Lady Rattlers ready to strike

When the curtain closed on the 2003 Lady Rattler volleyball season after a tough loss to Georgia Tech, there were no hung heads. The defeat came in the second round of the NCAA Tournament but there was much to be proud of.

They had accomplished what no other Lady Rattler volleyball team had in history: They won their first-ever opening round match in the NCAA Tournament with a 3-0 victory over Winthrop University, the Big South Conference champion.

“We were the highly favorites going into that match, so we were supposed to win that one,” said Head Coach Tony Trifonov. “There was no surprise to us in the result.”

But that was not the only major milestone they were able to achieve.

With that victory, it was also the first win in the opening round of an NCAA Tournament in an Olympic sport at FAMU.

After putting its name in the school’s athletic history books, the team is eager to return to the court and continue where they left off. The Lady Rattlers have won 66 consecutive MEAC matches and will be going for their fourth straight league championship. While it is a goal to keep winning, Trifonov stressed that they aren’t concerned about the streak.

“Our streak is up there with some of the other historical national streaks, but we’re not interested in setting records,” Trifonov said. “We just want to take it one game at a time.”

The Lady Rattlers’ schedule is filled with national powerhouse programs including the preseason second ranked team in the nation, Nebraska. They will also compete with Washington, Maryland, Michigan State and Ball State, all teams ranked nationally in the preseason.

“Our goal is to put ourselves up against some strong teams to boost our strength of schedule,” Trifonov said. “It’s a challenging first half of the season, so we won’t be able to underestimate anyone.”

“We’re really excited about the season,” said junior middle blocker and member of the 2003 All-MEAC team, Andreina Ruiz. “We’re going to be playing some really good teams in really good tournaments, so it will be more competitive.”

Once again, the Lady Rattlers achieved another feat for the first time by gaining preseason attention with a 39th overall national ranking. Other teams around the nation, however, are now being forced to refer to FAMU as one of the upper echelon teams in the country after the American Volleyball Coaches’ Association Division I preseason poll was released.

“It’s not that easy once you’re ranked,” Ruiz said. “Everyone will be coming for you, so we will have to work hard to keep it. But we’re ready.”

While Trifonov appreciates the compliment of the ranking, he feels it undercuts their full potential.

“We, as well as other teams, feel we should have been ranked higher,” Trifonov said. “It’s a little disappointing, but it leaves something for us to prove. We’re returning a good portion of the team, so we’re confident.”

FAMU is confident because four All-MEAC Conference players are coming back for the 2004 campaign. Along with Ruiz, junior outside hitter Adriana Kostadinova, the reigning Most Outstanding Player in the MEAC championship, returns with senior hitter Jayli Jackson, the national hitting percentage leader last season. Senior setter Mariela Portocarrero will also play a key role on the team.

“We’ll really be counting on their leadership and experience,” Trifonov said. “Andriana has improved every season. Jayli’s been our vocal leader and I believe Mariela is the best setter in the country.

It helps that they’ve played a couple of years together, so we’re expecting them to take this season more seriously than ever.”

While high hopes surround the Lady Rattlers, not everything has been peachy in the preseason. Jackson has been faced with an eligibility issue and her involvement with the team might be put on hold.

“It’s been kind of tough trying to rip and run around taking care of unfinished business,” Jackson said. “I just want to get it all taken care of so I can focus on the team.”

FAMU will be looking to return to familiar ground in the NCAA Tournament and possibly the championship, which will be held in Long Beach. Although it is early, Trifonov has devised a plan to get back to the tournament.

“We need to stay healthy, win our conference for the automatic bid, and get a little luck at the end of the season.”

Contact LeMont Calloway at,i/>