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2012 Liberty Volleyball Season Outlook
The Liberty volleyball team enters the 2012 campaign as the defending Big South champion for the sixth time in program history. With a deep roster that features six returning starters and seven true freshmen, the Lady Flames appear poised to challenge for another conference title.
For the eighth year overall, and second in a row, the Lady Flames were predicted as league favorites in the Big South preseason coaches' poll. Additionally, senior middle blocker Loren Thomas was named Big South Preseason Player of the Year and was joined on the Preseason All-Big South team by junior outside hitter Lillie Happel. Thomas and Happel were first-team all-conference selections last year, while Thomas was tabbed Big South Tournament MVP. Junior setter Jade Craycraft is a two-time returning second-team All-Big South member.
Last year, the team posted its fifth straight 20-win season, going 20-13, and notched a 12-2 Big South record to earn a share of its fifth consecutive regular-season conference championship. The Lady Flames downed Radford in the Big South Championship final, claiming the program's conference-record sixth title, and first since 2008.
"We have a lot of players with talent and experience, but we still have a young team as a whole," ninth-year head coach Shane Pinder said. "This group is hungry. They're very focused and know what they want to do. There's a lot of work between now and the Big South Championship. The only thing that we can do is control the controllables, and that's taking care of business each day."
Liberty made a return to the NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship in 2011, meeting four-time defending national champion Penn State in the first round.
The Vines Center continued to be a tough venue for visiting teams, as Liberty went 9-1 in home matches last year. The team also won all six of its five-set matches during the 2011 season.
The Lady Flames' seven true freshmen are the team's most since 1993, when Liberty volleyball welcomed seven freshmen to the team.
"The young class is really a very competitive and talented class," Coach Pinder said. "It's really going to not only bring us depth, but also bring competition and help every day in terms of practice and preparation."
A position-by-position preview follows.
Jade Craycraft enters her junior year as a two-time all-conference setter, as she has started since joining the Lady Flames in 2010. The 2010 Big South Freshman of the Year fashioned a strong sophomore campaign, leading the team in assists and finishing second in blocks while posting seven double-doubles.
"Jade has a ton of experience, and is getting better in terms of the way she runs our offense and her decision making," Pinder said. "I expect her to run a really fast offense, a really dynamic offense, and she has all of the tools to do it. Something that sets her apart is her competitive drive."
Redshirt junior Lauren Bosché will once again provide depth to the Lady Flames at setter, returning for a third year in a backup role.
"Lauren is very athletic, and does a tremendous job of running our second team," Pinder said. "She makes that team very competitive every day."
Freshman Caila Stapleton, a two-time Florida 1A state champion at Warner Christian Academy, brings additional size to the setter position, standing 6-0 tall.
"Caila has very good hands and a quick release. She is a very deceptive setter," Pinder noted. "She has a great presence out there and great composure."
The coaching staff has several strong options at outside hitter. Junior Lillie Happel has started each of the last two seasons, while Ansley Gebben spent her freshman year as a starter. Redshirt freshman Caroline Douglas and freshman Haley Jeffcoat seem ready to challenge for playing time as well.
Happel was named to the Big South All-Conference first team last season, leading the team with 396 kills, 36 service aces and 12 double-doubles. She recorded three 20-kill matches in 2011, and was a Big South All-Tournament Team member after helping lead the Lady Flames to the conference title.
"In terms of an attacker, Lillie brings a ton of confidence and experience to the position," added Pinder. "We're expecting her to come in and lead like usual. She brings us tremendous stability out there when she's on the floor."
Gebben started from day one as a freshman last season, and finished third on the team with 218 kills and 65 blocks. She posted a season-high 15 kills and six blocks in a key conference win at Winthrop.
"Ansley is a phenomenal athlete, is very quick and jumps really well," Pinder said. "She got thrown into the fire as a freshman, and had to carry a pretty big load. But she got through that and really got better as the season went on."
Douglas, a native of Greenville, N.C., enters her first season on the court after sitting out 2011 with an injury. A two-time conference player of the year in high school, she was tabbed a Prep Volleyball All-American in 2008 and 2009.
