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2011 Liberty Volleyball Season Outlook
The future looks bright for the Liberty volleyball program, and the 2011 squad will feature a unique blend of youth and experience, as the Lady Flames aim for an unprecedented sixth Big South championship.
With the departure of only one senior, three-time all-conference outside hitter Karyl Bacon, Liberty returns six regular starters from last year's 25-9 club. Of those six returning starters, libero Kelly Haseman is the lone senior, showing promise for this season and years to come.
"We have a lot of experience," eighth-year head coach Shane Pinder said. "To be as young as we are, we've had some great experiences already. That encourages me; even though our team is young, we're experienced, and we're hungry."
Last year's squad went 14-2 during the conference schedule, claiming a record-tying fourth straight Big South regular-season title. The team came from behind to win a thrilling, 3-2 match over Winthrop in the Big South Championship semifinal to qualify for the final for the fourth year in a row. Liberty then fell to High Point in the championship match.
This year brings great expectations, both from within the team and from the conference, as Liberty looks to challenge for their first Big South tournament title since 2008. The Lady Flames have been predicted to win the Big South championship, and three Lady Flames (Haseman, junior Loren Thomas and sophomore Jade Craycraft) appear on the Preseason All-Big South team. Haseman, Thomas and Craycraft were named to the 2010 All-Big South second team, while Craycraft was honored as Big South Freshman of the Year.
"Our team has a challenge before we even step on the court this year," Pinder stated. "We've been picked number one, so before we even step on the floor, that challenge has been thrown at us. This group of players rises up to the challenges; they love challenges."
A position-by-position preview follows.
Sophomore Jade Craycraft fashioned a standout freshman campaign at the setter position, being named the Big South Freshman of the Year. The Wooster, Ohio native also claimed second-team all-conference honors and was named to the Big South All-Tournament team.
"Jade brings great size to the position in our league," Coach Pinder said. "She's a lefty, which allows her to turn and score and attack the ball, creating issues for opposing teams' defenses. We expect her to take another step in terms of leadership and growing into her position in terms of decision-making."
Courtney Boggs will compete for time as a setter during her senior campaign. The Marysville, Ohio product showed promise as a sophomore, leading the team in assists. She also posted a career-high 64 assists and 17 digs Nov. 17, 2008 vs. UNC Asheville.
"Courtney Boggs is a great setter; she brings a lot to our team in terms of her knowledge of the game and volleyball IQ," Coach Pinder stated. "She's going to be someone that we can call on in situations and she's just going to make our team better. She's a great leader and great competitor."
Redshirt sophomore Lauren Bosché provides depth to a strong roster at setter. Bosché performed well when called upon in 2010.
"Lauren again brings us great depth in the setter position," said Pinder. "She had a great spring and is really developing well. She's a very athletic, quick player, and she learns fast."
Competition is open for one outside hitter position, as the coaching staff looks to fill the space vacated by three-time all-conference member Karyl Bacon. Sophomore Lillie Happel should reclaim one starting position, while freshman Ansley Gebben is an early favorite to start at the other outside spot.
Happel stepped right in as a freshman and contributed a quality season on the outside in 2010. A Big South All-Freshman team member, Happel recorded a double-double in her first career match. Happel was second on the team in kills, and was named Big South Player of the Week Nov. 15.
"Lillie has all of the tools, all of the size and everything she needs to be great," Pinder said.
"She understands the game, and she makes great shots. She has great speed to the ball, and is a very physical attacker. I expect her to be one of the top outside hitters in the league this year."
Gebben brings an impressive resume to the table, as she was a member of three Florida 2A State championship teams at The First Academy, playing alongside current Lady Flames Loren Thomas and Gabrielle Shipe.
"We expect Ansley to come in and compete for a starting role out there from day one." Pinder said. "She brings great energy and great attitude to the floor; she's a great teammate. In terms of in attacking, we feel she is very explosive, with a very fast arm swing, and she's pretty physical for her size."
Kaylee Groeneveld enters her first season of match competition after a redshirt campaign in 2010. She was named first team all-county in 2008, after helping her Calvary Christian Academy team reach the regional final.
"Kaylee is a very physical attacker, and she's got a pretty good jump," Pinder said. "She hits a very heavy ball that she scores off the block well, which is great for an outside hitter. She got to start all spring, and played some great points for us."
Jeannette Larsen joins the team after playing two seasons at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif. She was named first-team all-conference following each of her two campaigns for the Giants.
"Jeannette really put up some nice numbers in junior college," Pinder said. "She's got a fast arm, a pretty good jump, and she's a very competitive player as well. It will be interesting to see how she develops."
The Lady Flames utilize their team size and athleticism in order to dominate the net, as the team led the conference in blocking last season. The middle blocker duo of Loren Thomas and Kendle Rollins proved very formidable, as both players posted 100 or more blocks while hitting around .300 as well.
A 2009 Big South All-Freshman team member, Thomas was named to the 2010 All-Big South second team. She led the team and ranked fourth in the Big South with a .309 attack percentage, hitting .360 during the conference season. Thomas placed second on the team with 105 total blocks.
"Loren has played strong for two years, putting up great numbers last year," Pinder said. "She was one of the top middles in the league in terms of efficiency and in terms of blocking. With her size, we want her to dominate the net. We're going to need her to step up and be a veteran player."
Kendle Rollins returns after a redshirt freshman campaign during which she led the team with 120 total blocks, the second most in a single season by a Liberty player in the rally-scoring era. Rollins ranked fifth in the Big South with a .299 overall attack percentage.
