August 22, 2012
2012 Samford Volleyball Season Preview
In many ways, the 2012 Samford volleyball team is very similar to the 2011 team. The Bulldogs return every starter from last year, only losing one player to graduation and adding one freshman on the entire team. The coaching staff is the same, as Head Coach Derek Schroeder returns for his fifth season and assistant coaches James Hanger and Lisa Pierce return for a second season.
The biggest difference between the 2011 and 2012 teams, however, may be their most defining characteristic. Even though it's the same players, they're something no Samford volleyball team has ever been:
Defending conference champions.
"Dealing with being defending champs was a focus of everything right away," said Schroeder, "because the first workouts when we came back in the spring were not good. They were unfocused and half-hearted so it took a meeting of the team captains and me sitting down and explaining how hard it is to be a repeat champion, especially in the Southern Conference. There haven't been a lot of repeat champions in the conference, especially in the four years we've been in it. Since that meeting, these kids have been focused, determined and they understand what's at stake."
The College of Charleston won four consecutive conference titles from 2004-2007. Since 2008, when Samford joined, there have been four different champions. In three of those seasons, the previous year's champion made it all the way to the title game, only to be defeated in the final match.
If Samford wants to become the second team in SoCon history to not be one-and-done in NCAA play, they need to protect against any complacency that might settle in from their stellar 2011 campaign.
"The first steps in combating that complacency," said Schroeder, "was four or five years ago when we recruited these kids. They're amazing. They have similar goals and are like-minded and when they're all together, they are working towards their goals at that given time. It started there and has continued through this spring. My kids are so mature and great to be around, sometimes you forget they're 19 or 20-year-old girls and you need to explain to them the complacency that comes along with winning the first championship in school history. Once it was explained to them, they got it. They saw what was going on in practice and they changed it right away."
Luckily, this team has plenty of senior leadership to look to. Five Bulldogs will be in their final season of eligibility at Samford in 2012. They have paid their dues and have been recognized for their achievements, both on and off the court, and Schroeder knows making their final year a memorable one is a top priority.
"Right now, I want to do absolutely everything that I can to give them another chance to win. That's all I'm thinking about. When December rolls around and the four-year journey with these seniors is over it's probably going to hit me pretty hard. Right now, all I want is to give them the best chance to repeat as SoCon champs and win a match in the NCAA Tournament that I can. That's all I want to do."
One big priority heading into this season was to play against bigger, postseason-caliber teams earlier in the year to be ready once November and December roll around.
"One of the first things I did was sit down with members of the team and ask what they wanted to do in 2012. We talked about it and I said, 'you realize that I'm going to schedule a harder preseason then, right?' We talked about that, going through the what-if's of that scenario. What if we go winless in the first two weekends? What if we are beating teams in the top 25? We went through the scenarios and they said that was what they wanted."
Within the first two weeks of the season, Samford plays Miami, Duke and Louisville, all of whom received top-25 votes last season. Whether Samford wins or loses those matches, the experience they will gain in the long-term will be invaluable.
"The first two weekends, I scheduled teams that got votes in the top 25 last year. Whether we win or lose those matches, to have some of our coaching peers in the NCAA voting for us, even if it's just two or three votes, would be a huge early season accomplishment for Samford. The second two weeks of preseason, we come down to more of a SoCon level schedule and I want to take those two weeks to get us back in our winning ways and perform on a weekly basis like a winning team should. After that, we get into SoCon play which should be as competitive as usual."
Two 2011 All-SoCon honorees will anchor the middle blocking positions in 2012. Senior Lauren Hutchinson won First Team accolades and was an Honorable Mention AVCA All-South Region honoree. The Kennesaw, Ga., native set a Samford single-season record for hitting percentage at .428 (379 kills, 75 errors and 710 total attacks), finishing the season ranked No. 2 in the country after seeing extended time at the top spot throughout the season.
"Lauren has probably worked harder than anyone this offseason, she's been incredible," said Schroeder. "She's gained muscle and is just trying to play the game at a more physical level. She already jumps high and runs fast so she's just trying to be more physical and I expect an even better season this year than last."
Katie Murphy, a Second Team All-SoCon honoree, was right behind Hutchinson last year as she earned a .427 clip behind 321 kills and only 47 errors on 642 swings. She too was consistently ranked in the top three nationally and will look to improve her game even more in 2012.
"Murphy is probably the best athlete we have on the team," said Schroeder. "She's grown out of the young player mentality and is growing into a real mature player. I think she's going to explode this year to be honest. I was disappointed last year that in our preseason tournaments that she was sick and couldn't play because I thought that would be her coming-out party. Maybe that will work out for us because her coming-out party might be this fall."
Providing depth off the bench will be junior Taylor Palmer and freshman Emily Meitz, both of whom could also see time at right side. Palmer played in 13 matches last season, starting three, earning 40 kills and a .286 clip. Meitz is the Bulldogs' sole newcomer, as she hails from St. Louis, Mo., and will provide height and quickness on the front line.