"Caroline is probably the most physical attacker on the roster," Pinder noted. "She jumps really well, and has great vision for a young player. She's very talented, and we're excited that she's going to be able to play this year."
Jeffcoat was a three-time WVCA All-State team member, including first-team accolades in 2010 and 2011. She helped lead Saint Catherine's to a 43-0 Wisconsin state championship season as a junior.
"Haley is a six-rotation player, and is a very determined competitor," Pinder said. "She's a player who just finds a way to make plays. She has great vision, makes great shots and is a great defender."
Three players, redshirt junior Erica Manor, along with freshmen Kimberlyn Schindler and Brooke Schneider, can play either outside or right side for the Lady Flames. Freshman Rachel Smoltz is an outside hitter who will also be looked at as a defensive specialist.
Schindler, a three-time VISAA All-State honoree at Denbigh Baptist High School, was the 2011 VISAA State Player of the Year. Her father, Steve, played soccer at Liberty in the 1980's.
"Kimberlyn has a heavy arm, and is a six-rotation player," added Pinder. "She is very athletic, and moves well. She has bought into our vision here and wants to be a part of our program."
Schneider, a native of Winchester, Va., helped lead Sherando High School to four straight district titles and was a first-team all-district and all-area selection.
"Brooke is a very versatile player, has good size and jumps well," noted Pinder. "She's a great fit in our program, and will help us to get better every day."
The Lady Flames led the Big South in blocking for the second year in a row in 2011, posting 2.44 blocks per set. Loren Thomas, Kendle Rollins and Melissa Racz proved to be a formidable trio at the net, and all three players return in 2012.
Thomas had a standout season, earning her second all-conference award with a first-team nod in 2011. She was also named Big South Tournament MVP. Thomas led the conference with a program rally-scoring record 155 blocks, and ranked 25th in the nation in blocking. She also ranked second on the team with 269 kills and a .268 attack percentage.
"Loren is our biggest player on the floor," Pinder said. "She brings a dynamic jump, probably the top jump on our team. She's one of the key players on our team that will set the tone every night for us."
Kendle Rollins returns as a redshirt junior, and led the Lady Flames with a .343 hitting percentage in 2011 despite missing 13 matches due to injury. Liberty's leading blocker in 2010, she posted a 1.05 blocks per set average last season, good for second on the team.
"Kendle is a great attacker off the block and has great vision," Pinder added. "It was proof when she sat out about six or seven weeks last year and came back for the conference championship, how much she means to our offense."
Racz split time between middle and right side last season, filling in for Rollins during the middle of the year. She will likely play more on the right side this season.
Caroline Douglas is slotted to compete for an outside hitter position, but may also be an option in the middle this year.
Liberty has added talent and depth at the right side position, one that will be looked to for increased production after a solid showing last season.
Sophomore Melissa Racz started 25 matches as a freshman, splitting time between middle blocker and right side. She finished fourth on the team with 146 kills and 68 blocks. Racz posted double-digits in kills five times, including in each of the final three matches of the regular season.
"Melissa is going to be a great offensive weapon for us, and she has a great block on the right side," Pinder said. "She has great speed, and runs great off of one foot, on the slide attack, which is really hard to defend."
Erica Manor, a redshirt junior, started 19 matches as a redshirt freshman in 2010. Last season, she ranked third on the team with 0.62 blocks per set, and posted two six-block matches.
"We'll look at Erica on the pins, outside or right," Pinder noted. "In both positions, she brings us great size. She has a big block. That may be why she sees time on the right side, blocking against the opposing team's outsides."
Monica Johnson, a left-handed freshman from Niceville, Fla., will provide further competition at right-side hitter. She was a multiple-time all-area selection, and helped Niceville to a pair of district titles.
"Monica is a very dynamic athlete," Pinder added. "She's going to bring us great depth and I think she's going to challenge for time. She also can run first-tempo sets, which really pressures the opposing team."
Freshmen Kimberlyn Schindler and Brooke Schneider may also be options on the right side.
