BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – For two seasons, the Indiana University Kokomo women’s volleyball team has found itself on the wrong end of experience and depth. At the same time the Lady Cougars were racking up one program first after another: First varsity contest, first program win, first NAIA contest and first NAIA win. Now, with a new coach and a new attitude, the program will be looking for its first winning season while also participating in conference play for the first time.
With only six returning players, first year Cougars coach Heather Hayes knows she has her hands full as the university joins the competitive Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. But she is extremely optimistic in how her team will perform on the court.
“Our team is full of a lot of new faces,” said Hayes. “We have 13 players, but only six return from last year. But I expect our team to be highly competitive this season. I think that is the biggest change fans will see is our competitiveness. If we all stay healthy, I think we will break some IUK records this year.”
Hayes noted that the depth and talent of this year’s squad will be important to winning, and she is confident that those two areas are improved. Hayes said that as the program continues to grow, the Lady Cougars will have the opportunity to recruit better players who want to play in Kokomo.
“There is a lot of athleticism on our team this year,” said Hayes, who was an Indiana All-Star during her playing days at Frankfort High School. “From top to bottom, we have a lot of players who can play a lot of positions. I feel that if our best player is struggling, we have players on the bench who will be able to step in and fill in that role – that is a very nice option for us.”
Hayes said one thing the team will need to overcome is a lack of size. The tallest player on the roster is second-year player Megan Riley at 6-0. Six players come in a 5-9 and two are 5-8.
“We are very undersized,” said Hayes. “I think we are in a good position because we are athletic and competitive. But we will have to get over our lack of size.”
Third-year returning libero Lael Burrus is excited about the changes surrounding the volleyball program – especially with the addition of the Cougar Gymnasium as the new home of IUK athletics
“I have been here from the beginning as a freshman, so I have played at Northwestern (High School) and Maple Crest (Middle School),” said Burrus of not having a true home court until this year. “So I am super excited with the fitness center and the gym – I think it will be great.”
With seven newcomers, Burrus said the squad has gelled nicely.
“I am excited for our freshman,” she said. “I think every one of them is great. We are working hard and are getting along amazingly. I am also excited to be in a conference. I think we can compete this year – I am just ready to go.”
Burrus, a North Miami High School graduate, is ready to play in the new gym – and she thinks the community will really enjoy the new Home of the Cougars.
“I have always been thankful for our fans. Whether it is Northwestern or Maple Crest, we always have a nice home. But with our own home, it is something we can be prideful in. And I think it will draw even more and we are all more excited about the new gym.”
Leann Cook, the squad’s lone senior who transferred to IUK last year but could not compete, likes the chemistry of the new-look Lady Cougars.
“From when I transferred in last year to now, there is so much more than a unity – not just in the volleyball team but in the whole athletic program,” said Cook, a Martinsville native. “We are going to be great. Practices are just competitive and I think that will really help.”
When asked what she brings to the program, Cook said, “Uniqueness. Lael has been the leader for three years. But I have played at other schools and I am kind of an ‘everywhere’ person; a utility player.”
Megan Riley, a sophomore from New Palestine, is also thrilled about where the team is going.
“The team we have this year can not be compared to the team we had last year; it is a night and day difference,” said the middle hitter. “It is like a whole new school came in. It is like we are a whole new school on the map – this is going to make us big. People are going to say, ‘IU Kokomo, yeah, I have heard of them.’ In past years that did not happen. I feel like this year people will know who we are.”
Freshman Kaitlyn Emery, a Frankfort native, agrees that this year’s Cougar volleyball team should be exciting to watch.
“I agree 100-percent with Megan – this is going to be IUK’s turnaround season in sports,” she said. “I am excited to be a part of this. I think we have all come together really well. This is going to be fun.”
“I am excited to have a fellow Hot Dog join our program,” said Hayes. “Kaitlyn understands me as a coach, having played for me before, and will be an asset when trying to establish a similar culture at IU Kokomo. I am grateful that Kaitlyn wants to join our program and help build Cougar volleyball tradition.”
The Cougars 2013 volleyball season kicks off with a tailgate party at 5:30 on August 21 in the parking lot of the new Cougar Gymnasium, located behind Kokomo’s Memorial Gymnasium in the old swimming pool area. The inaugural game at Cougar Gym starts at 7 p.m. with a doubleheader against Rochester College from Detroit.