It has been a long wait, the longest of any Stetson athletic program, but the sand volleyball team will finally get its 2013 season started this weekend at the Ron Jon Beach 'N Boards Collegiate Beach Volleyball Festival in Cocoa Beach.
"I would say everyone has been having a countdown since January," sophomore Taylor Kennedy said. "We are dying to get out there and play."
After successful 9-8 campaign in their inaugural season last year, the Hatters have several reasons to be excited about the upcoming 2013 slate.
"I am really excited, we are way ahead of where we were last year," Stetson head coach Tim Loesch said. "Last year we had a young team and none of them had ever played together, so it was difficult to figure out partners.
"We have a lot more experience and a much better team this year," Loesch added. "However, I think most of the teams that we face are going to be better, too."
Stetson also benefits from playing in the Atlantic Sun, the only conference in the nation to have enough sand volleyball programs to sponsor a championship. Plus for the first time this season, the A-Sun team champion will receive an automatic bid to the AVCA National tournament in Gulf Shores, Ala. in early May.
The rest of teams in the nation compete independently for one of the remaining five AVCA tournament spots. Two teams will qualify from each the Southeast and West regions, plus one team will be selected with an at-large berth. The Hatters are eligible for a Southeast Region or at-large berth as well.
"I like the fact that we play virtually everybody in our region, so we are going to be able to determine on the court who is the better team in the region and who is going to go to nationals," Loesch said. "I am excited that we going to have a shot as a team to qualify, and the girls are excited about it, too. They have been working hard since the fall semester and they are ready to play."
Loesch says the Hatters with start the season with junior Kaley Melville and sophomore Julie Bassett as the no. 1 pair. Bassett, the A-Sun Freshman of the Year last year, and Melville won 14 matches together last season and qualified for the AVCA pairs championship.
"Julie has got a lot stronger this year," assistant coach Meghan Bryant said. "She always been a great defender, she is very fast and really good at reading the ball, but now she is hitting with more pace she is able to side out more effectively. The chemistry that she has with 'Mel' has just carried over and intensified this year. They are going to be a team to watch."
Loesch said that Savannah Byl and Maren Rygh will likely start at no. 2 or no. 3, but after that the pairings are a toss-up. With 19 student-athletes on the roster and only 10 playing spots available per match, there has been a lot of competition in practice for the remaining openings.
"I think the competition is good," Loesch said. "It pushes everyone to get better, there is better competition in practice than we had last year, and it makes everyone play hard for every point and every drill because they know the coaches are watching and evaluating."
The players are also aware of the heightened competition this preseason.
"It is extremly competitive in practice," senior Alisha Hoffman said. "I really like it because you never know who is going to earn those spots. You have to work really hard every day to make sure you get a chance to play, and everyone works just that much harder."
"I thought it was going to be competitive, but there is a lot of battling for your spot," freshman Kendale Speyerer said. "You have to be above and beyond everyone else. It was a little intimidating at first."
"Coach wants practice to have a competitive atmosphere, but everyone gets along off the court," freshman Madison Tormey said. "We know that's how we help each other improve, by giving your best every point."
The Hatters will finally get to compete against outside competition this week. After a scrimmage at Webber International on Thursday, the Hatters will take on Georgia State and Jacksonville on Saturday and Louisiana-Monroe and North Florida on Sunday at the Beach 'N Boards Fest.
"I am eager to see them against real competition, I know they are even more excited because they have been battling tooth-and-nail against each other," Loesch said. "They want to play somebody else and play as a team to try and win as a team. So as much as I want to see them play they want it a lot more."
Melville said she, too, is excited to get the season started and expects great things from the team this year.
"We are looking a lot better than last year," Melville said. "We have a lot more competition within the squad this season. We had a lot of transfers come in and pick up the level of play. I am expecting at least an A-Sun Championship and a nationals bid for our team this year."
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