Volleyball Opens 2012 Campaign at Georgia Friday
STATESBORO, Ga. - It's been an up-and-down ride for volleyball coach Chad Callihan since arriving at Georgia Southern prior to the 2008 season. Callihan, now entering his fifth campaign with the Eagles, took over a program that won 10 matches in 2007 and led the Eagles to the Southern Conference Tournament title and an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2010.
And the expectations began to build. With a bulk of their team returning for 2011, the Eagles were picked to win the SoCon South Division and were the favorites to win a second consecutive tourney title. But some key injuries at key times and to a degree, the elevated expectations, got the best of the Eagles. Georgia Southern still managed to win 18 matches and post a 10-6 mark in conference play, but an early exit from the league tournament left the Eagles dissatisfied – and motivated for 2012.
"We were a little disappointed in how the season progressed last year," said Callihan. "It's different with the bulls-eye on your back, and I think the expectations got the best of us. As a result, we return a very motivated group."
The expectations will not be quite as high as the Eagles were picked third in the South in the SoCon Coaches' Preseason Poll, and four seniors who played 85-plus sets have graduated. But Callihan believes there is plenty of talent on the roster, and that the versatility in the players coming back may help the Eagles be a better team.
"We are not as deep in terms of personnel, but we have a lot of quality, versatile players, which affords us the ability to move players around," said Callihan.
The key to the 2012 campaign may be in the category of intangibles, namely filling the leadership roles left by the senior class.
"We graduated four very good players with strong personalities and great senior leadership so we are searching for an identity," said Callihan. "It's critical that we see new leaders develop."
A spring trip to Costa Rica certainly accelerated the Eagles' development, and returners began to fill those leadership roles. The team got an extra chance to bond both on and off the court, and Callihan hopes that trip will set the tone for this fall.
"The trip to Costa Rica was really important with the team leaders we had departing," said Callihan. "It allowed the group to get away and spend time with each other and experience a different culture. The team meshed well together, and I think they all respect one another and appreciate each other. On the court, it gave the younger kids more time in a match environment, and we hope that will pay dividends as well."
The Eagles will likely turn to senior setter and four-year starter Kate Van Dyke for leadership both on and off the floor. She is a three-time first-team All-SoCon selection and was the league tournament Most Outstanding Player when the Eagles won the title in 2010. The only player to start all 33 matches in 2011, Van Dyke enters the season 181 assists shy of the all-time record at Georgia Southern and is coming off a campaign in which she collected 1,305 assists, 306 digs, 107 kills, 52 block and 31 aces.
"Kate is a senior and four-year starter who has done everything we've ever asked of her," said Callihan. "She definitely makes us go. She can be an All-America candidate if our team results are good enough to make voters take notice."
Pushing Van Dyke for playing time will be Katalin Minnerly, a freshman from Texas. She earned All-America honors in AAU volleyball and was a two-time all-district performer at Martin High School.
"We really have not had the luxury of having two good setters the last few years," said Callihan. "Kat will come in and compete. Our hope is that they will push each other and make each other better. It will also give them ability to get rest and avoid some of the wear and tear as the season progresses."
A pair of seniors, Meredith Paskert and Moriah Bellissimo, are the top returning kill producers from the outside hitter position. Paskert, who transferred from Kent State, collected 250 kills, 95 digs and 32 blocks in her first campaign as an Eagle.
"Meredith will most likely be our top kill producer," said Callihan. "She hits a heavy ball, and we will lean on her for points."
Bellissimo provides a lot of versatility for the Eagles. She moved into more of a defensive specialist role as last season advanced and wound up leading the squad in digs with 455. She added 122 kills, 76 assists and 49 blocks. Callihan hopes to move her back into an offensive attack position if someone else can step up as a defensive specialist.
"Moriah is as well-rounded a player as there is in the league," said Callihan. "We relied on her defense last year, but if we have others step up, she will swing from the right side. She is our emotional leader as well."
The Eagles will also rely on junior Nicole Jeschelnik, sophomore Jamie DeRatt and redshirt freshman Kayla Henderson for offense. Jeschelnik posted 99 kills, 116 digs and 14 blocks in 73 sets, while DeRatt recorded 38 kills, 50 digs and two blocks in 42 sets.
"Nicole and Jamie are both smart players with good ball control," said Callihan. "Both will see playing time, and it will be interesting to see who emerges to take the starting spot. Kayla is a nice athlete who hits a heavy ball. She has the potential to be a good point scorer for us."
Junior Enjoli Johnson, sophomore Kym Coley and freshman Crysten Curry will compete for playing time at middle blocker. Johnson, who started 25 of the 28 matches she played in, registered 176 kills and 61 blocks a season ago, while Coley finished the campaign strong, notching 10 kills and seven blocks while hitting .467 against Appalachian State in the SoCon Tournament after stepping in for the injured Parker Small.
"All three, Enjoli, Kym and Crysten, are great athletes," said Callihan. "Enjoli is very steady, and Kym stepped up in the SoCon tourney and had a great match. She really came into her own in Costa Rica."
Curry, from Athens, Ga., was a three-time first-team all-region selection at Athens Academy.
"Crysten has great lateral quickness, and is probably our best blocking middle," said Callihan. "We'll see how comfortable she is with the pace we like to play."
Junior Lauren LaRocque, sophomore Meghan Morillo and freshman Alexandra Beecher are the defensive specialists Callihan will count on. LaRocque played in 110 sets as a sophomore and registered 370 digs, while Morillo saw limited action.
"Lauren is a very steady player with good ball control who brings veteran experience to our backcourt, and Meghan has a good volleyball IQ and instincts," said Callihan.
Beecher was voted the top prep libero in Central Florida and named first-team all-region in 2011.
"Alex digs everything, and her ability to receive serve will determine playing time," said Callihan.
As is the norm during Callihan's tenure, the Eagles will be tested from the start in a non-conference schedule that features matches in tournaments at Georgia, Auburn and New Mexico.
"I like to play a challenging schedule because it prepares us well for conference play," said Callihan. "When we open conference play, we don't feel like we haven't seen something yet."
The Eagles will also host the SpringHill Suites Invitational, with opponents Wisconsin, Jacksonville, South Alabama and Savannah State, Sept. 13-15, in Hanner Fieldhouse.
"The SpringHill Suites Invitational is a three-day tournament with some really good teams coming in and some great matches to host in our home gym," said Callihan.
The Eagles will also get tested each weekend during conference play, and as is the case in any balanced league, an off weekend can cost them a spot in the SoCon Tournament, which features the top-4 teams in each division. Defending SoCon champion Samford was picked to win the North Division, while College of Charleston was tabbed the favorite in the South.
"Samford is returning so much talent, you have to consider them the top team going into the season," said Callihan. "The league is as deep as it has ever been, and it's going to be a real fight to stay in the top four and make the SoCon Tournament. We will be preparing for two quality opponents each weekend."
So with more modest expectations than a year ago, at least externally, the Eagles take the floor for their season opener at Georgia Friday, Aug. 24. But for the 2012 edition of Georgia Southern volleyball, the initial objective does not change from year to year.
"A division championship will be our goal," said Callihan. "We'll see what happens after that."
- Category: Volleyball
- Published on Thursday, 23 August 2012 09:57