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Senior three spark success

Fourth years Mary Frances Scott, Jessica Parsons and Whitney Bilger are more than co-captains of the Virginia volleyball team. They also share an intense desire to win an ACC championship, a strong friendship and an unwavering commitment to practicing ... Mario Kart.

But first and foremost comes their commitment to leading the Cavaliers out of obscurity to championship contention. When the three arrived on Grounds in 1996, volleyball had just finished 1-13 in the ACC, with little to suggest they might improve. Thanks to the talented trio and coach Melissa Aldrich Shelton, the team set a Virginia record last season with 12 ACC wins and is favored to finish near the top of the standings once again.

"Before we came in the program wasn't doing that well, but we didn't pay attention to that," Parsons said. "We were going to the top. I knew that the team was going to keep getting better and better."

Although the wins came quickly, the recognition was slow in building. The team scored 24 victories in the trio's first year, up 15 from the previous season -- but with a 7-9 Conference record the Cavs were still one of the runts of the ACC.

The 1997 season was no different, with 18 overall wins but only 6 in-Conference. Then, the breakthrough came in 1998 -- a 26-8 overall record, the most wins in the '90s for Virginia, and 12-4 in the ACC, their best record ever.

Finally, as the trio enters its fourth years, the team is on the verge of contending for the Conference championship, the games have been moved out of Memorial Gym into fan-friendly University Hall, and the three are a part of the most talented Virginia volleyball team in recent memory.

"We've improved a lot from a recognition standpoint," Bilger said. "At first they were thinking, 'Virginia volleyball, who's that?' Now it's 'Virginia volleyball, I want to be a part of that.'"

With Scott at setter, Parsons in the front as a middle blocker and Bilger captaining the back line as an outside hitter, the team has built around their dependable and talented fourth-year foundation.

Scott, the Virginia record holder in assists, is the quarterback and emotional leader of the group, calling out plays, encouragement and critiques with equal ferocity. Parsons, a First-Team All-ACC selection last season, consistently collects individual accolades as the team's imposing front- line force. Bilger lifts the squad with her easygoing demeanor on and off the court.

"They're a group that leads by example and has set the tone for the team every year," Shelton said. "They showed us what hard work was all about their first year and have continued that all four years. They're always the hardest workers on the team. You can't ask for anything more."

They are a diverse group -- Scott a loquacious Phoenix native who took up shark feeding as a hobby, Parsons a motivated pre-med from the midwest and Bilger, a high-spirited West Coast girl at heart -- but the three work as well together off the court as they do on.

With three hours of practice each day, two to three games per weekend, long road trips twice a month, plus the responsibility of being a fourth year, Scott, Parsons and Bilger value their free time. How else would they spend it but together, playing Mario Kart at Bilger's apartment?

"I know that if I'm frustrated with my day, I can always call these guys and go to hang out at Arch's or just talk," Bilger said.

"You spend so many hours a week together that you build a great friendship," Parsons said. "It's great to be on a team this small, because you get to know everybody really well."

After this season, the three plan to pursue their academic dreams. Parsons wants to attend medical school, while Scott and Bilger are looking at graduate schools. But before they go their separate ways, the senior captains have one more task to cross off on their to-do list: "Win ACC championship."

Last season, the team watched from the sidelines as Florida State took the ACC title in straight games over Maryland after conquering the Cavaliers in the semifinals. At the end of the match, the Seminole seniors ran to the center of the court, crying and hugging everybody in sight.

"It turns out that I'm going to be bawling after that last game anyway, but it would be so sweet if we won that ring," Bilger said.

The team currently sits in the middle of the ACC standings after splitting last weekend's conference games. They lost their ACC opener Friday to Carolina but came back to U-Hall on Saturday to dispose of N.C. State in four games. They continue their quest for the title tonight on the road at Maryland.

An ACC title "is definitely that something that I've always wanted," Scott said. "I can't picture my fourth year without it. It won't be complete without it. I don't want to put pressure on the team, but that would be the greatest senior gift that anybody could ever give me"