Volleyball aims to turn potential into production

After a strong 19-12 campaign a year ago, the Case Western Reserve University volleyball team is ready to reach, and, hopefully, surpass, the 20 win mark this season.

Last year the team was very young, sporting only one fourth-year player and three third-year contributors. Although the team still carries a youthful squad with only three fourth-year students, they feel they are ready to compete at the highest level this year.

“Our returning group is stronger: physically stronger, technically stronger, and more confident than I’ve seen us in awhile,” Head Coach Karen Farrell said. “We have very high expectations for this group.”

The Spartans are essentially returning their entire core from last season. Third-year outside hitter Brianna Lemon and third-year middle hitter Haley Sims earned All-University Athletic Association (UAA) First Team and All-UAA Second Team honors, respectively. Second-year middle hitter Katie Kaminski was an All-UAA Honorable Mention after her tremendous second half of the season.

Lemon led the team in kills and was fifth in the UAA in kills per set. However, she showed her ability to play everywhere on the court by also leading the team in digs. Sims was solid at the net defensively, finishing tied for third in the conference in solo blocks. Kaminski led the team in kill percentage, a testament to her efficiency on the offensive end.

Additionally, fourth-year defensive specialists Noel Jeansonne, Karina Bondelid and Emily Wolfenbarger will provide veteran leadership in the back row.

Third-year setter Faith Ellis and third-year outside hitter Karley King both had excellent seasons a year ago and will be key contributors again this year. Ellis was the main setter for the team and was one of the best in the UAA, while King was a primary option for Ellis at the net.

The Spartans also add four new first-year students and a new second-year player who will challenge for starting positions.

“I’m hopeful they’ll challenge for the rotation,” Farrell said. “They bring a lot of talent, it’s just how quickly they become more confident within our system.”

Perhaps the biggest competition will take place at the setter position. The team’s system uses two setters, and with Ellis locked in as the first setter, there will be a three-way battle to earn the second spot.

Second-year setter Jiayi Shen comes in with the most experience, but her playing time diminished last year as Farrell found it better to just play Ellis as a lone setter. However, Ellis is listed at five feet six inches, so when the rotation puts her in the front row the team loses that critical third blocker at the net.

Second-year setter Krystal Wang is another option. She was on the team last year but did not receive significant playing time. The final option is second-year Jordyn Harberts. After a year with club volleyball, Harberts decided she wanted a higher level of competition and was able to make the team.

This year the Spartans hope to finish in the top three of their conference after a fifth place finish last season. Farrell also mentioned that she would like to be in contention for a berth to the NCAA Tournament.

“Teams are going to have to bring their best efforts and have the talent to outplay us. I feel this is one of the stronger groups of players we’ve ever put together,” Farrell said.

However, if anything is going to hold them back from what they want to become, according to Farrell it will be a “lack of game experience in a couple of positions.” They also need to develop a level of urgency to win every match, a mental hurdle they struggled to overcome at times last year.

But with loads of potential, it is time for the Spartans to capitalize on the talent they have and make a historic run.

The season opens at the Ohio Northern Tournament on August 31. But the team had one last tune-up on August 24 against CWRU volleyball alumni in the team’s annual alumni match. Every year, players of teams in the past unite to scrimmage against the current varsity squad. The game is a tremendous opportunity for players, past and present alike, to connect around the sport they love.

“It is a great opportunity for our current team to better understand their place on the spectrum of the volleyball program and to hear about the achievements of our past teams,” Farrell said.  “We always have a number of different eras represented so it is fun for our former players to reconnect with teammates as well as meet new people… It is very important that we keep them connected and our annual event is always a great springboard for our team to kick off the season.”