The Stetson University volleyball team has already surpassed last year's win total and the Hatters are off to their best start since 1999. Now Stetson has a chance to do something that hasn't been done in a quarter-century.
Winners of four in a row, the Hatters (5-3) will attempt to win five straight for the first time since 1988 when they head to Hammond, La. to play in the Tangi Tourism Lion Classic this weekend. On Friday, Stetson will face Southern University (1-6) at 10 a.m. ET and tournament host Southeastern Louisiana (2-6) at 2 p.m. ET.
On Saturday, the Hatters will play Nebraska-Omaha (1-5) at 10 a.m. ET and Louisiana Tech (4-4) at 2 p.m. Live stats and a subscription-based live video stream will be available for all tournament matches (see "Tournament Central" in the Related Links box).
One of the main reasons Stetson is off to a strong start has been the play of sophomore setter Kayla Weller and sophomore libero Michelle Kastner. Neither Weller nor Kastner were full-time players last season as freshmen, but both took advantage of the opportunity to watch and learn from seniors playing their position. Now both are blossoming as everyday starters in their second year.
"I think Kayla and Michelle definitely learned a lot by observing (last year)," Stetson head coach Tim Loesch said. "I think they saw two experienced players (Kelli Carneal, Monique Russell) that knew what we wanted to do, so I think that helped them just as much as watching video or doing drills. A lot of people are visual learners, and being able to watch someone else and put yourself in their shoes was a great learning tool for them."
As a freshman, Weller split time with Carneal at setter as the Hatters ran a 6-2 offense. Loesch said it is a rare for a setter to be able to contribute as a freshman while still adjusting to the speed of the college game and learning a new system, but Weller stepped in and performed well.
"I learned the setter is definitely a leader on the court," Weller said. "You have to constantly tell the team what we are doing and keep them positive. You have to be the relief in times when things aren't going well. I had Kelli to look up to all through fall season. She was very good at keeping the team calm and collected."
In the spring, Loesch was able to spend more time working with Weller on an individual basis, refining her technique and helping her with situational strategy. It was during this time that it became evident to Loesch that Weller was going to be able to succeed in a 5-1 setting.
"It was good because in the spring season it was my time to take what I learned all through the fall from Kelli and from playing and apply it to a new team," Weller said.
Now Weller is off to terrific start to the 2013 season, averaging 9.83 assists per set, the fifth-highest total in the Atlantic Sun. She has topped the 40-assist mark four times in the first eight matches this season, including a career-best 54 assists each against Drake and Montana State.
She recently helped Stetson go 4-0 at the Westin Classic, earning co-MVP honors along with senior Kaley Melville.
"It feels amazing," Weller said about the team's strong start. "All of our hard work is paying off and people are seeing it. 'Mel' and Ellen (Hawks) worked their tails off over the summer to put this team where we are. They made us bond as a team and its showing on and off the court."
Unlike Weller, Kastner saw very little playing time last year, but studied the game and the work ethic of Russell, who was not only one of the top performers on last year's squad but statistically is Stetson's leading libero of all-time.
"Knowing that (Russell) had been a Hatter for three seasons already and had great success at the libero position made me want to find out what it took to be physically and mentally ready to perform each match," Kastner said. "Just seeing her stay after practice and getting extra work in helped me understand that being a leader is something that doesn't just happen all by itself."
Kastner also faced a lot of competition at her position, and learned she was going to have to be mentally tough and to battle for her playing time.
"Last season was very humbling for me," Kastner said,. "I made it my mission to improve my physical ability and mindset for this season. I worked out very hard all offseason to prepare for what I am doing right now."
Kastner did indeed go to work in the spring, frequently training with Loesch on skills such as the speed and arc of her passing and her serve reception. Her game quickly improved, and continued to improve throughout fall practice. Consequently, she earned the starting spot at libero, and like Weller is off to a fast start. Her 4.22 digs per set average ranks second in the league, and her season-best 23 digs on Aug. 30 helped Stetson notch a season-opening win over Drake.
"Knowing that my performance is making a positive impact on the team feels great, and that has been my goal from the beginning," Kastner said. "I have a real good feeling about this team. We are feeding off of each other and it feels great to know that everybody wants to make plays. Winning our first match of the year was an awesome experience and then we swept the Westin Classic last weekend, wow! We can't wait to get back out on the court."
What to watch for: Kaley Melville is just 32 kills shy of 1000 for her career ... Melville and Ellen Hawks will each play in their 100th career match on Saturday ... For those purchasing the SLU live video stream, note a day pass will get you access to all matches that day. Monthly passes are a few dollars cheaper than purchasing multiple days, but are set up to automatically renew.