Season Outlook: Volleyball

Season Outlook: Volleyball

ANDERSON, S.C. – High expectations have become the norm around the Anderson University volleyball team and the 2018 campaign will be no different for second-year head coach Todd Hay and the Trojans.

Just a season ago, the Trojans claimed the first regular-season conference title in program history and set a school record with 28 victories. The path back to the postseason includes eight contests against teams that advanced to the NCAA Tournament last season. AU will be seeking its seventh consecutive appearance in the South Atlantic Conference Tournament and third appearance in the NCAA Tournament in five seasons when the Black and Gold begin the season in Florence, S.C., this weekend at the Coker/Francis Marion Fall Invitational.

Hay's roster features nine returning letterwinners and lists four starters, including two standouts who evenly split the libero spot a season ago. A trio of Preseason All-Conference selections - Emily Conlin, Jayln Knight and Kathryn Hughes - will help anchor the squad, while Hay looks to blend seven true freshmen with six upperclassmen.

A veteran of 12 seasons on collegiate sidelines, including six in the South Atlantic Conference, Hay says he's "most excited about being the defending champions and seeing how we respond. Winning the SAC championship was a big step for our program, but how we respond to that is something I'm looking forward to this year. We know we will have everyone's attention. I realize that we are not the exact same team as last year, but the program won the title, so how does the program respond – how do I respond - how do the players respond going forward. The hope is that the returners understand their role even better this season and hopefully that will help offset the loss of a lot of offense from last season. We have a good nucleus back from last year."

One of just two juniors on the squad, Emily Conlin returns to the court following a stellar sophomore campaign that saw the Glendale, Ariz., native capture All-America honors both on the court and in the classroom. After only two seasons, Conlin already ranks fifth in the school record books with 2,538 career assists after leading the league in in assists and assists per set a season ago.

She notched 18 double-doubles last year and was fourth on the team and 21st in the SAC with 339 digs.

"What we want to see from Emily is for her to continue to work on her consistency and her leadership as a setter," added Hay. "We know she has the tools and now we want her to work on perfecting those tools even more. She brings so much to the table and understands what we want to do. Now we just need to fine tune some things."

Joining Conlin at the spot this season is Madison Roy, a true freshman from North Myrtle Beach, S.C., who was a three-time all-region honoree for her high school squad.

"With [Madison's] height she adds a little more presence at the net," added Hay," She's a little more offensive-minded and not afraid to attack on the second ball. Madison's serving ability is pretty solid and she has a good defensive presence on the back row. Madison is adjusting well – she just has to learn what good mistakes are and what bad mistakes are – and where to put the hitters to make them more successful. Making smart decisions is a natural part of her maturation process. She's a good athlete and has good quickness and good hands."

"There's no hiding the fact that we do lack some experience, especially at the middle position," added Hay. "I do not quite know what to expect in the middle. Five new faces fighting for a starting position. Even though two were with us last year, this will be their first opportunity to fight for that starting position. It's going to be fun to watch that battle in the middle this season and see who really steps up, takes that position and runs with it. Right now it's a very even competition."

Hay will be searching for a replacement for the departed All-Region honoree Rachel Burts in the middle and brought in a trio of talented freshmen to help solidify the position.

"Hannah [Worsham] is coming off a redshirt year and has shown great progress. She was one of our most improved players in the spring. She gives us good quickness and will definitely in the mix for that second middle position."

After seeing action in eight matches a season ago, redshirt sophomore Hailee Wilhelm was penciled in as a tentative starter going into the preseason.

"The three freshmen - Noelle Knudsen, Neely Shugart and Britney Bailey - early on they were adjusting to the speed of the offense and the transition game from defense to offense and vice versa," said Hay. "We need them to perform right away as freshmen. It's going to be a battle for playing time until we see who steps up."

Outside/Rightside Hitter
"It gives us good physicality with Kathryn [Hughes] and Regan [Duty] on the right side," added Hay. "We have good height and size over on that right side. Kathryn is establishing herself well as a blocker and her offense is pretty much on par with what it was last year. The good news is that we have two capable rightsides. Regan has definitely improved since last year and she's working hard toward earning a starting spot, which is good competition. I believe that competition will continue for a few more weeks and maybe well into the season. There's always competition – players are trying to push each other and make each other better. They are both playing well and pushing each other."

