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A Fresh Perspective: 2008 Volleyball Outlook
The 2008 Liberty volleyball team chose a unique location for its annual team photograph, the gazebo above the "LU" monogram, overlooking campus. For many of the players and coaches, it was their first visit to the increasingly popular location. Before taking their places for the photo, the Lady Flames took a few minutes to marvel at the breathtaking view of familiar campus landmarks like the Vines Center and DeMoss Hall, as well as the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. It's amazing what a little change in perspective can do.
The Lady Flames are also approaching the upcoming volleyball season with a different perspective. For the past five years, Liberty and the other Big South Conference squads had aimed to unseat Winthrop as the conference's team to beat. After capturing its first conference title since 2001, the Lady Flames now enter the season with a bull's eye on their backs, as they seek the first back-to-back Big South championships in program history.
"I'm excited about this season," stated Shane Pinder, beginning his fifth season as Lady Flames head coach. "We're not thinking so much about defending the conference title, though. That's in the past. Instead, we are just focusing on winning this year's conference championship."
Liberty appears well-equipped to do just that. Starting libero Lara Bartolomeo graduated from last year's squad, but Pinder's other six starters are back in 2008. Leading the way are first-team All-Big South honorees Kallie Corbin, a junior setter, and Nicki Scripko, a sophomore outside hitter, and second-team all-conference pick Chelaine McCarty, a junior middle blocker.
Repeating as Big South Conference champions alone does not seem like it will satisfy this year's team. The Lady Flames experienced another significant perspective change when they took a game from California, a Final Four qualifier, in the opening round of last year's NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship.
"The Cal match springboarded our team into a different mindset," explained Pinder, who swept the Big South and Virginia Sports Information Directors (VaSID) Coach of the Year distinctions in 2007. "They saw we can play with teams at that level, and that match gave us a different level of energy. Our team wants to win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament now, and not just capture a conference title."
How is Pinder preparing his team to achieve such lofty goals? First, he recruited a group of six newcomers to push the incumbents for playing time and to help fill the vacancy created by Bartolomeo's graduation. The freshmen include 5-8 setter Courtney Boggs, 6-1 right-side hitter Claire Jacobsma and a quartet of defensive specialists—5-10 Jordan Barlow, 5-6 Courtney Cooper, 5-8 Kelly Haseman and 5-11 Rebecca Warren.
Pinder has also noticeably ramped up the Lady Flames' non-conference strength of schedule this season. Liberty will square off with a pair of 2007 NCAA Tournament qualifiers in Kansas State and Northern Iowa, traditional volleyball powers Notre Dame and UC Irvine and ACC foes Maryland and N.C. State during the season's first four weekends. Pinder's hope is that running his team through such a gauntlet will better prepare the Lady Flames for the Big South Conference schedule and a possible NCAA Tournament contest.
A position-by-position preview of the 2008 Lady Flames follows.
If a sophomore slump actually exists, Corbin successfully avoided it in 2007. The 2006 Big South Freshman of the Year, Corbin's sophomore year included the Big South Championship MVP award and a CVU.com National Player of the Week nod, just to name a couple of her most prestigious honors. Last season, the Oregon native paced the Big South with 1,625 assists and ranked second in the conference with 49 assists. She also directed a Liberty offense which hit .232, setting a new program NCAA Division I standard. Corbin, who has started every match at setter during her first two seasons at Liberty, appears poised to continue her stellar play in 2008.
"Kallie had a great sophomore season for us," said Pinder. "She possesses a great deal of consistency, court presence and maturity. Kallie is also a competitor and a winner who never backs down. She goes into every match with the expectation of winning."
Corbin will have a very capable understudy this season in freshman Boggs. A highly-decorated high school player at Worthington Christian in Ohio, Boggs can play a number of positions. Even though she was recruited as a setter, she racked up more than 1,000 kills during her high school volleyball career.
"Courtney is a winner, a competitor and a playmaker," Pinder remarked. "She could run our offense the day she walked in, and has the ability to direct a fast-tempo offensive attack. Courtney may see some time as a defensive specialist to begin the year, because we need to get her on the court somehow."
