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Finding the Recipe for Success: 2007 Liberty Volleyball Season Outlook
The Liberty volleyball team will open its 2007 season at home this Friday and Saturday, with the Liberty Invitational Presented by Pepsi. A season preview follows.
Entering his fourth season as Liberty's head volleyball coach, Shane Pinder is like a chef aiming to craft his variety of ingredients into a prize-winning delicacy. Some of the ingredients at his disposal are tried and true, as 10 players return from the 2006 Lady Flames squad, which finished third in the Big South Conference regular-season standings. In addition, five new spices will enter the equation this season in the form of an extremely promising yet unproven crop of newcomers.
Pinder's primary objective is to meld this collection of talents into a champion and unseat five-time defending conference titlist Winthrop in the process. One thing Liberty does have going for it is the fact that the 2007 Big South Volleyball Championship will take place at the Vines Center for the first time since 2001. Incidentally, the 2001 Lady Flames captured their most recent Big South title on their home court, and the 2007 Liberty team hopes history repeats itself.
Despite the Lady Flames' in-season conference success of a season ago, the team's stay in the Big South Championship did not last long. Liberty, seeded third, was upset at home by sixth-seeded Coastal Carolina in the opening round of the tournament, providing an extra bit of motivation for the 2007 season.
"Our players are hungry," explained Pinder. "They are upset we didn't win that first-round match last year. We have a lot of experience back from that team and chose four primary areas we wanted to address in our recruiting.
"First, we wanted to improve our ball control," Pinder continued. "We also wanted to increase our size at the net and become more physical there. Third, we wanted to become a tougher serving team as a whole. Finally, we wanted to increase our athleticism."
Pinder believes his five newcomers—5-6 freshman outside hitter/defensive specialist Karyl Bacon, 6-2 sophomore middle blocker Chelaine McCarty, a transfer from Auburn, 6-1 freshman outside hitter Nicki Scripko, 5-7 freshman defensive specialist/libero Rebecca Waneka and 5-6 freshman setter Olivia Willats—will combine to bolster the Lady Flames in each of those four areas, this coming season and beyond.
Add the potential of the incoming class to returnees like 5-7 senior defensive specialist/libero Lara Bartolomeo, 6-0 senior right-side hitter Mary Alice Pike and 5-9 sophomore setter Kallie Corbin, a member of the Big South Preseason All-Conference team, and it's easy to see why the Lady Flames have been picked second behind Winthrop in the preseason conference poll.
"With higher expectations comes a higher level of responsibility," cautioned Pinder. "We need to focus on getting better each day, need to build up our team chemistry between the returnees and newcomers and need to stay healthy. If we can do all of those things, we hope to be in a position to make a run down the stretch."
A position-by-position look at the 2007 Lady Flames follows:
Similar to the quarterback in football and the point guard on the hardwood, the setter is the primary playmaker of a volleyball team, orchestrating the offensive attack. Pinder's Lady Flames are fortunate to have a very good one in Corbin, who is coming off a season which saw her win the Big South Freshman of the Year and VaSID State Rookie of the Year awards. Don't expect Corbin to rest on her laurels this season, though.
"Kallie is very self-motivated," stated Pinder. "I don't have to push her. She works harder than anyone in the gym and expects more out of herself than even I do. We expect great things out of her this season."
One of Corbin's strengths lies in her versatility as a volleyball player. Not only can she set the ball, but she also led the Big South with 52 aces and ranked second on the team in both digs (376) and blocks (68) a year ago. The Oregon native tied for fourth in the nation with four triple-doubles. Her numbers should only increase in 2007, for several reasons.
"With a year of experience under her belt, Kallie has gained more command of our offense and has increased her confidence," said Pinder. "She also has some new offensive weapons to work with this season, and our attack should be faster and more difficult to stop."
One year ago at this time, Corbin was herself learning the game and tempo of collegiate volleyball. This time around, she will be helping to teach Willats some of the same lessons, during the Sunshine State native's first season.
"Olivia is athletic," Pinder noted. "She's also a lefty and jumps well, which gives her the ability to score. She still has a lot to learn, but will be running our second-team offense in practice and may potentially fight for playing time as a defensive specialist as well."
Willats displayed her athleticism at The First Academy, playing basketball and running track in addition to playing volleyball throughout her high school career.
Bartolomeo, the Lady Flames' starting setter in 2005, gives Pinder another option at the position.
