Last year was quite a ride for the Stetson volleyball program. Posting one of the biggest turnarounds in Division I, the Hatters racked up 18 wins during the season and advanced to the conference tournament for the first time since 1995.
The 2014 squad is primed to go even further, according to first-year Stetson head coach Kristina Hernandez.
“They are really determined to be better than they were last year,” Hernandez said. “They have had a little taste of success, they want more of it and they are really focused on what the objective is and what the goal is and how they are going to get there.”
So far, the roadmap to success has included a lot of training and a lot of teaching during the preseason. With a brand new coaching staff in the place, the Hatters have been busy learning new systems and building a team camaraderie that proved to be very valuable last season.
“They are really excited about all the new and good stuff that they are doing,” Hernandez said. “They see that they keep getting better and they see how good they can be. We have been pushing them, and all of them have been working really hard. Intensity and attitude is never really an issue for us.
“They also work really well together,” Hernandez added. “It is an interesting group. It is an even keel of personality. They all communicate, and they all listen to each other. There is no dominating force.”
The main focus of the coaching staff in the preseason has been implementing a faster-tempo offense. Instead of relying on high balls to the outside hitters, Stetson’s offense will feature more quick hits from the middles, the right side, and even the back row.
“It’s harder to defend,” Hernandez said about the up-tempo offense. “It leaves you with more one-on-one situations on the blocking where you can actually have different places to score. Plus, it’s more fun.”
The new offense should indeed be fun for Stetson fans to watch, but in order to be successful it will require a lot of consistency and accuracy from the setters. The Hatters are four-deep in that position, and leading the way is junior Kayla Weller. Last season, Weller set the school record with 1269 assists including seven matches with over 50 assists.
“It was really uncomfortable at first for Kayla and most of the setters in trying to feed the ball faster on a consistent basis, as opposed to a random quick set here and there or just running the middles fast,” Hernandez said. “She has really picked up on it, and she has been efficient and consistent with the speed of the offense that we want to run. You can tell she is a natural leader out there when she is running the offense. She is just soaking everything up and picking everything up that we are teaching her right now.”
Also returning to the setter position are sophomores Shannon Craighead and Danika Yoder. Hernandez says both players have been improving the speed of their hands and their consistency during the preseason, and both have greatly improved their communication and leadership skills.
Junior transfer Alexis Villa joins Stetson from Laredo Community College and will look to contribute at the setter position as well.
The Hatters look to be very deep at the middle blocker position. Seniors Morgan Pautsch and Erika White will provide experience and leadership, while freshmen Jessica Armstrong and Shelby Connors will look to make an immediate impact on their new team.
“The middles are very strong,” Hernandez said. “Shelby is just big and physical, and she is really connecting with our setters. I think she is going to do some really good things for us. Jessica is probably one of the stronger people physically on our team. We are just trying to get her footwork better in terms of her blocking.
”Erika is working on speeding up her transition footwork and running more behind the setter," Hernandez added. "Morgan has been out a lot of preseason but we have her back now and hope to see her make an impact as well. We are going to have to figure out which two are going to be the best two for offense and blocking."
The Hatters also look to be very deep at the outside and right side hitter positions. Sophomores Tiffany Creamer and Madison Akins are both coming off solid rookie campaigns. Creamer was named the league’s Freshman of the Week four times last season and earned a spot on the preseason all-conference team.
"Tiffany has really gained a lot of strength, power, and quickness," Hernandez said. "I am excited to see what she is going to do for us this year. Maddie has really grown in the past two weeks, she is going to be a formidable force for us on the right side."
Hernandez has also been pleased with the preseason performances of junior Cailyn Prewitt and redshirt freshman McKenna Foster.
“We haven’t really decided whether we want to put Cailyn on the outside or the right side, but we know she can help us in both spots,” Hernandez said. “She looks much more fit and she looks faster. And McKenna looks really good right now. She looks really solid. It is obvious she has worked hard over the summer. Even from what she did in the spring to now is like night and day."
Also looking to make an impact on the outside is sophomore and sand volleyball veteran Kristin Lind. Hernandez says Lind’s versatility could make her a valuable asset on the outside or in the back row.
“Kristin is one of those utility kids,” Hernandez said. “She is just someone who could do anything on the court for us. We like her energy and intensity.”
In addition to Lind, the Hatters have several options for defensive specialist and libero. Juniors Michelle Kastner and Alexa Drost each saw time in the back row last year, while sophomore Abby Boll is pushing hard to earn playing time as well.
“Abby has worked so hard over the summer and she is right up there with Alexa and Michelle,” Hernandez said. “All three have such different strengths. Alexa reads very well. She just understands what is going on on the other side of the net. Michelle is just quick. She is everywhere, and you don’t notice her. She is constantly all over the place. Abby is like a ball of muscle right now. She just got stronger and faster and better. Whatever she was doing in the spring doesn’t even compare to what she is doing now. That will be our hardest decision, because we have been stating them every day, their passing and their defense, and they are just neck-and-neck. That is going to be a strong position for us.”
Also joining the back row corps is sophomore Marissa Salazar.
"Marissa has been working to improve her passing and we are starting to see a lot of improvement from her," Hernandez said. "I feel like she is someone that will step up more when we start playing."
Freshman Bailie Burkins will likely redshirt the season.
The Hatters open the season this weekend at the FAU Invitational, the first of four road tournaments to begin the season. Hernandez says the time on the road will be a good challenge for her team early in the season.
“I actually like being on the road to begin with, having a little adversity and not being in the comforts of our own home,” Hernandez said. “I think it will be good for us. It will be a tough stretch. They are some good teams we are playing and good competition before we get to conference.”
The Atlantic Sun schedule once again features a double-round robin format, but with just eight teams in the league this year, the Hatters will play just 14 matches in conference play. The top six teams will compete for the Atlantic Sun Championship on Nov. 20-22 in Fort Myers.
“It’s a good conference, and I like it,” Hernandez said. “There are a lot of good teams and it’s highly competitive, which makes it a really fun conference. It will be interesting to see how we stack up.”
The fun starts on Friday with the Hatters taking on McNeese State at 10 a.m. and Bethune-Cookman at 4:30 p.m.