The Valparaiso volleyball program’s reign of excellence rolled right along in 2008, as the Crusaders won 25 matches, including 13 in a row at one point, and finished in second place in the Horizon League in just their second season in the league. Entering the 2009 campaign, Valpo is one of just 15 programs nationwide to have a streak of at least seven straight 20-win seasons, and there is no reason to believe another standout season isn’t in the cards. Ten letterwinners return from last year’s squad, including four starters, as the Crusaders look to fight for their first Horizon League crown.
The most successful coach in Crusader volleyball history, head coach Carin Avery is back on the sidelines for her eighth season as head coach of the Valparaiso program. Last season, Avery guided the Crusaders to a 25-7 season, the second-best record under her watch, including wins over five NCAA Tournament teams, as well as perennial Big East power and local rival Notre Dame.
Entering her 11th season overall as part of the Valpo coaching staff, Avery has led the Crusaders to at least 20 victories and at least a third-place league finish in each of her first seven seasons as head coach. She has won 172 times during her seven seasons at Valpo and holds an overall winning percentage of .725, good for 19th among active Division I head coaches. During her seven years, Avery has guided the Crusaders to five league championship match appearances, three regular season titles, three league tournament titles and three NCAA Tournament appearances.
Joining the Crusader coaching staff as an assistant coach this season is Craig Cromwell. Cromwell arrives at Valpo after spending four years as an assistant coach at Chesterton H.S., where the Trojans went 109-29 during his tenure. Cromwell also brings a wealth of other coaching and playing experience with him to the position.
A two-time All-American leads the group of returning outside hitters for the 2009 Crusaders.
Senior Angie Porché has seemingly made history every time she has stepped on the court the last three years for Valpo. The first All-American in program history, she has earned Honorable Mention recognition from the AVCA each of the last two years, as well as receiving All-Region honors. Porché was named the Horizon League Player of the Year last year after finishing seventh in the nation with 4.61 kills/set and also received multiple accolades off the court, as she was one of ten female finalists for the Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar Award and also a CoSIDA Academic All-District V honoree. Porché enters her senior year already Valpo’s career record holder for kills (1,599) and attacks (3,976), and holds three of the top-five single-season kill totals in Crusader history.
“After offseason shoulder surgery, our hope is that Angie can come back pain-free and can close an outstanding career with a great senior season,” said Avery. “We’re looking to her to hopefully continue to lead our team as our go-to player on the court, as she has throughout her career.”
Senior Val Bollenbacher returns for her final season after having cemented herself as a viable threat on both sides of the ball as a junior. Bollenbacher finished third on the team last year in both kills/set (2.57) and digs/set (2.66), reaching double figures in kills 15 times and in digs on 19 occasions. She now has totaled 829 career kills in her first three seasons, leaving herself just 202 terminations shy of Valpo’s all-time top-ten in the category.
“Val has put herself into a position to have a great senior season for us,” said Avery. “She’s had a very good career as an offensive force, and has progressed into one of our best players on the back line passing the ball.”
Junior Andrea Balsis will be asked to step up and assume a larger role in her third season with the Crusaders. Last year, Balsis saw action in 22 matches for Valpo, mainly in the back row, and registered 47 digs on the season.
“Ann will definitely see some more playing time in the back row for us this year,” said Avery. “She had a very good spring season and is currently playing at her highest level since arriving on campus as a freshman.”
Sophomore Amy Groesbeck will look to earn some playing time on the right side for Valpo this year. Groesbeck appeared in eight matches last year in her rookie campaign with the Crusaders, tallying nine kills.
“Amy worked extremely hard during the spring season to improve to the level we need her to play at to be successful,” said Avery. “She is the best blocker on our team, and with her heavy arm, we hope to see her do some great things offensively this year.”
Freshman Mary Dent joins the Crusaders this year after an outstanding high school career at Von Steuben [Ill.] H.S. A three-time All-Area and First Team All-City honoree, Dent set Von Steuben single-match, single-season and career records for kills, as well as breaking career records for hitting percentage and kill percentage.
“Mary comes to us as an extremely athletic front-row player,” said Avery. “Once she grows into the pace of play at the collegiate level, she can be a real threat to finish rallies with kills for us.”
Valparaiso brings back three middle hitters for the 2009 campaign.
Junior Tara Diebler has been a regular in the starting lineup in each of her first two seasons in a Crusader uniform and looks to contribute from the middle again this year. Diebler, who changed her last name from Newton after getting married in the offseason, was second among Crusader in blocking last year, finishing the season with 60 blocks, and also tallied 202 kills on the year.
“Tara was the focal point of our offense this spring and really thrived in that expanded role,” said Avery. “To be successful this year, we need to get her the ball and we need her to keep picking up kills out of the middle.”