Kelly Haseman, a four-year starter at libero, graduated following the 2011 season as Liberty's all-time leader in career digs. This season, the Lady Flames will need to fill the libero position with a new player for the first time since 2008. Sophomore Gabrielle Shipe and junior Becca Haraf, along with freshman Allie Reynolds, will compete for time at libero and defensive specialist.
Shipe started her first career match at libero, before settling in as a defensive specialist (DS) and making 22 total starts in 2011. She ranked third on the team with 245 digs and 23 aces, and posted 10 digs in Liberty's Big South Championship final victory over Radford.
"Gabby Shipe is going to be battling for the libero position," noted Pinder. "She has great range of motion, and is a playmaker. She reads offenses really well to be as young as she is. I think she's really going to set the tone for our defense."
Becca Haraf competed in 111 sets last season, and ranked sixth on the team with 193 digs. She proved to be a dependable passer, with a .957 reception percentage. Strong at the service line, she finished fourth on the team with 21 aces, posting three three-ace matches.
"Becca has a great serve receive platform, and has really worked on her range of motion defensively," Pinder said. "She's another player that reads offenses really well, and has great natural instincts and a natural feel for the game back there."
Reynolds, a Locust Grove, Va., native, was a three-time all-district selection at Chancellor High School. She was named District Player of the Year a senior, helping her team to its fourth straight district title.
"Allie is a very flexible player; she's a gymnast," Pinder added. "She is very strong in the weight room. She can play sideline to sideline with her quickness. Her platform is very good; it's gotten a lot better in the last couple of years."
Freshman Rachel Smoltz comes to Liberty after serving as a four-year starter at King's Ridge Christian School. She was named to the Georgia All-State team as a senior, and holds her school's records in kills and aces. Smoltz is the daughter of former All-Star pitcher John Smoltz.
"Rachel is an outside hitter who potentially will maybe play more DS for us," Pinder said. "She's a pretty athletic player, who has a pretty good range of motion. She has a good serve receive platform."
Liberty's 2012 volleyball schedule features four tournaments, including matches against in-state ACC opponents Virginia and Virginia Tech. The Lady Flames will face three teams that finished the 2011 season with 20 or more wins, in Winthrop, James Madison and UCF.
The season opens for the Lady Flames on Aug. 24-25 with a trip to Durham for an invitational at North Carolina Central.
The Lady Flames open the home schedule by hosting Commonwealth foe William & Mary, Aug. 28 in the Vines Center.
The team travels to Orlando, Fla., where they will compete in a tournament at UCF, Aug. 31 and Sept. 1. High school teammates Thomas, Gebben and Shipe will get to play in their hometown, against UCF, Jacksonville and Columbia.
The schedule then takes the team to Ohio, the home state of Rollins and Craycraft, for the first time since 2007. Liberty heads to Kent on Sept. 7 and 8 to face Saint Francis (Pa.), Kent State and Marshall.
Liberty rounds out four weeks of tournaments with an invitational at Virginia. The Lady Flames meets two ACC foes, Virginia Tech and Virginia, on Sept. 15.
"In terms of our schedule, it's not quite as strong as last year's in terms of the ranking of some of the teams, but it's arguably still a very tough schedule," Pinder said. "We schedule tough to prepare for the conference and hopefully to prepare for postseason play if we're fortunate enough to get there. We face a couple of ACC opponents in Virginia and Virginia Tech. These non-conference matches will give us a gauge as to where we're at and where we need to go."
Liberty opens the conference schedule at home on Sept. 21 with Radford, in a rematch of the 2011 Big South Volleyball Championship final. James Madison will then visit the Vines Center, Sept. 25.
The Lady Flames will close out the regular season at home against Gardner-Webb, Nov. 10.
The 2012 Big South Volleyball Championship will be hosted by Gardner-Webb in Boiling Springs, N.C., Nov. 15-18. The winner of the conference tournament receives the Big South's automatic qualifying bid to the 2012 NCAA Division I Women's Volleyball Championship.