The Lady Flames return five starters from last year's Big South champion team.
The two-time defending Big South tournament champion Liberty volleyball team aims for another successful campaign in 2013. The Lady Flames field a veteran team, which boasts five returning starters, three all-conference players and seven players with NCAA Tournament experience. Once again, Liberty is the preseason favorite to win the Big South volleyball title, as voted on by the league's head coaches. It marks the ninth time overall, and third year in a row, in which the Lady Flames enter a campaign as the No. 1 team in the Big South preseason coaches' poll. Redshirt sophomore Caroline Douglas was named Big South Preseason Player of the Year. Last season, Douglas became the first volleyball student-athlete to be voted Big South Player of the Year and Big South Freshman of the Year during the same campaign. Senior setter Jade Craycraft, a three-time all-conference setter and 2012 Big South Tournament MVP, was tabbed to the Preseason All-Big South team. Liberty also returns two-time All-Big South player in senior outside hitter Lillie Happel. "We're excited about the season," said 10th-year head coach Shane Pinder. "We have some veteran players in the gym, one of the more veteran teams we've had in a long time, with four seniors. We have a lot of experience there. It's all going to start with their leadership and the tone that they set every day." Liberty continued its recent run of success in 2012, going 25-8, including 12-2 in Big South play to earn its sixth straight Big South regular-season title. In the process, the Lady Flames went 9-0 at home, dropping just one set at the Vines Center while extending their home winning streak to 14. The team has now won 20 or more matches in each of the last six seasons. The Lady Flames advanced to the 2012 NCAA Division I Women's Volleyball Championship, competing against national No. 8 seed Minnesota in the first round. Despite falling, 3-0, Liberty took the Golden Gophers to the limit in set three, a 34-32 marathon. This year's schedule opens against No. 23 Ohio State on Friday, providing an early test in a challenging non-conference schedule. Overall, Liberty will face three NCAA Tournament qualifiers (Ohio State, Kentucky, East Tennessee State), seven 20-win teams and one conference regular-season champion. The Lady Flames will compete in tournaments at Northern Illinois, Kentucky, Duke and West Virginia, providing strong preparation for conference play. "We want to put ourselves in positions to be challenged and to potentially do things that have never been done in the history of the program," Pinder said. "Unless you go out there and challenge it, you never know. We're excited about the challenges on this year's schedule." The conference portion of the schedule opens on Sept. 27 at Radford, while the Lady Flames host Coastal Carolina on Oct. 19, a rematch of the 2012 Big South Volleyball Championship final. "It's an exciting conference schedule," Pinder added. "It's one that has a lot of challenges for us. I think we have the pieces to the puzzle to be successful night in and night out, but that's not guaranteed, because at the end of the day, everybody is giving us their best shot. I believe our league as a whole is getting better." The 2013 Big South Volleyball Championship will be hosted by Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., Nov. 21-24. The winner of the conference tournament receives the Big South's automatic qualifying bid to the 2013 NCAA Division I Women's Volleyball Championship. A position by position preview follows.
Setter Jade Craycraft, a three-time all-conference setter, returns to handle the setting duties as a senior. She was named the 2012 Big South Tournament MVP, in addition to first-team mention by VaSID and the Big South. She led the team with 1,152 assists and 11 double-doubles in 2012, while guiding the Lady Flames to a program-best .250 team hitting percentage. "Jade has started since the day she came in the door, so we have a lot of experience in that position," Pinder noted. "She's put a lot of hard work into this program. Her command of the offense has gotten better every year, so I expect us to have our best offensive numbers this year since she's been here." Sophomore Caila Stapleton enters the season as Craycraft's backup after competing in six sets last season. Against VCU, she posted a team-leading 22 assists, in addition to five kills and one block. "Caila is a player with good size, at about six-foot, with really good hands," said Pinder. "She's a very deceptive setter. She has a pretty good-sized block. She has to take this year and get better each day, and get ready for her opportunity."
Outside Hitter The Lady Flames boast two of the top outside hitters in the conference, in 2012 Big South Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year Caroline Douglas and two-time all-conference selection Lillie Happel. Sophomore Haley Jeffcoat also returns, and will look to challenge for time on the outside. In addition to her Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year honors in 2012, Douglas was named to the AVCA All-Region honorable mention squad as a redshirt freshman. She led the conference in kills overall (3.69 kps) and in conference play (4.18). Her .281 hitting percentage ranked first among Big South outside hitters last season. Douglas recorded 27 10-kill matches and two 20-kill matches last year. "Caroline is a very physical attacker," Pinder said. "We're excited about her, because, last year being her first full-time role in that position, she led the conference in kills. She has the ability to score a lot of points for our offense and get us out of a lot of situations." Happel earned Big South All-Conference second-team mention as a junior last year, after making the first team in 2011. She finished 2012 ranked seventh in the Big South in kills during conference play. She sent down a career-high 26 kills at Radford, tying Douglas for the most kills by a Big South player last season. Happel is currently 54 kills away from becoming the 14th player in program history with 1,000 career kills. "Lillie Happel is a four-year starter, who had some injuries which she has had to fight through, especially last year, to get back on the floor. She's been in a lot of big matches, and we're going to call on that experience this year in big moments." Jeffcoat competed in 31 sets as a true freshman last season, making three starts. She set a career high with eight kills against Saint Francis (Pa.), hitting .333 during the victory. "Haley is a little undersized in the position, about 5-9 or so, but she has a really good jump," Pinder said. "She is a great serve-receive passer, defender and a deceptive attacker. She is committed to the daily process."