Outside hitter is arguably the Lady Flames' deepest position entering the year. Jessica Nelson, one of two seniors on the Liberty roster, and sophomore Karyl Bacon are the returning starters from 2007. Joining them will be reigning Big South Freshman of the Year Scripko, who makes the move across the court from right-side hitter.
Nelson is back for her fifth season with the Lady Flames. She sat out the 2006 campaign due to a leg injury, but made a successful return to the lineup a season ago. Nelson led the squad with 405 kills, but defense may be the most valuable asset she provides. The senior ranked sixth in the Big South with 524 digs last season, the most by a Lady Flame since 1992. She notched 27 digs in Liberty's Big South Championship title game sweep of Winthrop, earning all-tournament team accolades.
"Jess is one of the best passers on our team," noted Pinder. "She is also one of our best one-on-one blockers. I look for her to be an exciting attacker this year, and her leadership will also be important for our team."
Scripko got better and better as her freshman season wore on, in 2007. She especially terrorized Big South opponents, ranking second in both attack percentage (.343) and kills per game (4.26 kpg) in conference-only matches. By season's end, she had established herself as one of the top rookies in the nation, as Scripko was one of only nine freshmen included on the AVCA all-region lists. This season, she will play outside hitter, in an effort to give her more attack opportunities.
"Nicki is arguably our best attacker, and she will get a lot more swings playing outside hitter. Games are won and lost on the outside," explained Pinder about the position switch. "She's also a good left-side defender and gives us a nice back row attack option."
Classmate Bacon gives Pinder another dual offensive/defensive threat. She was recruited as a defensive specialist, but turned out to be one of the team's best attackers, despite her 5-6 height. The Big South Freshman of the Week on Aug. 27, Bacon owns the highest vertical jump on the Liberty roster, topping out over 30 inches. As a result, she recorded 225 kills as a freshman outside hitter, and the California native also ranked eighth in the conference with 435 digs.
"Karyl is an explosive attacker whose athleticism plays right into our offense," said Pinder. "She's also a playmaker on defense. She goes from sideline to sideline, making a ton of plays. Karyl may see some time at libero as well as attacking this season."
The Lady Flames' other senior, Ashley Webber flourished during her first full season as a starter at the middle blocker spot. She ranked No. 3 in the Big South with 128 blocks and was No. 5 in the conference with a career-best .293 attack percentage. Her block total was the highest by a Liberty player since the 1997 campaign.
"Ashley brings a big, physical block and is a major presence at the net. She alters teams' attack," stated Pinder. "She really turned it on offensively last year as well, becoming a very consistent threat. I expect her to take another offensive step forward this season and take more swings."
McCarty excelled at the middle blocker position in 2007, after transferring from Auburn. Her .328 attack percentage sat third on the Big South leaderboard, but her consistency was her most impressive attribute. Now a junior, McCarty hit .300 or higher in 18 out of 19 matches during one stretch a year ago.
"Chelaine is a really fast middle who is great on slide plays," noted Pinder. "She is a consistent, physical attacker. Night in and night out, you know what you're going to get from her."
Redshirt sophomore Kirstyn Sanders provides depth at the middle blocker spot. The 2007 season marked her return from an injury which wiped out her freshman campaign.
"Kirstyn puts up a very big block," Pinder explained. "That's the best thing she does for us right now. She's still trying to build some confidence back after her injury."
Scripko's move to outside hitter has opened the door for a new face to grab a starting position on the right side of the net. The three leading candidates are all left-handed swingers—redshirt juniors Brittany Pacella and Carmen Streeper and incoming freshman Claire Jacobsma.
"It will come down to whoever's most consistent and most efficient at this position," stated Pinder. "That's who is going to play on the right side for us."
Pacella transferred to Liberty from N.C. State prior to the 2006 season. Like a number of the Lady Flames, she has been forced to deal with several nagging injuries. Pacella is healthy now, however, and has been playing the best volleyball of her career during the preseason.
"It's like Brittany is a completely different player out there this year," observed Pinder. "Her attacking has been really physical, and she puts up a big block on the right side. I've been very pleased with what I've seen from Brittany. She's hungry going into this season."
Streeper is also fighting for the first extensive playing time of her career. The local product from Rustburg, Va., possesses a solid jump serve and an explosive attack.
"Carmen has worked hard all offseason," said Pinder. "She's a really athletic player who has been swinging well in practice. She has developed well over the last couple years."
