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2006 Volleyball Preview

August 28, 2006  Lynchburg, Va.  RSS
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Sophomore outside hitter Kendall Nichols

Sophomore outside hitter Kendall Nichols

The Liberty volleyball team opens its 2006 season on Thursday, facing Portland at the Davidson Mizuno Wildcat Classic.  A season preview follows.

The 2006 Liberty University volleyball team is looking forward to getting onto the court and proving its critics wrong.  Many critics would be quick to forecast a rough season, pointing to the Lady Flames' 9-22 record a year ago, the fact that only two seniors are on the Liberty roster and the news that the team's top returning attacker, junior Jessica Nelson, will likely miss the season due to injury.

Third-year head coach Shane Pinder and his players have other ideas, though.  "Looking at our roster, we're still really young," Pinder observed.  "It's a process.  We've gotten better at some positions.  We're heading in the right direction.  I feel really positive about things."

Pinder is not the only conference coach who harbors such expectations for Liberty.  The Lady Flames were predicted to finish fourth in the Big South Conference in the preseason poll.

One of the key factors inspiring such optimism is the team's depth and experience at middle blocker.  Both of the team's seniors—Autum Black and Rachel Denton—started at the position in 2005 and are poised to lead the team to a successful 2006 campaign.  Black was nominated for the preseason All-Big South Team.

Complementing that experience is a high-quality incoming crop of five newcomers.  Highlighting the group are right-side hitter Brittany Pacella, a redshirt freshman transferring to Liberty from N.C. State and setter Kallie Corbin, an Oregon native.

Corbin in particular is projected to make an immediate impact for the Lady Flames with her setting ability, athleticism and floor leadership.  "If Kallie can come in and set for us, we can move Lara [Bartolomeo] back to libero," noted Pinder.  "If that happens, it will change the whole dynamic of our team."

Bartolomeo, Liberty's regular setter a year ago, was a member of the Big South All-Freshman Team in 2004 as a libero.  She has displayed the versatility to succeed in multiple roles and complement her teammates effectively.

Nelson's injury represents a bit of a setback to the Lady Flames.  She led the team in both kills (393) and service aces (34) a season ago and was the team's most consistent and potent attacker.

The cupboard is hardly bare at outside hitter though.  Sophomore Kendall Nichols, a member of the Big South All-Freshman Team and classmate Alysson Sanders, who came on strong at the end of the 2005 season, may be poised to step up in Nelson's absence.

Pinder also brought in an entirely new coaching staff for the coming season.  Jennifer Vaden is the new assistant coach, Becky Rudnick will serve as a graduate assistant and Johnathan Willis is Liberty's new volunteer assistant.  Vaden and Rudnick both played for Pinder two seasons ago and thus bring with them a familiarity of the Lady Flames' system and history.

Liberty's new faces in new places will be put to the test immediately at the August 31-September 2 Davidson Mizuno Wildcat Classic.  Included among the Lady Flames' quartet of matches that weekend are matchups with defending national champion Washington and 2005 Sweet 16 team Ohio.  Those tilts are part of a challenging non-conference schedule.

"We open up with a tough non-conference schedule, as usual," stated Pinder.  "We are hoping that competition will prepare us for conference play."

Below is a position-by-position breakdown of the Liberty 2006 roster.
Outside Hitter
As previously mentioned, junior Jessica Nelson was poised to anchor the outside hitter position this coming season.  She enjoyed a breakout year a season ago, ranking fifth in the conference with 3.61 kills per game.  Nelson also ranked second on the team with 313 digs and tallied 14 double-doubles.

In Nelson's absence, Kendall Nichols, a promising freshman a year ago, will be thrust into a major role.  Nichols was a part of the Lady Flames' starting lineup from day one and complemented Nelson on the outside nicely.  She ranked 10th among Big South players with 3.24 kills per game and was included on the Big South All-Freshman Team.

"We need her to play well for us to be successful," observed Pinder.  "She has the potential to be really explosive and carry our offense."

Redshirt sophomore Alysson Sanders will look to pick up where she left off at the end of the 2005 season.  She put together some of her most complete performances during the season's final two weeks, including a 14-kill showing at Radford and a pair of double-digit dig totals.

"She has really good ball control and hits a heavy ball," noted Pinder.  "We look for good things out of her the next couple years."
Middle Blockers
As mentioned previously, both starting middle blockers from last season return as seniors in 2006.

Autum Black has actually started at middle blocker for two seasons.  Last year, she led the team in attack percentage (.246), block solos (10), block assists (86) and total blocks (96).  She will be integral to the success of this year's team with her offensive ability, her blocking and her leadership.

"Autum came to Liberty as a walk-on but earned a scholarship because of her hard work and dedication," explained Pinder.  "She's a committed individual in all areas, both in the classroom and on the court.  With her experience, she brings us some steadiness on the court."

Rachel Denton, the tallest player on the Liberty roster at 6-2, excelled in her first full season as a starter in 2005.  She ranked second among Liberty players in block solos (8), block assists (66) and total blocks (74).  Denton contributed at least 10 kills and five blocks in the same match four times.

"She's been with me a couple years now and has a good understanding of our system," said Pinder.  "We need Rachel to be a presence and will look to her offensively.  She will provide leadership as a senior in close matches and can make plays for us."

Sophomore Ashley Webber, one of three California natives on the Liberty roster, will also push for playing time at middle blocker.  She displayed flashes of her potential a year ago, including an eight-block match at Davidson.  Webber enjoyed a great spring season and her future looks bright.

