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Hawks have to reach new heights to meet goals

November 18, 2008|By DAN KAUFFMAN

As the Hagerstown Community College volleyball team competes against 15 other teams at the NJCAA Division II national tournament beginning Thursday at the Chula Vista Resort in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., the Hawks also will be battling another opponent.

Their own history.

On paper, this could have been considered a rebuilding year for HCC, which has just one sophomore -- middle hitter Kierra Nelson, a North Hagerstown graduate -- on its roster. Winning their sixth straight Region XX title and earning a sixth straight berth at nationals could be considered enough of an achievement for this group of Hawks.

They'll have none of that, though. Their goals are bigger.

"I think in the beginning, we were all saying we want to beat what last year's team did," freshman outside hitter Rebecca Morgan said.

All the Hawks did last year was finish seventh at nationals -- the best finish in program history -- led by All-American outside hitter Magda Tekiel, now at NCAA Division I American University.

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Topping that feat? A big goal, indeed.

But not the Hawks' biggest.

"Right now, we want to win the whole thing," Morgan said. "We have the potential, and we haven't hit our peak yet so we can get better and better. Regionals was the best we've played."

"We have high expectations," Hawks coach Beth Domenico said. "Last year's team I felt peaked in the beginning. This year's team has been progressing slow and steady, which puts them in a good position. ... We're a better team than we were a month ago."

They'll have to be to meet their goals.

HCC (33-9), ranked 20th in NJCAA Division II and seeded 13th in the tournament, opens play Thursday at 3 p.m. against No. 4-seed Des Moines Area Community College, which defeated the Hawks 25-16, 25-22, 25-19 on Oct. 17.

The two colleges have some other recent history -- the Hawks defeated Des Moines in five games in the seventh-place match at nationals last year, which included a 55-53 win in Game 3 that's the longest rally-scoring game ever played at the collegiate level.

The Hawks went 1-3 against national tournament teams this season. They defeated No. 9-seed Columbus State in five games, but were swept by No. 1-seed Kishwaukee (the defending champions) and No. 5-seed Parkland in addition to the loss to Des Moines.

Still, the Hawks go into nationals feeling confident about they way they've been playing lately.

"I feel we can probably get in the top four. That's what I'm expecting," Nelson said. "It's just a matter of staying focused and coming together, and not getting frustrated."

Domenico said this year's team is a better all-around team than last year's, and that's exemplified by the Hawks' top four players, who all contribute offensively and defensively.

Morgan -- a Grace Academy graduate -- averages 3.23 kills and 2.32 digs per game, leading the Hawks in both categories. She was the MVP of the Region XX tournament.

"I think she surprised a lot of people," Domenico said. "We got so many compliments at regionals from people about how much she's improved. Her placement is phenomenal."

Brazilian native Morena Ribeiro (2.69 kills, 1.81 digs) and Alaskan native Julia Becker (1.64 kills, 1.19 digs, a team-best 0.49 blocks) are the Hawks' second and third attacking options.

"The last part of the season, Morena has really turned it on. She has put every ounce of energy she has into every jump," Domenico said. "In my opinion, Julia is the best blocker in the nation hands down. She is up and over the net and she loves blocking. Hopefully, she'll get some touches on the big outside hitters. She makes other teams' No. 1 hitters try different things because she's all over them."

Boonsboro graduate Tara Garver (8.31 assists, 1.52 digs, a team-best 0.83 aces) has filled in admirably for the departed Jess Ambrose in the setter spot.

"Setting-wise, she's done wonderful," Domenico said. "We really haven't had to change much. The way we play is a little different (from Boonsboro), but she's done a great job being our only setter."

Other keys for the Hawks include:

n Defense first -- Williamsport graduate Hailee Growden (1.90 digs) has made the transition from outside hitter to libero, and will have her hands full in the back.

n Middle women -- HCC needs strong play from its middle hitters, including Nelson, Williamsport graduate Katie Koontz and Rachel Koehler, to keep defenses from keying on the Hawks' outside hitters.

n The intimidation factor. It's an element Nelson knows from experience.

"Do not stare at the other players warming up," she said. "Last year, we kind of shut down a little bit. We were intimidated."

"(Assistant coach) James (Domenico) has taken them out of the gym (when the other team is practicing its attack), and I've noticed a big improvement in how they start right away, both against inferior and superior teams," Beth Domenico said.

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