Consistency the key for EMU volleyball

emu-sports-newWhile there will definitely be some new pieces to the puzzle this year, the EMU volleyball women are hoping to continue the climb they started last fall.

The Royals earned a five-match increase in wins in 2013, tied for the biggest one-season bump over the past 20 years. They also won their first ODAC matches in four years, finishing 9-18 overall and 2-9 in the conference.

“The 2013 season was a great year of growth for our team,” said Coach Jeff Tyson after his second season at EMU. “Unfortunately, we had some injuries and were not as consistent as we needed to be on the court. Our theme for spring season was developing consistency both individually and as a team; I am looking to build on that this fall with the theme of daily excellence.”

Although a highlight from last year was the Sept. 11 win over ODAC opponent Randolph, Tyson wanted to keep his program’s first league win since 2009 in perspective.

“It is certainly great to ‘get the monkey off our back,’ as they say,” Tyson explained, “but this is a new year and it doesn’t matter what we did last year. Every team in the conference starts the season on a level playing field at 0-0 and we need to be ready to earn every point in every match. Our conference is full of tough competition and we will need to earn our conference wins this year.”

The Royals must replace their top four hitters, but will continue to have a steady anchor coming out of their back row play. Libero Katie Miller (San Antonio, Tex./Brandeis) was second in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference with her 4.47 digs/set average while classmate Alena Yoder (Elkhart, Ind./Bethany Christian) added 2.73 digs in the duo’s sophomore season. EMU racked up 17.47 digs/set, easily leading the ODAC for the second straight campaign.

Tyson said that defense has kept his team in a lot of matches.

“It has been great to have the consistency that we have had out of the back row the last couple years,” he said. “Continuing our tradition of quality and consistent passing along with fantastic defense will help us this year as we look to continue to improve our offense. We have also added local talent Skyler Johnson (Harrisonburg, Va./Harrisonburg) to our back court and I am excited to see where she can help take our defense.”

Sophomore Becca Hardy (Port Republic, Va./Eastern Mennonite) is the team’s top returning hitter. She missed five matches with an injury last year but averaged 1.89 kills and 1.72 digs. Outside hitter Sara Ritchie (Harrisonburg, Va./Turner Ashby), who led EMU with 3.49 kills as a sophomore in 2012, is back after missing last season on a cross cultural trip and Tyson hopes she can return to form quickly.

“Our offense is definitely going to look different this year than last year,” explained Tyson. “I am expecting that fans will get to see some tweaks to our offense this season that makes it both more exciting to watch and hopefully more effective at helping us score points.”

The setter position could also see some changes. Dani Driver (Cheverly, Md./Elizabeth Seton) handled the duties much of last season and averaged 8.07 assists. Mattie Lehman (New Paris, Ind./Bethany Christian), who also missed last fall on a cross cultural, set up the offense in 2012 and averaged 7.61 assists. Tyson recruited an additional three setters and expects some competition as he deciphers what the offense will look like this year.
Hitter Kayla Smeltzer (Richmond, Va./Maggie L. Walker) is the lone four-year player on the team, and Tyson figures she will be one of the players to provide consistency on and off the court.

“Kayla is entering her senior year and hungry for the team to do well,” he said. “She was swinging really well during the spring season. Becca Hardy has also worked incredibly hard in the weight room and I think she will have a good year for us. Katie Miller has been a quiet consistent anchor to our defense and I anticipate that will continue this season.”

The coach is relying on a number of his freshmen to play prominent roles.

“We had eight freshmen coming out for the team this fall and the talent level is high so I am expecting good things from this group,” Tyson said. “It is hard to single out a few but we have high school teammates Regan Cook (Staunton, Va./Robert E. Lee) and Jasmine Johnson (Staunton, Va./Robert E. Lee) along with Skyler Johnson.”

Consistency was an issue for the Royals last fall, and Tyson expects some adjustment again this year with the large number of women still getting used to his program.

“In preparing for the season, my main focus has been trying to find answers to the question, ‘How can we be consistent and play at our best each game?'” Tyson commented. “With a bunch of new players there are many lineup options on the table and a lot that needs to be covered during our week of preseason.”

The Royals start the year hosting the EMU Invitational, a six-team classic in Yoder Arena on Aug. 29 and 30. EMU plays 13 matches, including 10 at weekend tourneys, before their ODAC opener against Virginia Wesleyan on Sept. 17.

Tyson intentionally built this year’s schedule to prepare his squad for the balanced ODAC competition. Despite being second in conference history with eight ODAC Championships, Eastern Mennonite’s women will be looking to return to the conference tourney for just the second time since 2003.

“At the end of the season what truly matters is how we did in conference play,” said Tyson, “and so my goal is that we are ready when it comes time to play our first conference match. I built the start of our season around a few non-conference tournaments and matches against a variety of teams in Virginia and beyond. My hope is that we are ready on September 17 when we open the conference schedule.”

While defense will be a strength once again this year, Tyson expects his women’s flexibility in trying new things on the court will push them to grow.

“Of course I am excited for the new season,” he explained. “Each new season is filled with unexpected peaks and valleys, but I think this year will be a season full of peaks as the team continues to get better.”

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