BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – In the fall of 2011, the IU Kokomo women’s volleyball team played its first game in front of an excited crowd at Northwestern High School. Expectations for the squad were low as the team played its first competitive season. Fast forward to 2015, and the competition pendulum has swung. Not only are expectations high for the Cougars, anything less than a trip to the NAIA national tournament may be a letdown for the players on the squad.
“We are really excited for this season; we have a lot to look forward to,” said Cougar senior Rachel Allen. “Last year we went far and this year I think we will go even farther. It will be a good year.”
Allen, along with fellow senior Cortney Hanson, joined the team at the start of the 2012 campaign – the first NAIA season for the program. They remember the struggles of that year, winning only nine matches. But now, they are thrilled they stuck it out after head coach Heather Hayes joined the squad in year three.
“It is crazy that we had nine wins in my freshman year and to see where we are today,” said Allen, an outside hitter. “It is amazing how far we have come in a short amount of time.”
From nine wins in 2012 to the Final Four of the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference last year, the Cougars have quickly become the elite program on campus. But to earn a berth in the NAIA national championships will mean IUK will need to win the KIAC post-season tournament. At least two conference coaches think that could happen – the Cougars received a pair of first place votes and are ranked No. 3 in the KIAC pre-season coach’s poll.
Hanson, the all-time leading setter for the Cougars with 2,219 assists, is equally excited about her final season. And much like Allen, Hanson thinks the sky is the limit for the squad.
“It is really nice to see the program grow like it has,” said Hanson, who also has 612 digs in three seasons. “Coach Hayes has done a great job with this team. I have been playing volleyball since I was six or seven, and in high school I wanted to win sectional so bad; but I have never wanted anything as much as I want to win conference this year in my final year. And our team chemistry is so good this year.”
Hayes, who led the team to a 25-8 record last year (7-3 in KIAC play), agreed that the team chemistry is different this year. She is also looking to her two seniors to lead the way.
“I think we have some good possibilities this year and next year,” said Hayes of her relatively young team. “We certainly hope it is this year, especially for our seniors. I commend them for wanting to be here as the program grew. They are helpful and hard workers – and they want to do well.”
After losing Lael Burrus to graduation – she was the team’s first four-year performer and all-time leader in digs from the libero position – Hayes said she was worried about consistency on defense.
“I have been very pleased with how hard the girls have worked in the off-season,” she said. “And I feel really comfortable with our passing. Right now, junior Kaleigh Ensley (368 digs and 48 service aces a year ago) is the front-runner for the libero position. And sophomore Maddie Taylor has worked really hard – they have been playing beach volleyball together over the summer and that has helped their game. And Brook Karle is a freshman and has come in better than I thought she would – she has competed very well.”
Hayes said she is looking forward to having a strong net game between a combination of veterans and rookies. She said the Cougars will be noticeably taller than in the past.
“We have a goal to run more out of the middle,” said Hayes. “Junior Keanna Walton (5-9 middle hitter from Maconaquah) has developed significantly. Our setters have more confidence in getting the ball to Keanna. Freshman Nicole Sandmann (6-0) can touch nearly 10-feet and has a lot of power. Elyse Younger (6-0 sophomore) has a shoulder injury at the moment, but she led us in hitting last season. And another freshman, Corinn Dennis (6-0), can go left, middle or right – that will make her a good utility player.”
The coach also likes the lineup on the right side.
“Sophomore Lexi Brickner (5-8) has improved tremendously and has become a much more consistent player,” said Hayes. “She is also our strongest hitter right now. I hope she is an impact player for us this season. Casie Divine is a sophomore transfer and can hit with her left or right hand, so she can also play on the left or right.”
Hayes said the squad is the thinnest on the outside hitter position – although one of the best players in the league will call the outside home once again.
“Last year’s KIAC Newcomer of the Year Lindi Thomas (359 kills and 277 digs as a freshman) will be back on the outside,” said Hayes. “She was also first-team all-conference and is a good rotation player. Rachel Allen (617 career kills and 474 digs) has moved from the right side and is a great ball control player. If we want to run out of the middle, we have to pass well – and Rachel is one of our best passers.”
While the outside is thin, the Cougars return experience at the setter position, led by Hanson.
“We also have sophomore Casey Colgate (386 assists and 131 digs last year) and a 5-10 freshman in Elizabeth Schapker,” said Hayes of the setter corps. “(Schapker) has great hands, but we have to get her used to the speed of the college game.”
The Cougars start the 2015 season on the road at Goshen College on Aug. 19, then play in the Grace College Classic on Aug. 21-22. The Cougar Gym portion of the schedule will begin with a match against Marian University on Aug. 26 at 7 p.m.