Season Preview: Bison women's volleyball prepared to defend NEAC title and return to NCAA tournament
WASHINGTON, D.C. – It was a smashing debut for Gallaudet University women's volleyball in the North Eastern Athletic Conference (NEAC) last season as the Bison posted a 7-1 conference record and won the NEAC tournament in its first year as a member of the conference. GU earned the NEAC's automatic bid into the NCAA tournament where it faced No. 5 ranked Christopher Newport University. Gallaudet returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006 and the seventh time overall in program history.
"Our expectations are even higher for this season as we return eight players from last year and we have an excellent group of first-year players," said Gallaudet women's volleyball head coach Lynn Ray Boren, who enters his seventh year at the helm. "The experience we gained last year in the NCAA tournament and facing one of the top teams in the country showed us what areas we need to work on and improve for this season. We need to play better against strong teams and I think we learned that last season."
Gallaudet returns loaded for a repeat performance as the Bison prepare for the 2011 campaign. Senior Paige Johnson (North Richland Hills, Texas) will move from the setter position to outside hitter in her last season with the team. Johnson, the lone senior on the team, is the reigning NEAC South Division Player of the Year and was an all-conference first team selection. It was her performance in the NEAC tournament, where she earned MVP honors, which helped the Bison secure the NEAC title. Johnson finished last season with 13 double-doubles and racked up 1,101 assists, 284 digs, 112 kills, 85 service aces and 33 blocks.
"Paige has always wanted to play as a hitter. She made a sacrifice the last three years, in the best interest of this program, to serve as our setter. She now has the opportunity to play as a hitter in her last year as a Bison," said Boren. "It will be a challenge for her because she needs to start all over again as a hitter but I know she will be okay."
Juniors Ann Whited (Fishers, Ind.) and Mari Klassen (White Rock, British Columbia) return at the outside hitter position. The pair was all-conference first team selections as they ranked first and second on the team in kills. Whited finished the season with a team best 429 kills and added 321 digs and 60 service aces. Klassen was second on the team with 350 kills and 318 digs and 70 service aces. A fourth Bison earned all-conference honors last season as fellow junior Jessica Israel (Frederick, Md.) was selected to the second team. Israel, a middle hitter, was third on the team with 312 kills and led the Buff and Blue with 61 blocks.
"They are now juniors and they understand our system. They know to help our team succeed they need to have ball control when striking at the net. Jessica will be our dynamic middle hitter this year. She has continued to improve over the years," said Boren.
Junior Lauren Benedict (Germantown, Md.) steps up into the starting libero position and will also serve as the team's defensive specialist. Benedict saw action in all 39 matches last season and started nine. She was fifth on the team in digs with 217 and passed out 30 assists.
The team's new setter is freshman Sarah Tubert (Burbank, Calif.) who brings some much needed size to the roster as she stands at 5-foot-11. Tubert is the youngest member of the U.S. Deaf Volleyball national team. She joined teammates Whited and Israel over the summer for the 2011 Friendship Games where the U.S. defeated Ukraine in a rematch of the 2009 Deaflympics gold medal match.
"She is a great addition to our program. Sarah has a great volleyball background and knowledge in setting. I believe she will have a big impact on this year's team with the number of solid hitters we have returning," said Boren.
Two other veterans from last year's team that will be contributors again this season are junior Krystal Johnson (North Richland Hills, Texas) and sophomore Michelle Mansfield-Hom (Frederick, Md.). Krystal Johnson saw action in all 39 matches and made 28 starts where she finished with 154 kills and 115 digs and was second on the team with 82 service aces. Mansfield-Hom played in all but four matches last season as she tallied 93 kills and 15 digs at her middle hitter position where she was tied for second on the team in blocks with 33.
New faces to the program include freshmen middle hitters Alison O'Hara (Colorado Springs, Colo.) and Julia Wolff (Belleville, Ontario); opposite hitters Gabriella Beyer (Austin, Texas) and Carly Weyers (Lincoln, Neb.) and Kali Frowick (Norfolk, Neb.) can play at middle and outside hitter positions.
Gallaudet will crisscross the country during the first three weekends in September as the Bison participate in the Battlefield Classic hosted by Gettysburg College on September 2-3 before heading to Seguin, Texas, to play in the Bulldog Classic hosted by Texas Lutheran (September 9-10). GU will make the short trip to Towson, Md., to play Goucher College (September 14) before heading north to Utica, N.Y., to play three conference games against Morrisville St., SUNYIT and Wells. Gallaudet finally makes its home debut on September 22 when it plays host to non-conference foe Johns Hopkins University. The following two weeks features trips to Owings Mills, Md., Westminster, Md., and Reading, Pa., for non-conference and conference matches.
"We have a really tough weekend when we head down to Texas. That trip will be our test to see where we stand," said Boren. "Johns Hopkins is always a tough opponent to go up against. We look forward to our home opener against them."
GU will host former Capital Athletic Conference foe St. Mary's (Md.) College on October 4 before playing host to the 5th annual Worthington Classic on October 7-8 as the Bison welcome Allegheny, Salem and Shenandoah to town. Gallaudet plays hosts to Gettysburg College (October 12) and Penn St.-Harrisburg (October 13) on back-to-back nights at the Field House. The home contest against Harrisburg marks the annual AVCA Dig Pink Night for the Bison as fans are encouraged to wear something pink to show support for Breast Cancer awareness. GU then goes to Harrisburg, Pa., for three more conference matches before hosting University of Mary Washington (October 20) on Senior Night. Gallaudet makes the quick trip to Catholic University of America on October 26 before completing the regular-season in Scranton, Pa., against Lebanon Valley College and University of Scranton. Gallaudet will defend its conference title during the first week in November in the NEAC tournament. The NCAA or ECAC tournaments will follow later in November if the Bison qualify.
The volleyball team is poised and talented enough to repeat as conference champions and make a return trip to the NCAA tournament but the Bison can't rest on their laurels.
"We are a new team with a new expectation this year," said Boren. "We need to keep getting better each day. There is no pressure on this team. It's a new season and a new slate."
If the Bison survive the first half of its schedule they will be positioned nicely to dive into conference play. GU will close out the regular-season with some tough non-conference opponents to prepare them for the NEAC tournament.