The pieces continue to fit into place for the EMU women's volleyball team as they head into the 2013 season. In Coach Jeff Tyson's second season, a good mix of returners and newcomers has the Lady Royals poised to make a move up the ODAC standings.
Seven players are back from last year with Tyson bringing in six women who improve the team's height and overall athleticism. The coach feels his system is gaining momentum.
"The team has worked incredibly hard over the past year both on the court and in the weight room to improve both individually and as a team," Tyson explained. "My goal this year is that we can continue to build on that work ethic and practice intentionally while building our volleyball IQ and believing in our future as a team."
Last year's strength was the back row, where EMU easily led the Old Dominion Athletic Conference with 17.03 digs per set. Randolph-Macon was second in the league at 15.94 digs. Libero Katie Miller (San Antonio, Texas/Brandeis) was one of the reasons the defense stood out, as she averaged 4.30 digs per set over her freshman campaign, which was fourth in the ODAC. She also tied a program record with 44 digs in a match against Allegheny in just her fourth collegiate contest.
"The libero position and a strong defense are vital to success as a volleyball team," said Tyson. "We led the ODAC in digs last year and I am hoping to continue that tradition and continue to add pieces to our team as we build for the future. Katie certainly plays a big piece in our defense and I am looking for her to continue to improve throughout her four years at EMU."
Although the Lady Royals must replace their setter (Mattie Lehman) and top hitter (Sara Ritchie), who are each on their cross cultural this semester, Tyson is excited about the pieces he has in place. Senior Rachel Kennel (Parkesburg, Pa./Lancaster Mennonite) will pick up some of the slack after she led the team in attack percentage and was second with 1.86 kills per set in just her first season playing volleyball at EMU.
"Rachel will surprise some people this season as she has spent a year training for volleyball and has worked hard to be the best," Tyson said. "Rachel can certainly play middle but she brings versatility and can hit from anywhere along the net. There are other individuals that I think have the ability to step up and be a star on any given night. Hopefully we will be a less predictable offense as we have a number of capable hitters this year."
Kennel and junior Kayla Smeltzer (Richmond, Va./Maggie L. Wagner Gov.) both saw a lot of time as middles last fall, giving the women anchors at the net, but additionally flexibility as a couple of the new players can also line up at middle blocker.
"Kayla and Rachel both bring experience and maturity to the team," Tyson explained. "We will have youth in some key positions so it is always great to have their experience on the court. Last season Kayla spent time playing both middle and right side and she has continued to train in both of those positions coming into this season."
Replacing Lehman is more of a question mark with no clear-cut frontrunner for the setter spot heading into preseason. Senior Jessica Goertzen (Goessel, Kan./Goessel) and sophomore Dani Driver (Cheverly, Md./Elizabeth Seton) have been competing for the role of running the offense, with Tyson not ruling out a shared set-up.
The upperclassmen trio of Kennel, Smeltzer and Goertzen will be an exciting base for the team this fall, with freshman McKenna Carter (Waynesboro, Va./Stuarts Draft) adding some energy from the talented newcomers.
"McKenna had a good senior season in both high school and club volleyball and I anticipate that she will be a key contributor," said Tyson. "All of the other new players are also highly talented and I believe will make contributions this year as well."
Ball control will be a key for the Lady Royals, both in the back row and at the service line. Tyson said the hard work of his players has him excited for the future.
"We will work hard during preseason on serving and ball control so that they become strengths for our team," he said. "I am passionate about defense and want to continue the defensive success that we had last year. I believe that the hard work will continue to pay off as the team works to improve on our 2012 record and climb the ODAC standings."
After finishing 4-19 overall last fall (0-11 ODAC), Eastern Mennonite's women are shooting for their first double-digit win season, along with their first ODAC win, since 2009. That journey starts in a big way when they host the season-opening EMU Invitational on Aug. 30 and 31. Six teams will play a total of 12 matches on two courts in Yoder Arena over the two days. Admission is free. The ODAC season also starts at home with Randolph College on Sept. 11.