The Lady Flames' corps of outside hitters is headlined by a pair of juniors, one of whom has made a successful return from injury and another who is currently battling an injury of her own.
The former statement refers to 5-9 redshirt junior Jessica Nelson, who missed the entire 2006 campaign with a leg injury, but is back to 100 percent entering this season. She was Liberty's primary offensive threat during a breakout sophomore year in 2005, pacing the team and ranking fifth in the Big South with 393 kills. To Pinder, it looks like Nelson has not skipped a beat.
"Jess is one of our most athletic players and now has the spring back in her jump," explained Pinder. "We look for her to score a lot this season. She is also really hungry after having to sit out for a year. We expect Jess to take on a leadership role on this year's team."
The latter statement above describes 6-0 redshirt junior Alysson Sanders. The elder of a pair of sisters on the Lady Flames' roster, Sanders has been hampered by a leg injury of her own throughout preseason camp and her status for the beginning of the season is uncertain. When healthy, Sanders provides the Lady Flames another credible threat on the outside, as evidenced by her team-best 280 kills in 2006.
"Alysson came to camp in great physical shape," observed Pinder. "Hopefully we can get her back soon. She played all year for us last year on the outside and will give us much-needed depth at the position this season."
Recruited as a libero/defensive specialist, the diminutive yet explosive Bacon may instead begin her career as a Lady Flame on the outside, especially if Sanders' injury sidelines her for any length of time. Bacon possesses the highest vertical leap of anyone on the roster and has the athleticism to play outside hitter, despite her lack of size. She played outside hitter for her high school team at Temecula Valley High School.
"Karyl is an exceptional athlete," Pinder summarized. "She's been taking a lot of swings on the outside during camp, and I've been impressed. She's also a great defender. She can make plays no one else on our roster can make. Karyl has a great sense of the game and will be the heart and soul of our team."
While Bacon's talents and abilities will likely be on display for Liberty volleyball fans from day one, the Lady Flames' other highly touted freshman outside hitter, Scripko, is taking a bit longer to adjust to the collegiate game. She had surgery in November and has not played organized volleyball since earning third-team All-America distinction at Fayetteville Christian School in North Carolina.
"Nicki has a little ways to go physically," remarked Pinder. "She's just worn out right now. I'm excited about her potential. She's every bit of 6-1 and can play anywhere on the net. Nicki is the type of player who can take our program to the next level. She is going to be very tough for Big South teams to deal with."
First-team All-Big South selection Autum Black and Rachel Denton both graduated after last season, depleting the Lady Flames' roster at the middle blocker spot. Liberty's cupboard is hardly bare at the position in 2007, however.
Ashley Webber, a 6-1 junior, is the most experienced of the Lady Flames' returning middle blockers. One of a trio of California natives on the squad, she started eight times as a sophomore and ranked 10th in the conference with 0.91 blocks per game. After returning from injury, Webber was playing her best volleyball at the end of the year. She averaged 10.4 kills per match in the final four matches of the 2006 campaign and hopes to convey the success into her junior season.
"Ashley puts up a big, physical block," noted Pinder. "There were two or three times last season when she took over the net and turned the momentum of the match. She has also looked really good offensively during the preseason and appears ready to take over more of the offensive load for us."
McCarty is another player who is expected to make an immediate offensive impact. She only made two appearances at Auburn in 2006, but should exceed that number by the end of the season-opening Liberty Invitational Presented by Pepsi. A high school All-American, McCarty helped her squad win three-straight state titles and hopes to bring that winning attitude to the Lady Flames.
"I'm really excited about Chelaine," beamed Pinder. "She has a high volleyball lQ and will carry a large part of the offensive load from the beginning. Chelaine is a high-level kid who brings leadership ability by the way she plays. She will be a fun one to watch this year."
Kirstyn Sanders, a 6-0 redshirt freshman, will be looking for her first playing time in a Liberty uniform after sitting out her rookie year with an injury. The other half of the Lady Flames' sister act from Delaware, Sanders possesses the ability and versatility to play anywhere along the net if necessary. At present, she is trying to return to her level of play from before last season's injury.
"Kirstyn's still trying to get back into volleyball shape and is still getting over the fear of jumping," stated Pinder. "She will give us needed depth at middle blocker this season and can help our program out in the long term. She is a positive player and a very hard-working kid."