Hughes was named Preseason Second-Team All-Conference earlier this week after seeing action in 30 contests last season. She recorded 214 kills on the season, while reaching double-figure kills nine times. The Chapin, S.C., native was third on the team with 57 block assists, including a season-high four on three occasions. Duty played in six matches last season and posted eight kills, including a season-high three against Lees-McRae. She added six digs and six block assists, including a season-high three against Mount Olive.

"Moving Liliana [Kinder] to the left side gives us a little more balance in practice and gives her more of an opportunity to play all the way around," said Hay. "Lily brings great athleticism and a good vertical jump. She has good ball control and I believe she deserves the opportunity to be in the rotation. She's familiar with all the positions."

"Maya [Learmonth] brings a lot of dynamic ability and a heavy ball," noted Hay. "She can jump really, really well. It's more of a mental thing than physical with Maya. We are working on her confidence and her consistency, but she brings a wow-factor to that outside position. Both Lily sand Maya bring a lot of athleticism and the sky is the limit for both of them."

Kaitlyn Grube, a sophomore from Colfax, N.C. is also in the mix for playing time on the outside.

"Kaitlyn has been working really hard," said Hay. "She needs to continue to work on all facets of her game – meaning when she can tip, when she can roll-shot. Her cross-court shot is solid and we are working with her to move the ball around more. She possesses a lot of power and is a big presence at the net, too. We've been really pleased with her backrow play. Kaitlyn and Maya can help minimize the loss of Marissa {Mitter]. We need someone to take that position and be a threat and Kaitlyn has stepped up into that role."

Senior Jayln Knight earned Preseason All-SAC honors earlier this week after starting every match last season and was third on the team and 21st in the conference with 249 kills. She reached double-figure kills on nine occasions and ranked fourth on the team and 17th in the conference with 25 aces. Knight was third on the team and 19th in the SAC last season with 350 digs, including a season-high 22 at Queens. She reached double-digit digs in six of AU's final eight matches a year ago and posted five double-doubles on the season.

"Jayln is a very consistent and steady player," added Hay. "She's going to be called upon to be in a lot of serve/receive and getting the ball to the setter. Of the four outside hitters, her backrow presence is probably the strongest in terms of her ball control and defense. She is that one piece from last year that we know we can use in frontrow, backrow, or both. She's a steadying presence on the court. We'll also have someone new joining Jayln on the outside. We have to look at every position for those that are returners and hopefully their experience last year will help them produce just a little more this year."

A pair of seniors – Megan Embry and Emily Conard – along with sophomore Christina Stacy and true freshman Meghan DeVaux will be vying for playing time as the designated defensive specialist for the Trojans.

Embry came up with 241 digs while seeing action in every match a year ago. Conard also played in all 33 matches and was eighth in the SAC and led the team with 468 digs, including a season-best 27 at Flagler. The Plano, Texas, native ranks eighth in the school record books with 1,554 career digs after reaching double-figure digs 23 times last season. Stacy played in 10 matches, while handing out 32 assists last season. She recorded 24 digs, including a season-high 12 at USC Aiken.

Early in the preseason, Hay wanted to see Conard "come in, step up and take the position. You want that experience out there on the court. If things are even, I tend to go with experience up to a point. We brought in Meghan [DeVaux] to challenge for the libero position. Christina [Stacy] is also in the mix. All in all I really like the defensive specialists that we have. I really like their ability and I hope they continue to push each other."

"I believe our nonconference schedule will definitely prepare us for the SAC schedule," said Hay. "We have a good mix of Conference Carolinas and Peach Belt teams. It will be a tough task for us early on."

The Trojans open the regular season with a nine-match road swing, including back-to-back tournaments in the Palmetto State and the Tar Heel State.

AU will open the season on Friday by squaring off against Indianapolis in the first-ever meeting between the two programs at the Coker/Francis Marion Fall Invitational in Florence, S.C. The Trojans then face a pair of Peach Belt Conference foes in two of their final three matches of the two-day event, as the Black and Gold will meet co-host FMU later on Friday.

