Georgia Southern volleyball coach Dustin Wood likes the opportunity in front of the Eagles, and it’s not because they’re in the Sun Belt.
It’s because he thinks the team is ready to make a splash on the national stage.
The Eagles (28-6 in 2013) matched the program’s highest win total in Wood’s first season a year ago and lost to Florida State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Georgia Southern has a chance to crack the top-25 with season-opening matches against No. 10 Florida and No. 20 North Carolina, No. 19 Kentucky, Oklahoma and Pittsburgh among the teams populating the schedule in the first three weeks of the season.
“We told our girls, ‘If you guys knock off 10 and 19 next weekend, you’re going to be ranked.’ There’s an opportunity in front of us and we’re going to be aggressive,” Wood said. “We’re not going to have a deer-in-the-headlights look because someone has a Gator or an Oklahoma Sooner on their chest.”
Though there are high expectations, Wood is making sure the team isn’t focused on wins and losses, but on fundamentals.
“We’re having the same motto as last year,” he said. “Winning will take care of itself, so how are we going to play? If we play well, we’re going to win.”
Seniors Kym Coley and Jamie DeRatt lead the Eagles into the Sun Belt, along with Crysten Curry, the team’s top blocker, who Wood said has added more quickness and offense to her game in the offseason.
The season opens in Gainesville, Florida, at the Active Ankle Challenge on Friday.
Here are five things to look for when the Georgia Southern volleyball team begins pursuit of the program’s first Sun Belt title:
• HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Hanner Fieldhouse is undergoing renovations, so Georgia Southern will play its home games in the Devils Den at Statesboro High School until the construction is complete. Wood said he expects the work to be done by “mid-October” but a date of completion has not been made available. The Eagles have two home games scheduled in September and six in October.
• OUCH: Georgia Southern was picked to finish third in the Sun Belt behind Arkansas-Little Rock and Texas State. That might have been a little low, depending on who you ask. “It’s a preseason ranking,” Wood said. “I honestly don’t think they gave our girls the respect they deserve, but that’s just my opinion. I truly believe, and they believe, that our best will beat their best. That’s what we have to worry about. If we play well, we expect to win.”
• A LITTLE FAMILIARITY: The Eagles faced three Sun Belt teams in 2013. They beat South Alabama and Arkansas State and lost to Troy. They also played Appalachian State three times in 2013 when both teams were in the Southern Conference. The Eagles won all three including one in the SoCon tournament.
• THE GAUNTLET: The Eagles open the season with tournaments on the road at Florida, Colorado and UNC before beginning Sun Belt play. Wood said he hopes the tough schedule will better prepare GSU for the NCAA tournament. They lost 3-0 to Florida State in the opening game of the Gainesville regional last season.
“Last year against Florida State, the difference was that they’re in those types of matches every night, and we weren’t,” Wood said.
• BIGGER, TALLER, LONGER: Wood has put a premium on size in his recruiting. The Eagles have five players 6-foot or taller, including two, juniors Meg Bright and Katie Bange, who stand at 6-foot-4.
“We might be bigger than Florida,” Wood said. “They could be top-to-bottom more athletic, but size isn’t going to be an issue.”