|Stetson Volleyball 2012 Season Preview|
As the Stetson volleyball team prepares for the 2012 season, second-year head coach Tim Loesch already foresees having to make some very tough decisions regarding personnel and playing time. With a healthy and talented squad size of 18 student-athletes, the Hatters have been working hard through two-a-day preseason practices, knowing opportunities for playing time during the season may hang in the balance. So far, Loesch likes what he sees.
"Things are going well, we've been working hard, and we've shown a lot of improvement," Loesch said about preseason practice. "I'm really pleased with the work ethic of our girls. We've got an athletic team, we're developing a lot of good team chemistry, and if we can keep that moving forward over the course of the long season I think we can surprise some teams this year."
The squad consists of 11 returners and seven incoming freshmen, and Loesch says the choice to have that many student-athletes is a conscious one.
"There are three reasons we want to have a large roster, and the first is depth," Loesch said. "As a coach it's a big advantage to have options, and if there are injuries, illnesses, or somebody is just not having a good game, we want to be able to bring in someone who is trained in that position and who can come in and contribute right away.
"The second reason is for competition. Having another strong college player competing with and against you in practice really brings out the best in a lot of players. And the third reason is so we can play competitive six-on-six drills in practice without having to have a coach step in, or having players out of position.
"On the flip side is that players want to play, and I am going to have a lot of tough decisions to make like who is going to start and who is going to get to travel. But as a coach it is a good problem to have. I think the girls realize what's best for the team is the most important thing, they are excited about the strength of our team, and I think they are going to continue to push each other to get better."
The Hatters have a good mix of newcomers and veterans, and they return six starters from a year ago. At the outside hitter position, the Hatters will look for junior Kaley Melville to provide leadership, as the Minnesota native has led the team in kills in each of her first two seasons. Loesch says that playing sand volleyball last spring really helped Melville improve and he is looking for her to take her game to an even higher level this year.
Senior Madison Anderson, one of four seniors on the squad, will compete for playing time at the right-side position. Loesch says Anderson has been working extremely hard to make her senior year a special one, and that she is in the mix for a starting position. Also returning is sophomore Taylor Story, who Loesch says will serve as a left-side attacker and contribute defensively. Story recorded 95 kills and 101 digs while playing all 27 matches as a freshmen last season, and ranked 46th in the nation in aces per set (0.39).
Joining the group of outside hitters is Morgan Pautsch, a redshirt freshman who missed the 2011 season with an injury, Catherine Coston, a sophomore transfer who joined the Hatters for the second semester last year, and freshman Cailyn Prewitt, a California-native who recorded over 300 kills for Rocklin High School as a senior.
The Hatters possess a great deal of experience at the middle hitter position. Fifth-year senior Samantha Freeman returns to the squad after completing her Bachelor's Degree in May. Freeman was unable to participate in her true senior season due to an injury, but Loesch says he is glad she decided to return for a fifth season.
"Samantha is a quiet leader, someone who leads by example," Loesch said. "She is bouncing back from an injury and she's not yet at full strength, but all the girls see her working hard, trying to improve her athleticism, and fighting for playing time, and that pushes them to play through injuries, soreness, or just being tired and worn out. I am really hopeful she is able to recover completely, but know that she is going to give 100% to help her teammates make this a successful year."
Also returning to the middle position is junior Ellen Hawks and sophomores Taylor Johnson and Erika White. Hawks has led the Hatters in blocking in each of her first two seasons and has surpassed 300 career kills. Loesch says the Austin, Texas native has worked hard to improve her fitness level and has the potential to be a strong force in the conference this year.
Johnson recorded 73 kills and 52 blocks while starting 23 matches as a freshman. White, meanwhile, recorded 19 kills and 18 blocks last-season while splitting time between the middle and setter positions. Loesch says with the depth on this year's team, White should be able to focus entirely on playing in the middle.
Joining the middle hitters is freshman Tawni Small, a Winter Springs, Fla. native who Loesch says is adapting quickly to the speed and athleticism of the college game.
Anchoring the Hatters at the setter position will be senior Kelli Carneal. A three-year starter who can contribute in a variety of ways, Carneal has racked up over 1600 assists, 400 digs, and 100 blocks during her career. Loesch is looking for a big season from Carneal and says she will potentially be an important key to the Hatters success in 2012.
Two freshmen will help add depth to the setter position. Kayla Weller, a state champion at Sandy Creek High School in Marietta, Ga., and Shannon Craighead, a state champion at Cave Spring High School in Roanoke, Virginia, will be ready to step into the setter role if needed. Loesch says having three skilled setters is a luxury that not many other teams have.
One of the most consistent and dependable players over the past three seasons has been senior libero Monique Russell. Having not missed a match in her career and having played in 222 consecutive sets dating back to her freshman year, Russell already ranks 10th in school history with 939 career digs. Loesch says because of her position Russell may not always get the credit that some of the "glamour positions" get, but having a successful offense would not be possible without the defensive effort and passing that Russell provides.
Joining Russell in the defensive specialist role is a trio of freshmen: Alexa Drost, Evann Dickerson, and Michelle Kastner. Drost was a state champion as a senior at Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nev., Dickerson played both front and back row at Oldham County High School in Crestwood, Ky., and Kastner was a Defensive Player of the Year at Brawley Union High School in California.
"I think the strength of our team will be ball control - serving, passing, setting, and team defense," Loesch said. "The girls are really working well as a unit, communicating and learning their positions and defensive expectations."
The Hatters are scheduled to play 35 regular season matches, which would mark the team's longest schedule since the 1991 season. Included are seven doubleheaders, four tournaments, and an Atlantic Sun Conference schedule that expanded to a double-round format of 18 matches. Loesch says he likes the consistency of playing three or four times every week and that routine should pay dividends in the long run.
"The game teaches the game, so the more we play, the more comfortable we are going to get and the more experience we are going to gain," Loesch said. "We have a young team, a lot of sophomores and freshmen, and they need to be thrown into the fire in those game situations to learn how to handle it. We have a tough schedule, and I am hopeful it will prepare us for conference play."
The A-Sun will have a slightly different look in 2012, as former Division II school Northern Kentucky joins the league and transitions to Division I, while Belmont, who tied for the regular season title last year, departs for the Ohio Valley Conference . Once again the top six teams in the regular season will qualify for the A-Sun tournament, hosted by Lipscomb on Nov. 15-17.
"We want to be an improved team, to be competitive, and to be peaking at the end for the conference tournament," Loesch said. "But the other teams in the conference are going to be improved as well, and nobody is going to hand us any victories. There is a long road ahead of us, but if we stay healthy, if we keep a good attitude and a good work ethic, then I think the sky is the limit."
The Hatters begin play Aug. 24-25 in Montgomery, Ala. at the ISTAP tournament hosted by Alabama State.
Interview with Head Coach Tim Loesch
Volleyball Player Introductions