"Ashley has a big block, one of the biggest on the team," noted Pinder.  "She's coming into her own from an offensive standpoint.  She will fight for playing time at middle blocker this season."

Freshman Stephanie Stow is another promising option at the position.  She has played on some very successful club teams and brings some valuable experience with her to Liberty.

"She is athletic and has great speed for a player her height (6-1)," explained Pinder.  "Stephanie has all of the tools but still has a lot to learn at this level."

Freshman Kirstyn Sanders will add depth to the Lady Flames' roster at a number of positions.  The younger sister of Alysson Sanders, she is able to play right side, middle blocker and outside hitter.

"She is very athletic and has a big block," observed Pinder.  "Kirstyn has the potential to be a great player as she gets stronger and develops.  She is a great leader on the floor and is committed to the program."
Right-Side Hitter
Janell Migeot was the Lady Flames' top option on the right side a season ago, totaling 233 kills and 184 digs.  She has departed due to graduation, leaving junior Mary Alice Pike as the team's most experienced player at that spot on the floor.

Pike, who has dealt with a number of injuries throughout her career, was able to put together some of her best performances at the end of the 2005 season.  She posted a trio of double-digit kill contests during the final month of the campaign, highlighted by an 18-kill performance against UNC Greensboro.  Now 100 percent healthy, Pike appears poised for a big year.

"She provides a big spark on the court," stated Pinder.  "We're looking for her to have a pretty big offensive role.  Mary Alice is a player to watch."

Brittany Pacella is another right-side hitter who has battled the injury bug.  She sat out the entire 2005 season with a knee injury and is working her way back into shape.  When that process is complete, the redshirt freshman is one of Liberty's most skilled players.

"Brittany has very good skills and is very competitive," noted Pinder.  "She adds a lot of depth to our roster.  She's still getting back into shape now but will impact our roster in the future."

Local product Carmen Streeper, also a sophomore, played sparingly as a freshman but gives Pinder another viable option at right-side hitter.

"Carmen is a great fit for our program," stated Pinder.  "I would put her work ethic up against anybody.  She is a great presence and wants to learn."
Lara Bartolomeo did an exceptional job as the Lady Flames' setter a season ago.  She totaled 1,258 assists, ranking fifth in the Big South.  Bartolomeo recorded 61 or more assists in a match four times.  Meanwhile, she still played stellar defense, ranking third on the team with 275 digs.

This season, Kallie Corbin may take over as setter in her first season at Liberty.  A first-team all-state player in Oregon, she is an exceptional athlete and a natural leader.

"Kallie is very athletic and very competitive," said Pinder.  "She knows the game and is a student of the game.  She wants to be the best at whatever she does."
If Corbin does take the reigns at setter, Bartolomeo will likely return to the libero spot.  She has posted nearly 600 digs in her first two seasons and is one of the team's best overall defensive players.

"Lara's an all-around great volleyball player," explained Pinder.  "She has succeeded at both setting and on defense.  She brings us a lot of energy.  She can defend at a high level."

Also bolstering the Liberty defense is the transfer of sophomore Kristen Dalton from High Point.  Dalton appeared in 22 games for the Panthers a season ago and brings some experience and a knowledge of Big South volleyball to the position.

"Kristen is coming in as a defensive specialist, and she will hopefully bring depth to our serve receive and defensive patterns," expressed Pinder.  "We are looking for her, in the future, to provide ball control."
The Schedule
As noted above, the Lady Flames will open their season by facing a difficult non-conference schedule, beginning on opening weekend at the Davidson Mizuno Wildcat Classic (August 31-September 2).

Liberty will play four matches at the three-day event in North Carolina, including matchups with national powers Washington and Ohio.  Washington is the defending NCAA Division I national champion, sweeping through the 2005 tournament without losing a single game.  Ohio of the Mid-American Conference made a run to the Sweet 16 a season ago.

The Lady Flames' next two weekends will also be spent at tournaments.  Liberty will play three matches at Virginia Tech on September 8-9 before facing another trio of opponents at the Army of One Classic in West Point, N.Y. on September 15-16.

Liberty will play at in-state rival James Madison on September 19 before opening its nine-match regular-season home slate.  The Lady Flames' home and Big South opener will take place on September 23 versus Radford.

Pinder's bunch will not be able to get too comfortable at home because the schedule puts the Lady Flames right back on the road September 29 at UNC Asheville and October 1 at Birmingham-Southern.

Liberty will return to the Vines Center for Parents' Weekend October 6 and 8.  Conference foes Coastal Carolina and Charleston Southern will be the Lady Flames' opponents that weekend.

A difficult stretch of five road matches in 12 days then awaits Liberty, starting with a non-conference affair at UNC Greensboro on October 10.  Also included in that series of matches is a contest at defending conference champion Winthrop on October 13.

The Lady Flames will then open their longest homestand of the season as their next six matches will be played at home.  Non-conference opponent Charlotte visits Lynchburg on October 24 before Big South members UNC Asheville and Birmingham-Southern arrive October 27 and 28.

Winthrop makes its trip to the Vines Center November 3 and High Point follows the next day.  Senior Night will be celebrated November 7 as Liberty wraps up its home schedule against East Tennessee State.

Radford will host the Lady Flames on November 11 to close the regular season and both teams‘ conference ledgers.

The Big South Tournament begins on November 14.  The higher-seeded teams will host opening-round contests.  High Point will be the site of the November 18 semifinals and the November 19 conference championship match.