"Taylor will still play some middle," said Schroeder. "She will have that backup role for the middle blockers. She's going to do a great job there and she'll push the kids in practice every day. Emily coming in will probably play some middle as well. She's an athlete. Off of one foot she's fast, she plays the game really high. If she comes in and plays the way Samford volleyball does, she'll have a chance to play right away."
Right Side/Outside Hitters
The right side is the one position on the floor that will likely be an open competition early in the season. In addition to Palmer and Meitz, redshirt junior Erika Devaughn and redshirt freshman Amanda Moritz will compete for a starting role as well.
"Emily and Taylor will also look at the right side position. That's probably the only position in our starting lineup that's wide open. So they'll get a look at it, Erika and Amanda will get a look at it. Whoever rises to the top will take that position and we'll be stronger for it."
At the left side Samford returns the 2011 SoCon Player of the Year, senior Elizabeth Neisler. The Jacksonville, Ala., native led the team and the conference in kills last season with 452. The total ranks third all-time at Samford and pushes her career total to 1,042, making her the eighth player in Samford history to join the 1,000 kills club. All those hard hits came at a price however, as she underwent offseason shoulder surgery and will be forced to play a smarter brand of volleyball in 2012.
"Neisler is coming off shoulder surgery," said Schroeder, "and a lot of her spring has been focused on learning how to score without just jumping higher and hitting harder than everyone else, so she's added a little maturity and volleyball IQ to her game that she didn't have before. I'm really interested to see how that plays out for her."
The Bulldogs also return 2011 SoCon All-Freshman honoree Michaela Reesor, who spent a second-consecutive summer working out with the Canadian National Team. Reesor started all but one game last season playing primarily at right side tallying 258 kills. Of the non-defensive players, she had the highest digs total with 254, helping her to three double-doubles in 2011. This season, she will shift over to the left side.
"Michaela will move from the right side to her more natural position at L2," said Schroeder. "She worked out with the Canadian National Team for a month this summer in that position, so she served and passed at an international level for five weeks. I'm sure Michaela will be the serve receive target on this team all year because people will try and stay away from our girls on defense, so her summer was good preparation for that role.
"This team has never been built on strong left sides, but I think we're going to have the best left-side tandem in the Southern Conference this season. We're still going to push the ball to the middle and right side because that's where speed happens but when we need to, we'll go to the left side and we have two of the best outs in the conference now."
As one of the team's three captains, Casey Garvey will return for her senior season after a stellar 2011 campaign. She set a Samford single-season record with 1,431 assists, which led the SoCon by nearly 200, and ranked fourth nationally averaging 12.03 assists per set. Despite the stellar numbers, she did not earn All-SoCon honors, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the Samford coaching staff.
"If Casey was 6'0", she would be First Team All-SoCon and in the running for Player of the Year every year," said Schroeder. "Her numbers are that good. Because she's 5'8" and not the quickest kid on the floor, it's easy for other coaches to overlook her contributions. She's going to bring to the table what she's always brought as a setter. She's going to bring more maturity and higher expectations. She will not accept an offense that isn't clicking on all cylinders and because of that we're going to be very hard for teams to defend."
Backing Garvey up will be sophomore Selina Schirmer, who played in 11 matches last season as a freshman. She has made a conscious effort this offseason to improve her game and earn significant playing time, providing the Bulldogs with a spark in a key position on the floor.
"Selina just got back on campus and she looks more physical," said Schroeder. "She's taking a week and going to a college elite setters camp and she's done everything she can to take her game to the next level. I'm excited to see what she'll do this year. When we play some bigger teams those first few weeks or if a SoCon team finds that their left sides are having success against us, I'll have no problem putting Selina in there knowing our offense is going to stay at the exact same level and she'll be able to defend the right side as a front-row blocker."
Pairing up in the back row will be the remaining two Bulldog captains, senior libero Alexis Bauer and sophomore defensive specialist Chelsi Carter. Bauer started every match at libero last season, totaled 532 digs, just 42 shy of the Samford school record, and was named the 2012 SoCon Tournament MVP. Carter, who also started all 34 matches last season, earned 340 digs to go along with a team-leading 38 service aces.
"Our offense is so good that some of my smaller players don't get recognition," said Schroeder. "Lexi is a stud. She's one of our captains and when she needs to crack heads, she's cracking heads. When she needs to put her arm around somebody, she's putting her arm around somebody. She keeps us focused and determined and she'll continue to do that. She's taken Chelsi under her wing, teaching her how to play that role.
"I believe that libero is the most important position on the floor. They're like a catcher on a baseball team. They always have the most knowledge and know the most about the game. They always understand how you should be attacking or defending another team. They're not just out there digging and passing. They have a higher IQ for the game and right now, Lexi and Chelsi are untouchable as far as IQ goes."
Providing depth off the bench at defense and as servers will be senior Alicia Roth and redshirt junior Taylor Chao. Roth played in 33 matches while Chao played in 32, starting one. The pair combined for 159 digs and 11 service aces.
"Roth has come back and she has added a maturity level to her game. I'll put her in to serve, pass or defend and give us a spark whenever we need it. Chao will be the same way, if I just need a spark I'll put her in. Whether the score is 7-7, 10-10 or 24-24, I have four ball-control kids that I'm very comfortable putting in any situation and any given time."