It was a busy Saturday of athletics at Valdosta State University.
The Blazer football team held its only two-a-day of the fall and the Blazer soccer and volleyball teams each held practices and picture day.
On the soccer field, the Blazers began their day with picture day and followed with a single practice in the afternoon.
Saturday was the fifth day of practice for the Blazer soccer team. Head coach Mel Heinz said she has been pleased with her team’s effort and improvement throughout camp.
“A lot of great effort,” Heinz said. “I think some players that we had last year that didn’t get a lot of playing time have come back better.”
Valdosta State exceeded expectations in 2011, finishing the year with an 11-6-2 record and an appearance in the conference championship game. Still, Heinz and her team aren’t pleased with how the season ended. The Blazers team motto this season is ‘unfinished business.’
“We have shirts and it is just ‘unfinished business,’” Heinz said. “We had a lot of unfinished business in a lot of games, even games that we lost and of course the games we lost. And in the conference tournament. We didn’t finish what we wanted to do.”
With last season being the inaugural year for the Blazers, Heinz was forced to play nearly an entire roster filled with freshman and the occasion upperclassman, including Abbi Edwards, who was named the conference’s Freshman of the Year.
This season, Heinz and the team are looking to avoid the notorious “sophomore slump”.
“We made sure that doesn’t happen,” Edwards said. “Coach talked about it. She told us how to not fall into that. So it has been on my mind all summer and I’ve been working through it making sure that I am putting the work into it.”
A key to success this season will be the leadership of players like Arielle Sabina, a preseason All-Gulf South Conference selection and one of the few upperclassman on the roster.
“For me, it is just setting an example, on and off the field,” Sabina said. “Just keeping everybody on the same page.”
Heinz said she has been pleased with her team’s improvement and growth, a hopeful sign the Blazers will avoid a backward step in 2012.
“Here is what happened, you could see the work they did to improve in the spring is showing in the fall,” Heinz said. “The only thing I have to do is make sure I don’t leave out the ones that are new. We are talking like they’ve already heard it. It is kind of nice to work on other things.”
This preseason, the Blazers saw Edwards and Sabina be named to the All-GSC team, along with four new players be named to the Newcomers Watch List.
As a team, the Blazers were picked to finish third in the conference.
“To me, it doesn’t matter,” Heinz said. “We could have been first, we could have been last. It doesn’t matter. Those are just things that everybody has to do. That just represents last year.”
On the hardwood, the Blazer volleyball team completed its fifth practice of the fall Saturday morning in the P.E. Complex.
The Blazers return many key players from last year’s team that finished with a 17-18 record.
“Having the number of returning kids we have coming back always helps,” head coach Sia Poyer said. “It always helps when the freshman last year have a huge change, not just how much better they’ve gotten but the maturity.”
Five newcomers will join the load of experienced returners, three of whom are scholarship players that are adapting to the high-level of play in the Gulf South Conference.
Picked to finish fourth in the GSC this season, the Blazers have much higher aspirations — like hosting and winning the Gulf South Conference tournament and advancing to the national tournament.
“Every year it is always win conference,” Poyer said. “Win regular season and have a chance to host the conference tournament, which is how it works in volleyball. And then make it to the NCAA’s.”
If the Blazers are able to win the conference and make it to the NCAA tournament, they’ll have survived one of the toughest schedules Poyer has assembled in years. Along with playing GSC powers like West Florida, North Alabama and the quick emerging Christian Brothers, the Blazers will also face every team from the neighboring Sunshine State Conference, with the exception of Nova Southeastern and Barry.
“We play every Sunshine State Conference school this year,” Poyer said. “We have to do well against those guys to make it to the NCAA.”
They key for the Blazers will be the play of the seniors, like Tania Tauilili and Katie Onushko, along with the play of returners like junior Hope Ripsam.
“(Katie and Tania) have done a really, really good job, just over the summer, of keeping everyone together,” Poyer said. “I tell them all the time, all the lower classmen, ‘it is going to go by so fast. Watch the seniors and what they do.’”
On the gridiron, the Blazer football team’s first practice on Saturday morning was well attended by fans, who saw the Blazers work in full pads for nearly 2 1/2 hours.
Head coach David Dean said he was pleased with his team’s work, although he said the practice was rather inconsistent.
“We had some periods where we looked really good and some where we looked really poor,” Dean said. “That is where we are stressing to guys — is consistency. We are having good effort but we aren’t having that consistency.”
For more on Saturday’s football practice, visit www.blazersportsbeat.com and follow Ed_Hooper on Twitter.
It was a busy Saturday of athletics at Valdosta State University.
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