Middle Blocker In the middle, the Lady Flames will have to fill in for graduated senior and three-time all-conference selection Loren Thomas. Liberty has a pair of returning players who have seen extensive time at middle blocker, in redshirt senior Kendle Rollins and junior Melissa Racz. Joining them will be a pair of freshmen, Susan Babcock and Nzea McQuitery. Rollins has been a strong presence at the net during her first three years at Liberty, averaging 0.99 blocks per set for her career while also attacking at a .297 pace. After injuries shortened her 2011 season, she started all 33 matches last season, finishing second on the team with 123 blocks. She is currently ranked eighth in program history with 310 career blocks. "Kendle brings speed to the position," said Pinder. "If we can pass the ball well enough, stay in system enough, she becomes really effective, because it's hard to close on her in the seams. She's usually one of the top blockers on our team, and also in the league." Racz has spent time at both middle blocker and right-side hitter while competing for the Lady Flames. After appearing in all 117 sets and making 25 starts as a freshman, injuries derailed her sophomore campaign. She played in 36 sets last year, and hit .308 during Liberty's three-match run to the Big South Volleyball Championship title. "Melissa has played both positions, more right side for us because she's really good off of one foot," Pinder noted. "She's a great slide attacker. She presents issues when we start stacking patterns, and we can run her on quick plays behind, which is probably her best ball. She is a really good blocker on the right side as well." Babcock joins the Lady Flames from Ronald Reagan High School in Pfafftown, N.C., after being named CAP-8 Player of the Year as a senior. As a senior, Babcock played for Triangle Club's top team. "Susan has great lateral movement for her size," Pinder said. "She has a high volleyball IQ. She's a very committed athlete who is going to work hard. I think she has the potential to come in and fight for time immediately." McQuitery competed at Sanderson High School in Raleigh, N.C. She was a CAP-8 All-Conference selection as both a junior and senior, and played for both the CCVC Club and Club Red. "Nzea is very athletic, with long arms," Pinder said. "Once she learns how to best use her size and speed, she has the potential to be very good. She reaches high, has a good jump, and is very fast at pin-to-pin blocking."
Right-Side Hitter Sophomore Monica Johnson and junior Melissa Racz appear to be the top options to take the right-side hitter position. Johnson appeared in 57 sets as a freshman last season, gaining valuable experience on the right side. She tallied career highs of 11 kills and six blocks during a win at Charleston Southern on Oct. 12, before hitting .312 with seven kills at Coastal Carolina to be named Big South Volleyball Freshman of the Week. "Monica is a right-side attacker, a lefty, which is nice on that on that right side," Pinder added. "She's our highest jumper in the weight room, and plays high at the net. She's a very physical right-side blocker with big hands. She's one of our stronger players in the weight room. She has a big upside." Racz, who is also a candidate for the middle blocker position, has spent time on the right side during her career. She has posted some of her top performances late in the season and during the postseason.
Libero/Defensive Specialist The Lady Flames field a deep and talented group of back-row specialists, including senior Becca Haraf, junior Gabrielle Shipe, sophomores Allie Reynolds and Rachel Smoltz, along with freshman Kate Corson. Shipe served as Liberty's starting libero last season, leading the team and finishing fourth in the Big South with 510 digs. She was twice named the Big South Defensive Player of the Week in 2012, and averaged 4.51 digs per set during conference play. She reached double-figures in digs 25 times, including in each of the last 13 matches of the season. "We're excited about this year with Gabby's experience, and having that year at libero in under her belt," said Pinder. "She's a really good serve-receive passer, and a great defender. Gabby is just a playmaker, and has a knack to just be in the right spots. She brings a ton of energy to the floor." Haraf was voted the 2012 Big South Volleyball Co-Scholar-Athlete of the Year, and was also named to the VaSID Academic All-State team. She competed in 120 sets, ranking seventh in the Big South with 0.33 aces per set. Haraf finished fourth on the team with 235 digs, recording nine 10-dig matches. "Becca is a great serve-receive passer," Pinder said. "She brings a lot of stability to that back row. She's a really good defender, reads really well in terms of behind the block. She's one of those players that, as the games get bigger, tends to start making more plays and gets a lot of touches." Reynolds made 11 starts as defensive specialist during her freshman campaign in 2012, and placed sixth on the team in digs with 71. She collected a career-high 14 digs at UNC Asheville, and started seven matches in a row during October. "Allie is a very athletic player, with pretty good footwork," Pinder said. "She is very physical in the weight room. She is a very flexible student-athlete, so she has the ability to have great range of motion and go make plays. Again, she's someone who works extremely hard." Smoltz joined the Lady Flames' team last season as a freshman out of King's Ridge Christian School in Alpharetta, Ga. An all-state player and school record holder in high school, she did not see match action in 2012. "Rachel came into our program last year, had a great fall campaign, but got an injury in the spring," Pinder said. "She is someone who just wants to get better. She adds a lot of value to what we do." Corson, a freshman libero/defensive specialist from Gloucester, Va., and Christchurch School, was twice named Virginia Commonwealth Conference Player of the Year while in high school. "Kate has a great serve-receive platform, and has great defensive instincts, in terms of reading the ball and being in position," Pinder added. "She has really good range of motion, and can take up space and make plays."
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