After earning valuable starting experience as a freshman, junior Katie Layman saw limited action over 13 matches last year, but made the most of her playing time, picking up 48 kills while swinging at a .291 clip.
“We’re looking for a good season out of Katie this year,” said Avery. “She has progessively been improving, especially on the defensive side of the ball, and we are excited about her blocking entering this season.”
Sophomore Katie Britton gives the Crusaders an option not only out of the middle, but also on the outside and on the right side. Britton played sparingly as a rookie last year over 15 matches, tallying 15 kills on the season.
“With her height and athleticism, we have a lot of options on how to use Katie to make us a better team,” said Avery. “She worked hard in the spring and has the potential entering this year to put up some good offensive numbers, which we’ll need to replace the production lost to graduation.”
Valparaiso returns both setters from the 2008 squad that led the nation in both kills and assists per set.
Senior Kim Bukowski returns for her final season after stepping into the starting role prior to last season and standing out, earning AVCA Honorable Mention All-Region honors to go along with a spot on the Horizon League All-League squad. Bukowski tallied 11.68 assists/set on the year, leading the league and finishing sixth in the nation in the category. Her 1,355 total assists on the season rank sixth in a single season in Crusader history, and she enters her final year seventh in Valpo history in career assists with 2,362.
“We’re hoping for another outstanding year from Kim quarterbacking the offense,” said Avery. “Her decision-making and execution last year allowed us to lead the nation in kills and assists, and we’re really excited to have her back for one last year running the offense.”
Sophomore Jenny Pokorny earned valuable experience last year in her first season as a Crusader. Pokorny appeared in 22 matches and showed she could handle the Valpo offense as well, handing out 153 assists on the year.
“Jenny is the most athletic player on our team,” said Avery. “And after a year under her belt, she has really learned the tempo of our offense and is clicking with our hitters, giving us two viable options at the setter position.”
While the Crusaders lose their most accomplished back-row player in program history in Brittany Malicoat, they return a senior presence on the back line and also bring in a pair of newcomers, including a High School All-American.
Senior Haley Wise saw the most extensive playing time of her career last season for the Crusaders, appearing in 29 matches for Valpo on the back line. Wise posted 224 digs on the season and reached double figures in the category on ten occasions.
“Haley can get overlooked because of her role as a defensive specialist, but she was a vital factor in some of our big wins last year with her serve receive and defensive prowess,” said Avery. “We will need her to step up and be a leader this year for a young group on the back line."
Sophomore Nicole Meador walked on to the Crusader squad in the spring of 2009. Meador brings with her a wealth of experience playing with multiple Chicagoland club teams.
“We’re happy that Nicole has joined the program this year to help us as another passer and defender,” said Avery. “She will provide good depth for us in the back row.”
Freshman Taylor Root ranks among the most decorated recruits the Valpo volleyball program has ever brought in. Root was named a PrepVolleyball.com High School All-American following her senior year, one of just three liberos nationwide so honored. She guided Jenison [Mich.] H.S. to back-to-back state titles in her final two seasons and was one of ten finalists for Michigan’s Miss Volleyball award.
“Taylor played at an extremely high level in both high school and club volleyball,” said Avery. “She is fitting into our system extremely well right now, and brings an advanced ability to dig and pass to our back line.”
The Crusaders kick off the 2009 season on August 28 as they face Colorado at a tournament hosted by Florida. Valpo will also take on UNLV in Gainesville before moving on the next weekend to the Drake Invitational, where it will match up with Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, South Dakota and Centenary in addition to the host Bulldogs.
The second weekend of September brings a challenging test for the Crusaders as they travel to Carbondale, Ill. to compete in the Saluki Invitational. The tournament kicks off with Murray State, which advanced to the Ohio Valley conference championship match last season, and continues with UAB, which won 27 matches out of Conference USA and earned an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament, advancing to the second round. Valpo will also take on host Southern Illinois.
The Horizon League double round-robin slate kicks off for Valparaiso September 18 as the Crusaders play at Youngstown State. After facing the Penguins, Valpo heads further east to play a pair of matches at Pittsburgh, taking on the host Panthers as well as Maryland Eastern Shore, which won 25 matches and went undefeated in MEAC play last season.
Play at home at the ARC, where the Crusaders have won 83.3% (65-13) of the time in Avery’s seven years, begins September 25 against Wright State, kicking off a string of five straight home matches. Interspersed throughout the league double round-robin schedule are non-league tilts at home against Indiana State, Oakland and Chicago State and a road match at IUPUI.
The final home weekend of the season will be November 6-7, when the Crusaders host league foes UIC and Loyola, while the final match of the year at the ARC will be November 10 against Chicago State. The league slate concludes November 14 at Green Bay, with the Horizon League Championships being contested the next weekend. One last regular season contest looms November 28 at Western Michigan, where the Crusaders went and swept the Broncos immediately preceding WMU’s Sweet 16 run last season.