That's crucial, especially considering we have a young team."
McFatrich said MSU had "some successes and some shortfalls" last season. While not calling the work at MSU a "rebuild," McFatrich said more needs to be done to get the Bulldogs in position where they can realize that potential. He feels the addition of assistant coaches Garrett Bitter and Diego Castaneda will help MSU galvanize the state of Mississippi and build the strength of the sport, which he believes will pay dividends in recruiting.
McFatrich said he has four attacking players set to arrive next season to go with the ball control and the setting he feels this year's team possesses, so the future looks bright. Still, though, McFatrich won't allow himself to think ahead because he knows the process to create the right culture starts this month.
"We do want the greatest turnaround in the history of college volleyball. That is our goal here, but we were ranked 258 when I got here," McFatrich said. "Only the top 32, really, have guarantees (to get to the NCAA tournament), and the other 32 come from being conference winners. I love the aspirations of people like Jaz, and it is great to hear that, but we're process oriented. We're not outcome oriented, especially now. We have one starter returning. Let's get better at every practice, every drill. Let's get better and better and better and let the cards fall where they may."
McFatrich said his job is to continue to work to change the players' mind-sets and to write a new history for MSU volleyball. Started in 1975, the program recorded only eight winning seasons until the 2015 success. McFatrich plans to attack that mission with a positive approach that has him "more excited this year than I have been in the last 10." McFatrich believes he has the right system and a great environment --the Newell-Grissom Building -- in place to make it happen.
"When this is your third or fourth year and you haven't had any of these small successes, you start to play to the level you're accustomed to," McFatrich said. "You stop believing, basically, and that's what happened (in a 3-1 loss to Alabama in 2015). Our girls were like, 'We had it. We didn't know we had it.' The next game we go to Ole Miss and we beat them 3-0. It was like, 'We can do this.' Sometimes this stuff starts creeping into your mind. I think that has something to do with the five-set losses -- this isn't normal and your body starts to play like we have to get back to normal."
"We have girls coming in who don't know the history. We have good ball control and setters, but we're light in the arms department. As you build a program, let's add this and we're starting to add these things."
The volleyball team will participate in MSU's annual Fan Day from 4-6 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 19, at the Palmeiro Center. The football, women's soccer, and golf teams also will be there. Doors will open at 3:30 p.m. for the event.
MSU will hold a Maroon-White Scrimmage at 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 21, at the Newell-Grissom Building. It will open the season Aug. 25 against SMU in the SMU Doubletree Invitational. It also will play Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Rice in the two-day event.
MSU will play host to Grambling State in the Bulldog Invitational on Aug. 31 at the Newell-Grissom Building. South Florida, Tulane, and Stephen F. Austin also will participate in the three-day event.
"I want to put Mississippi State volleyball on the map because it has never been on the map," McFatrich said. "I have people coming in here who want to play for me and share my vision. I have assistant coaches who want to work for me and share my vision and put Mississippi State volleyball on the map. That is in the back of my mind. In the front of my mind -- and what I convey to the players is, 'You're a part of this. It is going to happen, but you have to be next-play focused people. You can't be focused here, and I can't be focused here. Let's get 1 percent better, 2 percent better. Let's climb, climb, climb as a group.' "
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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