A day later, the Trojans square off against Virginia Union in just the second meeting between the two programs since 2004 and close out the two-day event by squaring off against UNC Pembroke in Hartsville.

In just the second meeting since the 2012 campaign, AU opens the Queens Fall Classic next Friday against Augusta and will also face Georgia College in Charlotte, with the Bobcats looking to build on their record-breaking 2017 season, as they went 25-8 a year ago before falling to second-seeded Wingate in the NCAA Southeast Regional. Less than 24 hours later, AU wraps up the Classic against a pair of Conference Carolinas squads in Barton and Converse. The Bulldogs won 20 of their final 22 matches last season and claimed the 2017 Conference Carolinas title, while finishing the campaign with a 23-8 record after falling to top-seeded Flagler in last season's NCAA Tournament.

The Trojans close out the season-opening road swing and opens South Atlantic Conference action by traveling to Mars Hill on Sept. 4, and will be seeking their fourth straight win past the Lions.

"The conference schedule is a grind," noted Hay. "I think that it's such a long season. It's a marathon and takes a lot of mental toughness. The conference is up as a whole and I think the conference schedule will be a little tougher than last year – with the exception of Tusculum and ourselves, the vast majority of the [league] schools have returned a large percentage of their rosters this year. It'll be interesting and I'm excited. This team is hungry again. They want to do something unique and win back-to-back championships. It would be really tough but I think we can."

AU opens its home slate with a tri-match featuring Coker and longtime archrival Erskine on Friday, Sept. 7. The Trojans will be looking to continue their recent success against both squads after having defeated the Cobras in their last 17 meetings and have swept the Fleet in four of their last seven meetings.

AU gets back in league action on the road against Lenoir-Rhyne and returns to the Abney Athletic Center to play host to Carson-Newman on Sept. 15 in a brief one-match homestand. The Trojans will be looking to avenge a five-set loss suffered at the hands of the Lady Eagles in the 2017 SAC Tournament semifinals before traveling to Newberry and squaring off against first-year head coach Ross Kessler's Wolves. AU has won two straight over Newberry and nine of the last 10 meetings.

Three days later, AU returns to the Electric City to face Tusculum, with Lincoln Memorial visiting the Abney Center on Sept. 22. The Lady Railsplitters are looking to return to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons after winning a school-record 25 matches and after making an appearance in 2016.

The Trojans then go on the road to face perennial regional powerhouse Wingate (Sept. 29) and Coker a day later for the second time in three weeks. The Bulldogs had claimed the SAC regular-season title for 11 consecutive seasons before AU won last year's championship. Wingate has claimed 10 conference tournament titles in the last 12 seasons, with Queens winning the 2017 title and Lenoir-Rhyne claiming the 2015 championship tilt at the Abney Athletic Center.

AU opens its longest homestand of the season by squaring off against Lenoir-Rhyne (Oct. 2) for the second time before matching up with Catawba (Oct. 5), Queens (Oct. 6) and Mars Hill (Oct. 9). The Royals are the defending SAC Tournament Champions and advanced to the NCAA Southeast Regional for the second straight year before falling to the Trojans for the third time of the season and finished the campaign with a 23-8 record.

The Trojans continue the second half of the conference schedule at Carson-Newman (Oct. 12), then play host to Newberry in mid-October before traveling to Tusculum and Lincoln Memorial (Oct.19-20). Following a five-day layoff, Wingate visits the Abney Center for Senior Night on Oct. 26 and the Black and Gold wrap up the regular season with a road swing to Catawba (Nov. 2) and Queens (Nov. 3).

"Some of the questions we have to answer are how do we replace two-thirds of our offense from last season," noted Hay. "Who's going to help – as a team – replace that lost productivity. It's a big task and I'm excited about that challenge. When you have losses due to graduation, that's just opportunities for the next wave of athletes on the team to step up."

The 2018 South Atlantic Conference Championship will feature the top eight teams in the league squaring off on Tuesday, Nov. 6, at the home sites of the four top seeds, with the tournament semifinals and championship slated to be held on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 9-10, at Coker.

"One of our strengths is having Emily [Conlin] run our offense," Hay concluded. "And this team has jelled - they are close and they pull for each other. Team unity and bonding are important."

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