Split Season Call it "A Tale of Two Seasons."
"Or three," head coach Jim Iams suggested.
Whatever the title of the story of the 1997 volleyball season, it's sure to have many chapters, in particular a section called, "The One That Got Away."
After a 5-9 start, the Lady Bulldogs turned their fortunes around and went 15-3 over the season's final 18 matches. Their only losses were to ranked foes Arkansas and Florida (twice). Georgia faced eight Top 25 teams and assembled a starting six that included three sophomores, two seniors and one junior. Another redshirt sophomore returned to action after being sidelined by a knee injury.
"We played a very difficult schedule at the beginning, which explains some of the losses," Iams said. "But they ended up giving the team a certain amount of understanding of what they have to do and what they're capable of doing. The players on the floor were still pretty young. They didn't know what they were capable of doing. It was probably them just maturing and getting some experience. Their confidence improved as the season went on. But clearly the level of play went up dramatically.
After a final stretch that included eight consecutive shutout wins and a 3-0 trouncing of Clemson after it had just won the ACC championship, Georgia was riding a wave of confidence and had hopes of making its sixth NCAA Tournament appearance in seven years.
"The third season is the one that didn't happen, the season that was somewhat taken away from the players by the NCAA selection committee," Iams said. "So it was two seasons and a phantom one."
The magic Kathy Vis worked for the Lady Bulldogs on the court was no illusion. The sophomore had a breakthrough season after a freshman campaign derailed by a bout with mono.
"I think Kathy really had a tremendous, tremendous year," Iams said. "It's one thing to be consistent, but it's another to be consistently good and she was with her whole play. She became a leader on the floor, someone that the players had a lot of respect for because of what she accomplished. She worked hard in the gym every day."
Vis earned first-team All-SEC honors and all-tournament recognition at the SEC Championship, the Georgia Invitational and the Jayhawk Classic. She was also named SEC Player of the Week in October and finished as the team's leader in kills, hitting and service aces (which she ranked fourth nationally).
But individually, there were many Lady Bulldogs who contributed significantly to the plot in 1997.
"Something can be said for everybody out there," Iams said. "Certainly Lital (Sisso) had a good, consistent year as well. Both Kathy and Lital were very important players for us all the way around. They did effective work at the net and in the back row."
Sisso finished her career as Georgia's all-time block assists leader. She accumulated 402 shared denials in her four years, as well as being named to the All-SEC second team in her last two seasons.
Several of Georgia's players miss all or part of the 1996 season with injuries or illness. Besides Vis, setter Mindi Westfall returned to action in '97 after missing the last month of action the season before. She had a sensational sophomore campaign, recording 1,359 assists, including dishing out 50+ assists 13 times. Also back for 1997, Cassie Brill suffered a knee injury that forced her to redshirt the 1996 season.
"Cassie certainly had a remarkable comeback," Iams said. "It was only a hope that she could play at the level she played and to have her dominating as an offensive player as she was at times was a tremendous accomplishment on her part."
Playing through injuries, Rebecca Dady followed her SEC Freshman of the Year-winning campaign with a solid sophomore season. She led the team in digs (295) and was second in kills (397).
Senior Beverley Uipi played her final campaign as a solid back row player. Christine Nelson also concluded her volleyball career at UGA, opting to forgo her final year of eligibility.
"It's no fun to look ahead to the next season a month after this one has ended, but it's all we can do at this point," Iams said. "We'll miss Lital, Bev and Christine, but we have an experienced core of players coming back. Nnenna (Amobi) and Wendy (Powell), who didn't play a lot (in 1997), are solid players that will help give us depth. The future looks very, very positive."
Despite the strides made since last season, Iams feels that his Lady Bulldogs can take this success even farther.
"The one thing I would say is that the improvement between 1996 and 1997 was dramatic. There's actually room for a similar level of improvement between 1997 and this year. This group is nowhere near its potential, and it'd be a mistake for anyone to sit back and say they're satisfied (with what we've done). We need to have the same kind of drive and determination to have a similar quantum jump in improvement between 1997 and 1998, which is very possible. We want to go to a level we really haven't been at before. I think that's a doable goal."
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