PISCATAWAY, N.J. (Aug. 9, 2012) –The Rutgers volleyball program and fifth-year head coach CJ Werneke started the 2012 preseason with its first official practice on Wednesday. The squad returns eight letterwinners and five starters from last year.
In 2011, head coach CJ Werneke led the squad to its third straight season with double-digit wins, compiling 10. With 12 newcomers and eight returners to his 2012 team, the stage is set for the program to have a breakout campaign.
Last season, the team won three neutral site games, and posted a 7-6 record at home. Werneke’s aim is to build RU’s road success in the upcoming campaign.
“I think everybody from our staff, down to our players, know if we don’t make the BIG EAST Tournament, we’re going to be disappointed,” said Werneke. “I think it’s one of those years where for our program to take the next step, making the BIG EAST Tournament has to be an expectation. Not just a goal, but we expect to make it, now we’ve got to go earn it.”
Werneke looks for this to be the season the team makes a jump in conference play and an appearance in postseason action.
The Scarlet Knights loaded up with talent this offseason, adding 12 newcomers, three of which are transfers.
Werneke expects the newcomers to make an impact and provide depth to a team that sustained injuries last season.
“This year, we wanted to kind of address that by bringing in and adding to the number of our roster,” said Werneke. “Obviously, when you do that it gives you more depth at each position. By bringing in multiple players who can play multiple positions, that increases our depth.”
This is the first time under Werneke’s tenure that RU had more newcomers than returners. The influx of talent will add starting experience at the collegiate level.
“The overall goal was one, let’s get deep at every position and let’s create competition at every position,” said Werneke. “I know that this class will do that. We’re excited to see how it shakes out on the court.”
Rutgers made tremendous strides at outside hitter a season ago and is looking to expand upon that in 2012.
Brittany Bozzini, a junior, stood out last season, finishing third on the team with 225 kills and 292 digs. She also tallied 52 assists, second-best on the Scarlet Knights. Bozzini played most of last season with a shoulder injury, undergoing surgery in the offseason.
“Every indication is she’s going to be ready by the time preseason hits, if not, by the end of preseason,” said Werneke. “She’s an experienced leader who has a high level of volleyball and I think we’re really good when she’s on the court.”
Sophomore Sofi Cucuz had a breakout freshman season, finishing second on the team with 263 kills on 776 attempts. Bozzini led the squad with 889.
“We couldn’t have asked more of (Cucuz),” said Werneke. “I know she’s working hard this summer. She’s just a workhorse, so there’s no question she’s going to be ready.”
The Scarlet Knights will also look for help from Kylie Orr. The senior missed time in 2011 due to injury, and will look to rebound in her final season.
“If we can find a way to keep her injury-free and she stays healthy, there are going to be more of those moments that she really impacts a match and kind of turns the tide for us,” said Werneke.
The middle blocker position returns an ample amount of experience. After missing 14 matches last season, senior Alex Jones returns to the net. Jones finished fourth on the team with 224 kills last season despite playing in just 66 sets. She led the squad with a .383 hitting percentage, second all-time at Rutgers, and ranked third on the team with 60 blocks.
“Alex, at times, can be if not the dominant, than one of the more dominant middles in our conference,” said Werneke. “I think if we can surround her with some help like we have and she develops like she has and can stay healthy, we’re expecting a great year from her.”
Stephanie Zielinski enters her senior season primed to be a four-year starter at setter. The Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., native, topped the Scarlet Knights with 1,151 assists last season, good for sixth on the school’s single season assists list. Her 2,913 career assists rank fourth all-time at Rutgers. Zielinski is 1,016 assists away from moving into second place in school history. She finished second on the team with 70 blocks.
“We’ve got basically a three-year starter in Stephanie Zielinski, who just needs to put it together for a full season,” said Werneke. “Obviously, when you have a senior, experienced player in that position, it’s very important to make your team go. We’re excited about her being back and having the leadership and ability she has.”
Sophomore Taylor Nelson will also look for time after seeing action in two matches (three sets) last season.
Despite losing the team’s dig leader, Kallie Pence (380), the defensive specialist position has key returnees. Sophomore Alyssa Monka played in all 31 matches last season, while senior Kelsey Ross saw action in 26 contests. Monka and Ross each posted triple-digit digs (191, 131) last season.
“Kelsey is one of those natural leaders that people look to. Her presence makes us better,” said Werneke. “(Alyssa) had a decent freshman year. Again, she got injured in the spring, so we’re seeing how that translates to the fall.”
Coach Werneke has laid the foundation for 2012 to be a breakthrough season for the Scarlet Knights, putting together three straight seasons with double-digit wins.
“We’ve got to compete every day and earn the right to play,” said Werneke. “If we can do that and gain some consistency, we’re going to have a great year. We’ve got to one, compete every day in practice, two, get more consistent and three, just stay on the task at hand. If we can find a way to have our team stay focused on the team and the goals, then we could have one of those years.”