"That first year of sitting out and redshirting was a really big year for Kendle," Pinder said. "We feel like she has learned a lot; she had a lot of big matches last year as a freshman. She's a player that has a very fast arm swing. It's hard to defend because of how quick she runs plays, and she's a great blocker."
Melissa Racz will compete for time in the middle in addition to playing on the right side. The first Lady Flame since 1984 to hail from Minnesota, Racz was a four-time all-conference player at Apple Valley High School.
"Melissa is a very good blocker. She jumps well and plays high above the net," Pinder stated. "She can run a lot of middle plays, and we can also run her as a right-side attacker because of her ability to go off of one foot. She has a chance to compete for a starting spot on that right side immediately."
Caroline Douglas will redshirt the 2011 campaign as she recovers from injuries sustained during high school. Douglas, a Greenville, N.C., native, helped lead J.H. Rose High School to two North Carolina 4A state championships.
"Caroline is a very talented player," Pinder said. "We recruited her as a middle. She has an offensive game and she's a weapon out there when she's healthy and can play, because you're going to have to pay attention to her."
Erica Manor returns as the incumbent at right-side hitter, having started 19 matches as a redshirt freshman in 2010. She finished fifth on the team with 130 kills, and also ranked third on the club with 0.29 service aces per set.
"Erica has a very good jump; she blocks fairly high. She's a strong, physical player," Pinder stated. "Our league is kind of an outside hitter-dominant league, and we need somebody to be physical on the right side in terms of blocking. This spring, her game really came along; she's hitting down the line better."
Racz, a freshman, will compete for time on the right side as well as in the middle.
An outside hitter, Larsen will compete for the right-side hitter spot as well.
Haseman, a 2010 Big South All-Conference and VaSID All-State second team member, returns for her fourth season as Liberty's primary libero. She led the Big South and finished 32nd in the nation with 5.12 digs per set as a junior, posting a Liberty rally-scoring-record 653 digs last season.
"Kelly is one of the dig leaders in our program history," Pinder said. "She brings a lot of senior leadership. She's been in a lot of big-game situations. She makes a lot of plays back there, and she's right in our serve-receive pattern. She's one of our primary passers, and for Kelly it's her job to lose."
Becca Haraf played a reserve role in the back row as a freshman during the 2010 season, serving as one of five Lady Flames to post 100 or more digs. A skilled passer, Haraf finished the season second on the team with a .960 reception percentage.
"Becca brings great depth to our defensive positions," Pinder said. "She's a very gifted serve-receive passer. She was one of the top defensive players in the gym this past spring. She has great speed to the ball and a great platform once she gets there. Becca is a playmaker."
Courtney Cooper returns for her senior season, and will challenge for time as a defensive specialist/libero. A local product from Lynchburg Christian Academy, Cooper posted 111 digs during each of the last two seasons.
"Courtney is a great athlete in the weight room, very physically strong and gifted," Pinder said. "She's getting a lot more consistent in terms of serve-receive numbers. She's a player that comes out and competes to play, and is really sold out to the vision of the program."
Gabrielle Shipe enters the competition for time at defensive specialist/libero as a freshman. Shipe aided The First Academy to three Florida 2A state championships, playing alongside Ansley Gebben and Loren Thomas.
"Gabby Shipe is a small defensive player, very compact, very strong," Pinder said. "She's quick to the ball; she's another playmaker. In serve receive, she's got a great platform. She's an energy player; she has great energy on the court, great body language, and is a great teammate."
Rebecca Warren, a senior, brings versatility to the Lady Flames. The Virginia Beach, Va., native has played multiple positions during her career at Liberty. She has been very effective from the service line, and has posted 0.25 aces per set over the span of her time at Liberty.
"Becca Warren has been a great addition to our roster and really helps us in terms of buying into the mission and what we're trying to do here. She's got a great jump-serve; it creates a lot of problems for the opponent's serve-receive pattern."
The Lady Flames' non-conference schedule features matches against several challenging opponents.
Liberty will travel to play in the Bulldog Invitational at SEC foe Georgia to open the season. The Lady Flames will also play against Kansas and Florida A&M in Athens, Ga.
A mid-week match Aug. 31 pits the team against perennial top-25 program Oregon of the PAC-12 in Washington, D.C.
The Lady Flames play in an invitational at Western Michigan, in senior Kelly Haseman's home state. Liberty will face the host Broncos, and also Seton Hall and North Carolina.
Liberty will compete in a tournament at N.C. State Sept. 16 and 17, also facing Towson and The Citadel that weekend.
"When you look at some of those teams, you're talking about a really big challenge for this group. The first few weeks are going to be a test." Pinder said. "These matches against Georgia, Kansas, North Carolina kind of give us a gauge. I think if we can keep things in perspective, it will prepare us to hopefully make a championship run."
Mid-week matches against James Madison and VCU will serve as key tune-ups for conference play.
The 14-match conference slate opens Sept. 23 at Radford, with a match against UNC Asheville Sept. 30 serving as the conference home opener.
Nov. 5 will serve as the team's final home match, as the Lady Flames play host to High Point in a rematch of the 2010 Big South final.
The 2011 Big South Volleyball Championship will take place at CSU Field House, on the campus of Charleston Southern. The tournament, restructured into a four-day event scheduled for Nov. 17-20, will determine the Big South's automatic qualifier to the NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship.