BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – After an inaugural 2011 season that was constructed at the last minute and had little collegiate playing experience, the 2012 IU Kokomo women’s volleyball squad is ready to take the court with a new attitude. Last year the squad played at the club level; this year they are a full-fledged NAIA program. Eight newcomers will join five Lady Cougars returning to defend the Kokomo net.
“Last year we were very inexperienced with only one year of college playing experience,” said second year head coach Kristen Snoddy, who noted the coaching staff is also more experienced at the college level with the return of second-year assistant coaches Marty Britten and Owen Lu. “This year we will have 19 years of combined experience. That includes our recruits and the five who played last year. This season is going to be exciting to watch. We want to have fun and play hard.”
Snoddy said the play on the court will be much better this year. And she emphasized that is not a knock on last year’s squad – it is a result of gaining and recruiting experience.
“My husband came into practice the other day and said we are 1,000-times better from last year to this year,” said Snoddy with a laugh. “He was impressed. The level of play will just be so much better. Now we actually have enough players – we ended with nine last year, so we couldn’t even play six-on-six in practice.”
One year ago, Rachel Williams was the only player on the team with experience, having played at Goshen College. She ruled the court as the setter and is expected to be a team leader once again – albeit with at least four other 2011 teammates with similar experience.
“Last year, Rachel was the only one with college playing time and she stepped up as setter. I give her all of the credit for doing that,” said Snoddy. “But this year, she will have help as we recruited two setters. We are looking for her to play outside and in the back row.”
Joining Williams from last year’s squad are sophomores Emily West, Lael Burrus, Shelby Spall and junior Krista Armstrong. West is a back row player from Peru High School and is considered the strongest player on the team. She will be relied upon to be a team leader.
“She is admired in the weight room for her strength,” said Coach Snoddy. “She is passionate and is a big heart for the team. She is very vocal and is passionate about the sport. And she is a defensive player and is competing for the libero position.”
Snoddy said defensive specialist Burrus (North Miami) is “very dedicated and committed right from the beginning of the program. She will get the start at the libero position for us and she is one of our captains.”
Armstrong is a junior from Maconaquah who will continue to play a variety of positions for the Lady Cougar volleyball squad.
“As needed, she will play middle,” said Snoddy of Armstrong, a second team captain. “But really, outside is where she wants to play.”
Spall, a Western graduate, played outside hitter last season and attacks the nets strongly.
“Spall is a powerful hitter who played a strong game last year against a tough opponent in Vincennes University,” said Snoddy. “Even when our team was struggling, she turned out a good individual performance.”
One senior transferred to the IUK program this season. Heather Tolson joined the team during the 2012 spring season after previously playing two years at Kankakee Community College and one year at West Liberty University. Tolson, at 5-11, is unique because she is a setter who can hit and block. Snoddy said she brings a real presence to the net.
Five juniors with college experience transferred to the Lady Cougars during the off-season, including 6-2 Brittany Nelson from Kankakee Community College. A strong hitter and blocker, Snoddy said, “She is a presence that we really need in the front row this year. And she has a real quick arm.”
A pair of Chargers transferred to IUK. Miranda Hammons and Carlee Davis both played at two-year Ancilla College a year ago. Hammons has “a very high volleyball IQ” and is a defensively solid back row player. Snoddy said Davis is a “versatile athlete” who can play many positions for the Lady Cougars.
LeAnn Cook was a late signee for Coach Snoddy who should make an impact on the squad.
“She came to us looking for a place to play,” said Snoddy of the former Kankakee Community College player. “She is a very hard worker and can play front or back.”
Brooke Mathias currently has an injury and will not be ready to play at the beginning of the season. Snoddy said she will be a back row player for IUK.
Three freshmen decided to play collegiately in the City of Firsts, including Megan Riley from New Palestine High School. Snoddy said Riley was the first signee of the 2012 recruiting class.
“She was actually one of the first to approach us when she heard about the program,” said Coach Snoddy. “She was used primarily as a middle blocker in high school, but we are looking for her to also be an offensive threat. She was the second leading blocker in the state last year.”
Setter Cortney Hanson comes from a strong volleyball program at Pioneer High School.
“She is probably our best all-around volleyball player skill wise,” said Snoddy. “I think she is one of the best setters in the state, and we are fortunate to get her. I think she will get a start for us. The more quickly she adjusts to this level of play, the more versatile we will be on offense.”
Another freshman gearing up for her first season is Rachel Allen (Tri-West), an explosive player and a strong right side hitter. Snoddy described Allen as a “powerful hitter” and “great all-around player.”
The volleyball squad found a new home court this season. Last year, Northwestern High School stepped up and allowed the program to launch its campaign at the home of the Purple Tigers. This season, IUK will use Maple Crest Middle School, which is located across the street from the campus. The season starts on Aug. 21 with a 7 p.m. home game against Purdue University-North Central. Five other home games dot the 24 game schedule for the Lady Cougars: Purdue University Calumet, IU Northwest, Vincennes, Anderson University and ABAC.
On Aug. 24, the Lady Cougars hit the road for the first time as they travel to the Kickoff Tournament at the Illinois Institute of Technology. The season ends with nine of the last twelve matches on the road with the last match on Nov. 2 at Goshen College.
UPDATE: August 21, 2012
BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – IU Kokomo volleyball coach Kristen Snoddy said before the season that her Lady Cougars would be vastly improved compared to the programs inaugural season one year ago. And while the Cougars lost its first-ever NAIA game to Purdue University-North Central in straight sets (25-22, 25-23, 28-26), the coach was pleased with many phases of her squads’ game.
“We had clearly more skilled positions playing tonight than last year,” said Snoddy. “That is not to say anything bad about last year’s team that helped us get the program going, but we now have key players in some key positions. Good things will come (in the future) because we were not at full strength tonight. We just need to learn to win.”
In front of hundreds of IUK fans, and one year removed from playing as a club program, the Lady Cougars showed the NAIA world they were ready for the move up. And the Panthers of PNC took note of an improved program. Several times in all three sets, the visitors from LaPorte County found themselves trailing. But each time, the Panthers rose to the occasion and took the set win. Coach Snoddy said that is something her team will need to learn to do.
“Yeah, that is something we will have to learn,” said Snoddy. “Maybe we will need to be a little more conscious of the plays we call. We will just need to learn how to close a set.”
In the first set, Kokomo jumped out to an early 3-0 lead, and held a 10-6 advantage after an ace by sophomore Emily West (Peru, Ind./Peru). A block by freshman Megan Riley (New Palestine, Ind./New Palestine) gave the Lady Cougars an 11-7 lead. PNC tied the set at 15, then IUK regained a 17-15 lead as West served and the Panthers made a pair of errors, but the Panthers took an 18-21 lead following three consecutive IUK errors. Freshman Rachel Allen (Lizton, Ind./Tri-West) tried to rally the Cougars on a pair of kills to cut the lead to 22-24, but it was too little, too late and PNC took set one 25-22.
“I thought our communication in the back (row) lapsed a few times tonight,” said Snoddy. “But some of that is confidence. We had Lael Burrus (Denver, Ind./North Miami) play the libero for the first time after setting last year. It is something we need to work on.”
An exciting second set included 15 ties and six lead changes with neither team holding a lead larger than two points. With the score tied at 17, the Panthers fired two straight kills to take a two point lead. But West came back with two strong kills sandwiched around a kill by Shelby Spall (Kokomo, Ind./Western) and the Cougars regained the lead.
Spall, coming off a case of bronchitis, tied the set at 22 with another kill, and after a pair of PNC points, IUK recorded a team block at the net to cut the lead to 23-24. But once again, PNC was able to score the final point for a two set lead.
“I attribute a lot of our good play tonight to our setter, Cortney Hanson,” said Snoddy. “I think she is one of the best setters in the state and she played well tonight. She has a great set of hands. She is strong at the setter spot. And Carlee Davis (Medaryville, Ind./West Central [Ancilla College]) played strong at the net – she hit the ball hard tonight.”
The third set ended in heartbreak for the Cougars. A strong start saw the home team take a quick 3-1 lead thanks to kills by Allen, Spall and Krista Armstrong (Bunker Hill, Ind./Maconaquah). A PNC blocking error gave the Cougars a 10-4 lead, and after another Spall kill the Panthers hurt themselves with an illegal formation call and an illegal substitution penalty – and IUK seemed to be rolling with a comfortable 14-7 lead.
Five IUK errors allowed the Panthers to cut the lead to 20-16, but with Hanson (Winamac, Ind./Pioneer) serving, PNC committed three errors of its own to stretch the Cougars lead to 23-19. A kill from Allen put the Cougars within a service point of the third set win (24-20), but three IUK misses and a PNC block tied the contest at 24. With the Cougars reeling, the Panthers scored a 28-26 set win to seal the match victory.
“We played a little bit back on our heels,” said Snoddy of the end of the final set. “We talked about that after the game. But I am excited we could compete like that. It is something to look forward to the rest of the season.”
The Lady Cougars return home on Aug. 28 for a 7 p.m. contest against Purdue University Calumet at the new home of the Lady Cougars – Maple Crest Middle School (located across from the IU Kokomo campus).