Pike, Liberty's incumbent at right-side hitter, is yet another player for whom health will be a concern. She has battled back ailments throughout most of her career. When healthy, the left-hander has shown the ability to solidify this position on the court for the Lady Flames, as evidenced by her Big South Player of the Week award from last season. Pinder is counting on a healthy Pike to make major contributions during her final year on campus.
"If she can stay healthy, Mary Alice can help us this year," said Pinder. "As a lefty, she attacks from different angles, giving her good scoring ability. She also brings a big block on the right side, going up against other teams' outside hitters."
If Pike is unable to play, Pinder has several alternatives waiting in the wings. Carmen Streeper, a local product, stands 5-11 and also swings left-handed. A walk-on, Streeper has worked hard the last two years and may be poised for a breakout year in 2007.
"Carmen is really putting pressure on our other right-side hitters," explained Pinder. "She is scoring well in camp and has gotten her jump back from before last season's injury. She works hard every day, is a positive kid and makes our program better."
Brittany Pacella, also a redshirt sophomore, stands 6-0 and is in her second year with the team after transferring from N.C. State. She saw limited playing time last season and is aiming to realize her considerable potential.
"Brittany has gotten into better shape over the summer and is starting to get her game back," Pinder remarked. "She's continuing to get her jumping ability back and is continuing to rebuild her confidence. When she gets there, she puts up a big block, has great hands and is a physical attacker at the net."
Kirstyn Sanders and Scripko may also see playing time on the right side this season.
In 2006, Bartolomeo wore the different-colored libero uniform in every game and excelled in the role. This season, though, she has company and competition at a position which is now one of the deeper spots on the team.
Bartolomeo, who has bounced back and forth between libero and setter at Liberty, found the libero spot to her liking a season ago, racking up 494 digs. The total ranked fourth in the Big South and fourth in program history. No Lady Flame had recorded as many digs since the 1993 season.
"We look for Lara to provide senior leadership on the back row and anchor our passing patterns," noted Pinder. "We expect her to have a great senior year. She does a great job of bringing positive energy to our back row."
Waneka is expected to push for playing time on defense as well. The walk-on from Colorado fit a couple of Pinder's recruiting objectives, as she is athletic and is a proficient passer.
"I fully expect Becca to help our program in the next four years," stated Pinder. "She provides a lot of energy, both on and off the court. She has great ball control and does a good job of getting us into our system. Becca also plays the back row like Kallie plays the front row, with her hustle and energy."
Rejoining the team for a second season after transferring from High Point is 5-2 redshirt sophomore Kristen Dalton. The native of North Carolina, who also throws the javelin for the Lady Flames' track & field team, did not see any action a season ago.
"Kristen has missed time in camp after having some off-season surgery and has a ways to go," said Pinder. "She is in great physical shape and works hard in the weight room. She just needs to continue to work to get better every day."
As previously mentioned, Bacon was recruited for her defensive abilities and will provide depth at the position.
The Lady Flames' 2007 season schedule works in Pinder's favor, as he seeks to mesh his returnees and newcomers as an effective unit. Non-conference foes like Maryland, James Madison and East Tennessee State will challenge Liberty, but the team will not have to face nationally ranked foes like Ohio and Washington right off the bat, as it did in 2006.
Liberty will play 16 matches at the Vines Center this season, if it reaches the Big South Championship title match. By contrast, the Lady Flames played only 10 home contests a season ago.
In addition to the Nov. 15-17 Big South Volleyball Championship, Liberty will kick off its season with the Liberty Invitational Presented by Pepsi, Aug. 24-25. Duquesne, Evansville and Howard will also compete in the event.
Speaking of the Big South, Liberty will both begin and end its slate of 12 conference matches against in-state rival Radford. The Lady Flames travel to Radford on Sept. 22 and host the Highlanders on Nov. 10.
The Lady Flames are slated to play at Winthrop on Sept. 29 and will battle the Eagles at home on Oct. 27. As alluded to above, Winthrop is the five-time defending conference champion and is favored to keep its string alive in 2007.
In a new schedule feature this season, Liberty will continue playing after the Big South Volleyball Championship has been completed, regardless of the outcome. The Lady Flames are scheduled to travel to VCU the day after Thanksgiving to battle Long Island and Georgetown.
Ideally, the late-November matches at VCU will serve as a tune-up for the NCAA Tournament, should the Lady Flames capture the fourth Big South title in program history. Such an accomplishment would be icing on the cake for Pinder and the 2007 Liberty Lady Flames.