Women’s volleyball preview

Peter Cooke, Sports Editor

Coming off their fourth straight 20-win season, the Case Western Reserve University women’s volleyball team has its sights set on the top of the University Athletic Association, the nation’s premier volleyball conference. The Spartans finished fourth in the conference after finishing 22-10 overall and 5-5 in the UAA.

The 2011 season ended for the Spartans when they traveled to New York University for the UAA Championship where they lost in five sets in the third place game to then No. 16 University of Chicago. The loss put a damper on the team’s hopes to go to back-to-back NCAA Championships. The women lost to SUNY-Cortland in five sets during their first ever playoff match in the 2010 tournament.

The leading storyline for the Spartans coming into the 2012 season is how they will replace four-time All-UAA team member and Academic All-American Tricia McCutchan. McCutchan earned first team All-UAA honors in her senior year after three second-team honors. McCutchan, a middle hitter, holds career school records for kills (1917), sets played (495), and blocks (489). McCutchan also received one of the prestigious NCAA Postgraduate Scholarships upon her graduation.

Also graduating is the majority of the Case attack. Outside hitter Rachel Suchy finished second on the team in kills with 288 and fourth in blocks. Middle hitter Ellie Lyman finished seventh in kills and fifth in blocks in 2011.

The biggest bright spot for the Spartans last season was the emergence of sophomore Natalie Southard. In her first season in the blue and white, Southard tossed her hat into the ring to take over the Spartan attack after McCutchan. Southard, the team’s middle blocker, earned Rookie of the Year honors in the UAA and an All-UAA Honorable Mention. She finished third on the team in kills with 239 and second on the team in blocks with 106.

Also coming back at the net are seniors, middle hitter Allie Palmer and Hanna Collins. Palmer finished the 2011 season tied for fourth in kills with Freeman at 130. Collins finished sixth with 80 kills.

Returning for her senior season is the center of the Spartan offense, setter Breanna Freeman. Freeman led the team with 1145 assists and was in the top five in kills, digs, and blocks.

The Spartan defense remains unchanged from the 2011 season. Senior Rachel Gulasey returns to the libero position after earning second team All-UAA honors last season. Gulasey led the team with 494 digs and was fifth in the UAA. Gulasey is currently in fifth all-time in digs in program history, 656 digs behind Andrea Lamont’s 2190.

Joining Gulasey on the backline are classmates Olivia Stanton-Ameis and Alexandra Drake. Stanton-Ameis finished second on the team in digs behind Gulasey with 326. Drake finished fourth with 277.

The key matchups for the Spartans come nearly exclusively when the conference season begins at the two round robins. With three UAA teams finishing the season in 2011 being nationally ranked by the AVCA, performing well in conference is key in order to make a postseason push. Washington University, the defending association champion, finished the season ranked sixth in the nation, while perennial contender Emory University ended the season ranked eighth. Chicago finished the season third and was ranked seventeenth in the nation. New York was ranked as high as seventeenth at the beginning of the season but fell out of the rankings by UAA Championship.

The first UAA Round Robin will take place Sept. 29-30 in Chicago, Ill., where the Spartans will have two easy games against Brandeis University and Carnegie Mellon University before having to take on the defending champion Bears. The second round robin will take place Oct. 13-14 in Pittsburgh, Penn., and Case will round out the conference schedule there.

The Spartans’ final four matchups will likely have the most importance placed on them. If they’re able to play to form at the first weekend and top Carnegie Mellon at the second they’ll come to a strong gauntlet of opponents to round out the regular conference schedule. Their second game on that second Friday is against Emory before they finish out against Chicago and New York, if the Spartans are able to finish the conference season at 6-2 with a couple of strong performances against the Eagles and Bears they’ll have to like their chances at the UAA Championship and a possible postseason berth.