LSU's fast pace propels ascension in the rankings


According to the schedule, LSU's volleyball season began on Aug. 25 with a home match against Rice. In reality, it started in Austin on Dec. 2, the moment after the Tigers were swept by the Texas in the first round of last year's NCAA Tournament.

Considering the adversity LSU faced in 2005, a 21-8 record was nothing short of remarkable. The Tigers watched as Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and southeastern Louisiana, then had to play 23 of 29 matches on the road while university resources where channeled into the relief and recovery effort.

While many programs would be satisfied with an NCAA appearance and relieved to put a difficult season behind them, the LSU players immediately turned their focus from what had just transpired to preparing for the 2006 campaign.

"It was heartbreaking because we felt that we had a good enough team to go far in the NCAA Tournament, and we didn't perform the way we normally do," senior outside hitter Lauren Leaumont said. "Credit Texas, they played a great match. But as soon as we got back, we were looking forward to this season."

It was obvious the Tigers would have a different look entering the 2006 season. LSU had to replace two of its statistical leaders – Jelena Mijatovic, who lead the team with 429 kills, and Ivana Kuzmic, who was fifth with 244 kills and led the team with 183 blocks. While some programs would be forced to develop replacements, the Tiger coaching staff seized the opportunity to change their style of play.

"Once we got this group on the court in the spring, we realized their biggest asset was their speed," said head coach Fran Flory, in her ninth season in Baton Rouge. "We catered the offense to go as fast in every zone and attack every zone that we could. We have the right kind of kid in every position to be able to that."

Senior middle blocker Melody Clark and sophomore outside hitter Marina Skender had no problem adjusting to the new system. Skender leads the team in kills, averaging 3.71 kills per game, which is nearly one more per game than last year. Clark has increased her production by nearly .75 to 2.98 kills per game.

Flourishing in the fast-paced offense is redshirt freshman middle blocker Lauren DeGirolamo, who is second averaging 3.10 kills per game and is leading the team in blocks. Throw in sophomore outside hitter Kyna Washington, who averages 2.95 kills per game, and you begin to see why the Tigers' offense is so difficult to shut down.

"There is a great deal of versatility within this offense that allows us to be difficult to prepare for," Flory said. "We try not to be predictable. We try to move people into different zones and give our opponents different looks through different phases of the games and match."

Making the offense go is senior setter Daniela Romero, who has been a fixture in the Tigers' lineup since the 2003 season. She began the season ranked fourth in LSU history in career assists and her experience makes her the perfect setter for the dynamic attack.

"Daniela has done a tremendous job of creating opportunities and making the right choice," Flory said. "The offense is designed to have a right choice in every play. She has been very balanced and she hasn't been very predictable."

The speed of the LSU attack is matched only by the Tigers' climb in the CSTV/AVCA Division I Top 25 Coaches Poll. The Tigers began the season as one of the "Others Receiving Votes," but in the latest poll, they had moved all the way up to No. 13, the program's highest ranking since the final rankings of 1992.

The 10-1 Tigers currently are riding an eight-match winning streak that started immediately after their only loss of the season, a 3-2 setback to No. 2 Penn State in the third match of the season. LSU grabbed the first two games, but the Nittany Lions stormed back to take a 30-32, 24-30, 30-23, 30-23, 15-6 decision.

"We don't look at it as it got away," Flory said. "I credit Penn State. They raised their level of play and we were not ready to do that on that weekend. But I do think we gained a great deal of confidence. I do think that this team began to believe in itself in that match."

According to senior libero Kassi Mikulik, the confidence gained against the Nittany Lions was second only to the motivation that came from losing the match in five games.

"We saw that we have a great team and we can play with the best of the best," she said. "We should have taken that match. It was the beginning of the season and there were things that we needed to work on a little bit more. It motivated us to be a lot better."

That motivation was on display last weekend when the Tigers rallied from the same deficit to defeat Tennessee in Knoxville for the first time since 2001. Two days later, LSU lost Game 1 to Kentucky before coming back to post its first victory in Lexington since 1999.

Not only did those wins give the Tigers a 2-0 mark in the SEC, it also allowed the seniors to accomplish half of one of their primary goals. During their first three seasons, they had never won a match at Alabama, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee. The seniors began the season determined to get a victory in their last appearance at each school.

The Tigers might have learned how to win on the road in 2005, but they learned another valuable lesson in last week's victory over the Volunteers. Regardless of whom the opponent is, LSU's lofty ranking makes it a marked team.

"We have a target on our backs," Flory said. "When we allow ourselves to get outside of what we do and don't stay true to the system, the target becomes very big and very easy to hit. If we do what we're supposed to do, we're going to be capable of beating a lot of teams."

One of the teams LSU needs to beat is the Florida, which has won or shared 15 consecutive SEC regular season titles. The Tigers were the last team other than Florida to win the title outright, but that was in 1990. Since then, only LSU (1991) and Tennessee (2004) have been able to wrestle part of the crown away from the Gators.

The Tigers will have to wait until Oct. 15 for a shot at Florida, but that doesn't mean they will have it easy until then. On Friday night, LSU will play host to South Carolina, which upset the Gators last weekend. That's a perfect example of how tough every match in the SEC will be.

"I think parity has arrived," Flory said. "You can't step on the court in any SEC match and expect to a gimmee.

"Florida is still certainly the one to get. They've been at the top for a while. Tennessee has certainly taken a step up in the last couple of years, but I do think we're kind of the up-and-comer and we're excited about that."

Dave Reed has covered college volleyball for national publications since 1996.