Jacobsma comes to the Lady Flames from Midland Christian School in Texas, after helping her team record 32 wins her senior year. Standing 6-1, she is the tallest of the Lady Flames' right-side hitter trio.
"Claire is a physical player who has a big block," stated Pinder. "In time, she will be a really good player. She's still learning our system, though. Once she does, there's a good chance you will see her on the floor, probably by mid-year."
Like the right-side hitter position, the libero spot has featured an open competition for playing time during the preseason. Any one of seven players could see time at the spot. Barlow, Cooper, Haseman and Warren were all recruited to be defensive specialists. Meanwhile, Bacon and Nelson were among the conference's top eight in digs a season ago, while Scripko saw time at libero during the spring season.
Haseman, who was an honorable mention all-state selection as a senior at Kalamazoo Christian High School, has enjoyed a solid preseason.
"Kelly came to us as a walk-on, and now finds herself competing for a starting spot as libero," noted Pinder. "She's a really good serve receive passer. She is quick to the ball and puts great touch on the ball."
Barlow grew up in Asheville, N.C., the home of Big South rival UNC Asheville. However, the four-time state volleyball champion at Asheville Christian Academy chose to join the Lady Flames' roster.
"Jordan's an athletic player," Pinder stated. "She is a good defensive player who keeps improving. Right now, she's really helping us on the second team in practice."
The third member of Liberty's freshman defensive specialist trio, Warren hails from Virginia Beach. A two-time all-state performer, she possesses a dangerous jump serve.
"The best thing Becca's doing right now is jump serving," explained Pinder. "She can get on some nice serving runs. That is her best chance to find time on the court right away."
Cooper did not have to travel far to join the Lady Flames this fall, as she graduated from Liberty Christian Academy, where she helped the Bulldog volleyball team capture two state championships.
"Courtney came to us as a walk-on this fall," noted Pinder. "She is a defensive specialist with good passing ability. She also has good volleyball instincts."
As previously mentioned, the Lady Flames will face one of the most ambitious non-conference schedules in program history, which begins Aug. 29-30 with the VCU Third Degree Sportswear Invitational. Liberty will play a pair of ACC squads—N.C. State and Maryland—at the event.
Two weeks later, the Lady Flames will fly to Manhattan, Kan., for the Varney's Kansas State Invitational. On the second day of the tournament, Sept. 13, Liberty is slated to play 2007 NCAA Tournament qualifier Northern Iowa and the host Wildcats, ranked No. 14 nationally to open the season.
Liberty does not get a respite from the tough competition the following weekend, at Notre Dame's Golden Dome Invitational. The Sept. 19-21 event will see the Lady Flames match up with the Fighting Irish, 2007 MAC West Division champion Western Michigan and Big West power UC Irvine.
The Lady Flames will then open their 16-match Big South schedule Sept. 26-27, with the annual beach trip to Charleston Southern and Coastal Carolina. Liberty has never played 16 Big South contests in a season before. The conference schedule is expanded due to the addition of Gardner-Webb and Presbyterian.
Gardner-Webb, coached by former Liberty head coach Chris Phillips, joins the Big South Conference as a full member this season, after departing the Atlantic Sun Conference. Presbyterian, in transition from NCAA Division II to Division I, will not be eligible for the 2008 Big South Volleyball Champoinship, but its matches will count in the regular-season conference standings.
Liberty, which attracted the two biggest volleyball crowds in Big South Conference history to the Vines Center in 2007, will play only nine home tilts this season. The Lady Flames' first 15 matches will be played away from Lynchburg, before they open the home schedule Sept. 30 against VCU.
The Liberty versus Winthrop contests will certainly be highly anticipated this year, after the Lady Flames halted the Eagles' 63-match Big South winning streak and defeated Winthrop in the Big South Championship title match a year ago. The Lady Flames travel to Rock Hill, S.C., to battle the Eagles on Oct. 17. Winthrop will then return for the final contest of the regular season, Nov. 15 at the Vines Center.
The Justice Center, on the campus of UNC Asheville in Asheville, N.C., will host the 2008 Big South Volleyball Championship. The eight-team, three-day event is slated for Nov. 20-22. The conference champion will earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship, which begins Dec. 4-6 with opening-round tilts.