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Lady Eagles look for season of improvement

By By BRUCE HIXON Sports Editor
It is probably not fair to ask W.S. Neal Lady Blue Eagles volleyball coach Kraig Rittenhouse to compare the progress the program made from its first to second season of competition.
Since Rittenhouse did not coach the team in its initial campaign of 2002, a better comparison for him to make is where his team stands now compared to this time a year ago.
"The difference from where we are now compared to last year is night and day. That includes both the players and me as a coach," Rittenhouse said. "We're much more solid now with the fundamentals. We've improved our strength, speed and jumping. I attribute a lot of that to our summer conditioning program. That's something the program had never had. A lot of the girls took part in the camp held at Jefferson Davis Community College and a few took part in the YMCA camp. If nothing else, we got the girls in the gym this summer and gave them an opportunity to play some. As a coach, I have a lot better idea what I need to do now. I had no contact with the sport until I coached it last year."
The Lady Blue Eagles, who went 3-19 last year (a figure that tripled its win total of 2002), have some experience back with two full-time starters and three additional players who saw considerable action last season.
One of those returning starters, 5-10 senior Jullian Crutchfield, figures to anchor the hitting game in the middle.
"There is no comparison where Jullian is now compared to a year ago. She has gotten quite a bit stronger, more aggressive at the net and more composed. Her overall game is a lot more polished now. One of the biggest things I like about Jullian is the way she has stepped up and become a team leader," Rittenhouse said.
The other returning starter is 5-6 senior Brittany Tagudar, who will play just about anywhere.
"Brittany will play just about everywhere. She will be up front some in the middle with Jullian, she'll be on the outside and she will play a lot of back row. Last year Brittany was our best defensive player. This year we're hoping to get more offense from her," Rittenhouse said.
In addition to Crutchfield and Tagudar, W.S. Neal's other senior is 5-10 middle hitter Jennifer Partridge.
"Jennifer was a part-time player for us last year and showed some flashes of good play. We're looking for more consistency from her this year. We'll probably start her in the middle and then try to work her towards the back," Rittenhouse said.
A newcomer who is expected to step right into the lineup is 5-10 freshman Maggie Crutchfield, sister to Jullian. The younger Crutchfield will probably patrol an outside hitter slot.
"Maggie is a great competitor and probably our most aggressive player. That's a characteristic you can't teach. You're either born with it or you're not. Both Maggie and Jullian have great arm spans that make them play taller than what they actually are. Maggie may be a freshman and new to volleyball, but she does have some high school sports experience. She has played tennis for me the last couple of years," Rittenhouse said.
Jamica Thomas, a 5-7 sophomore, saw some time last year as a freshman. She will see time both on the outside and in the middle.
The most experienced setter for W.S. Neal is 5-3 sophomore Erica Cardwell.
"Erica saw quite a bit of time last year, especially in the second half of the season. She got a lot of her playing time last year based on her serving ability. She was probably our strongest server. Erica is a capable setter who just needs to work on her self-confidence," Rittenhouse said.
Even though she has never played the sport before this year, Rittenhouse looks for 5-3 sophomore Jessica Fountain to step right in at the other setter spot.
"Right now Jessica is our most consistent setter. She has a lot of natural athletic ability that helps offset her lack of experience," Rittenhouse said.
Two additional players Rittenhouse said who could be knocking on the door for significant time include 5-10 sophomore Nikki Smith and 5-3 sophomore Talisha Davis.
"Nikki will probably help back up Jennifer (Partridge) in the middle. Talisha could get a lot of time at setter, especially if she improves her serving," Rittenhouse said.
While the W.S. Neal skipper feels his team will be improved this season, he will make no predictions on a victory total.
"I think we've got quite a bit more athleticism than we did last year. We've also got more size. I could be wrong and we might fall flat on our face, but I think we will be competitive against most of the teams on our schedule. How many wins that means, I don't know," Rittenhouse said.
W.S. Neal Lady Blue Eagles Volleyball Schedule
Aug. 31 Clarke County Home 5 p.m.*
Sept. 2 Thomasville Away 5 p.m.
Sept. 7 Tri-match at Escambia County (vs. Northview (Fla.) and Escambia County) 4 p.m.
Sept. 9 Northview Home 4:30 p.m.**
Sept. 13 Clarke County Away 4:30 p.m.*
Sept. 14 Home tri-match vs. Thomasville and Escambia County 5 p.m.
Sept. 16 Andalusia Away 4 p.m.*
Sept. 21 T.R. Miller Home 5 p.m*
Sept. 23 Escambia County Away 2 p.m.
Sept. 25 Clarke County Tournament
Sept. 27 Opp Home 4 p.m.*
Sept. 28 Home tri-match vs. Escambia County and Andalusia 2 p.m.
Sept. 30 Flomaton Home 4:30 p.m.*
Oct. 5 Flomaton Away 4:30 p.m.*
Oct. 7 T.R. Miller Away 5 p.m.**
Oct. 9 Escambia County Tournament
Oct. 12 Northview Away 5 p.m. *
Oct. 14 Opp Away 4 p.m.*
* includes junior varsity match
** includes B team match