SALISBURY, Md. – When the Salisbury University volleyball team opens its season in New York City tonight at the NYU Invitational it will be with familiar faces in nearly every uniform as the team lost just two players from the squad that advanced to the NCAA tournament for the seventh time in program history last year.
Those faces will be more fit, more trim and ready to take the next step. Playing in the NCAA tournament is a wonderful accomplishment which the players do not take lightly, but should they be fortunate enough to advance through the regular season and a tough Capital Athletic Conference, the returners want to take the next step and advance out of regionals. They have worked hard in the offseason to improve themselves and the team for another postseason run.
"They're really happy to get to the regionals, they realize how strong our conference is and to even get out of our conference is a tremendous achievement," Head Coach Margie Knight said, "but they want more."
Salisbury will start its offense with returning senior setter Carley Todd. The third-team All-American last season put up nearly five assists per set and adding 1.7 kills per set.
"She has so much confidence on the court and I think that trickles down to the other players," Knight said.
Todd will take the reins in a 5-1 offensive set, a change from last year when running two setters throughout the season. But that does not mean that system will remain in place all year. As with most positions on the team, there will be a battle.
"We can change tempos by putting in any of the setters and I feel very comfortable that either of those players could contribute as starters," Knight said.
The recipients of the sets, no matter who they are coming from, almost all have experience as a Sea Gull. Four of the five returning seniors are hitters, as Chelsea Glowacki, Kristin Jehle, Jenna Shay and Kelly Vieira all return for 2012.
Glowacki, a middle hitter, led Salisbury last season with a .261 hitting percentage, and posted a team-best 136 blocks. Vieira is also listed as a middle hitter on the roster, though her versatility goes well past one position. She can take nearly any spot on the floor and the team will not miss a beat.
"Kelly is a tremendous athlete and her ability to react to weird things that happen with the ball during the game may be the best I've ever seen, and we've had a lot of really great players," Knight said. "I think Kelly would be successful at any position we put her in."
Jehle and Shay are both strong hitters on the outside, with Jehle working her way up the depth chart to get a chance to battle for a starting role this season.
"She's one of those people that just won't go away," Knight said with a laugh, "she just wants a place on that court. I think the great thing about Kristin is whether she's playing or off the court, you can't tell the difference with her because she gives 100 percent in whatever she's doing to help the team."
While Knight says that the five seniors may indeed come out as the starting lineup for the opening match of the year, there is no guarantee for any player in a Salisbury uniform. The hitters will be battle for playing time with juniors Sarah Hall, Julie Poston, Tam Weems and sophomores Kirby Buttry and Mattie Smith and freshman Ashlyn Tapley, the third newcomer to the team, who will all vie for time on the court.
Along with a strong offense, many of the players have worked throughout the offseason on improving their defense, giving a number of options for which hitters will remain in the game and play in the back row.
As a freshman last season, Michelle Meehan, who registered 458 digs, played her way into the starting libero spot and will start the season in that role, though she will also be challenged. Junior Danielle DuBois has impressed throughout the preaseason and will compete for playing time.
"Michelle's probably one of the best diggers around and Danielle is an excellent digger," Knight said. "They both bring big-time, point-producing serves so I think both of them can slide into any of the backcourt positions and do really well."
With a year of experience under her belt, sophomore Jess Wittwer is a player listed on the roster as an outside hitter. But with her versatility, she could see time on the front row, or the back as a defensive specialist as well.
One setback that has struck the Sea Gulls early was an off-the-court injury for junior Jess Tallant. She is a strong defensive player that could earn time at either setter or as a defensive specialist. She begins the season rehabbing her injury, but hopes to be back by mid-season.
Salisbury has built its way up to being one of the top teams in the region, with NCAA tournament appearances in four of the past five seasons. In three of those four appearances, the Sea Gulls have advanced to at least the second round. Part of that success has come through playing a strong schedule during the regular season to prepare and 2012 will be no different. Salisbury will play nine teams that competed in the NCAA tournament in 2011, including Christopher Newport University in the home opener on Sept. 4 at Maggs Physical Activities Center.
"This is a pretty tough schedule," Knight said. "We have a couple matches where non-conference teams are not at a national level, but they're still going to be challenging, and then there's our conference. I think the level of play in our conference is very high."
The Sea Gulls will also take on Springfield College (Oct. 13 in Salisbury University Tournament) and State University of New York at Cortland (Oct. 26 at Christopher Newport Invitational). Both teams played in the NCAA quarterfinals last season.