The Valparaiso volleyball program’s reign of excellence continued in 2009, as the Crusaders won 22 matches and finished in second place in the Horizon League regular season standings for the second straight year. Having won 20 or more matches for eight straight years, a feat accomplished by just 13 programs nationwide, Valpo enters 2010 with the confidence that it will continue its run of success, as nine players, including five starters, return from last year’s squad and are joined by a talented class of eight freshmen.
Head coach Carin Avery has experienced nothing but success at the helm of the Crusader volleyball program. Her first season as head coach coincided with the first year of Valpo’s current run of excellence, as she has guided the Crusaders to 20 or more victories in each of her eight seasons. Last year, Avery led Valpo to 22 wins and a runner-up finish in the Horizon League for the second straight season.
Entering her 12th season overall as a member of the Crusader coaching staff, Avery owns a 194-73 (.727) record at Valpo and a 249-97 (.720) record overall as a head coach. She ranks among the top-20 winningest active Division I head coaches by winning percentage, and is also one of the youngest Division I head coaches with at least 200 career victories. During her eight years, she has led Valpo to five league championship match appearances, three regular season titles, three league tournament titles and three NCAA Tournament appearances.
Assistant coach Craig Cromwell returns for his second season as a part of the Crusader coaching staff after helping to guide Valpo to 22 wins a year ago. Joining the staff this year as a graduate assistant is Ashley Edinger, who ended her career at Illinois as the program’s all-time leader in digs.
The Crusaders return the Horizon League Newcomer of the Year to lead their corps on the back line this season.
Sophomore Taylor Root enters 2010 as the incumbent libero after enjoying one of the best freshman campaigns in Crusader history. Root was named the league’s Newcomer of the Year and was tabbed as an All-League selection while setting a new Valpo freshman record with 586 digs, fifth-most in a single season in program history. She was named a CVU.com ‘Rising Star’, an accolade awarded to only 19 freshmen nationwide, and finished her rookie year ranked 29th nationally with 5.05 digs/set while starting every match for the Crusaders at libero.
Senior Andrea Balsis has made the transition to defensive specialist as she prepares for her final season. Balsis saw action in 32 of Valpo’s 33 matches as a junior, ranking fourth on the team with 2.26 digs/set. She picked up double figures in digs on five occasions, including a career-best 20 in a five-set win over Wright State.
A trio of freshmen also will be fighting for playing time in the back row as the Crusaders embark on the 2010 campaign. Sarah Chrabaszcz was an Honorable Mention All-Conference selection as a senior at Reedsburg Area [Wis.] H.S., where she was named her team’s Best Passer in each of her final two seasons.
Ariel Cudney helped lead LaPorte [Ind.] H.S. to three straight conference and sectional championships and was a two-time All-State selection with the Slicers. Casey Phillips earned Honorable Mention All-Area accolades in each of her final two years at Dyer [Ind.] H.S., where she was honored as team MVP for her senior season.
“I’m very excited about who we have coming back and also add in the back row,” said Avery. “We’ve lacked depth the past few years in the back, but now we have many different options, all of whom are gritty, feisty competitors, which is how you want players in this position to play. Having Taylor return with a year’s experience under her belt, we feel she should be more confident in taking charge in the back this season. She has worked hard on our serving in the offseason and should be even better this year.”
Jenny Pokorny looks to assume the reigns as the quarterback of the Crusader offense entering her junior year this season.
Pokorny saw time all over the court last year as a sophomore for Valpo, including some part-time action at setter, but will now look to take over her natural position full-time in 2010. The junior ranked second on the team in assists/set (2.23) and third in digs/set (2.54), reaching double figures in digs 10 times and in assists on eight occasions. She also became the first Crusader in five seasons to post a triple-double, going for 12 digs, 12 assists and 10 kills against Oakland. Cudney also could see action backing up Pokorny as the Crusaders’ setter.
“I’m really excited to be able to move Jenny back to her natural position,” said Avery. “She earned valuable experience all around the court last year, all of which will help her be a better setter this year. She had a standout spring season running our offense, and her natural athletic ability makes her a great option at setter, one who people will have fun watching lead our team. We’re lucky to have Ariel here as well. She is an athlete in the same mold as Jenny and will back her up at setter, but has the ability to play all over the court and is one of our best servers.”
Valpo’s set of middles entering 2010 sit at both ends of the experience spectrum, as two seniors return for their final season and are joined by three freshmen.
Tara Diebler has been a regular in the Crusaders’ starting lineup since her first match as a freshman and looks to retain that position in 2010. Diebler led Valpo in hitting percentage (.252) and service aces/set (0.26) as a junior, ranking seventh in the Horizon League in the latter category. She also finished 2009 second on the team in kills/set (2.88) and blocks/set (0.58).
Katie Layman also is back for her final season as a Crusader in 2010. Layman appeared in all 33 matches a year ago, leading the way for Valpo in the blocking department with a team-best 0.63 blocks/set. She also showed the ability to produce on the offensive side of the ball, posting four matches with double-figure kills.
A trio of newcomers will look to challenge the pair of seniors for playing time this year. Lindsey Hauch was a two-time Second Team All-State honoree at Coloma [Mich.] H.S. and was named her team’s Top Offensive Player in each of her four seasons. Janelle Hobbs earned Honorable Mention All-State accolades her final two years playing for Hartland [Wis.] H.S., while Ellen Vanden Berg was a Third Team All-State honoree at Little Chute [Wis.] H.S. as a senior.
“We’re lucky this year that our newcomers in the middle have a pair of seniors that they can learn from,” said Avery. “The freshmen bring different strengths to the team than our seniors do, but on the whole, we’re hoping to touch a lot more balls in the middle on our block this year. We also want to be able to run more of our offense through the middles this year than we have the past few seasons.”
A quartet of players will be fighting for the pair of spots at outside hitter in 2010 for the Crusaders.
Katie Britton enters her junior season after playing a big role on the outside for Valpo in 2009. Britton finished second on the team in hitting percentage (.236) and third in kills/set (2.78) while posting double figures in kills on 15 occasions. She also earned All-Tournament honors as a sophomore at the Drake Invitational.
Sophomore Mary Dent saw limited action as a rookie for the Crusaders, but showed flashes of brilliance when she did take the court, averaging 1.32 kills/set. Dent especially stood out against league regular season champion Cleveland State, hitting .400 with 14 kills over two matches against the Vikings.
Sarah Dooms arrives at Valpo for her freshman year from Center Grove [Ind.] H.S., where she earned Indiana All-Star accolades and was a First Team All-State honoree as a senior. Fellow newcomer Kelsey Victor earned First Team All-Conference recognition in each of her final three seasons at Logansport [Ind.] H.S.
“Just like the middles, our outsides really bring a lot of different talents to the table,” said Avery. “Katie gives us a tall presence on the outside who can help on the block, while Mary can jump out of the gym and had a standout spring season. With the addition of the two freshmen as well, we can go with a number of very different looks on the outside to keep opponents off-balance.”
The Crusaders have a pair of experienced players who will vie for time on the right side of the court this season.
Fifth-year senior Val Bollenbacher returns in 2010 following a medical redshirt last season, when she was injured in the Crusaders’ first set of the year. Bollenbacher, who saw most action in her first three seasons at outside hitter, enters her second senior year just 171 kills away from the 1,000 kill mark for her career.
Junior Amy Groesbeck played in nearly every match for Valpo in 2009 on the right side, finishing third on the team in blocks/set (0.36). Groesbeck reached double figures in kills on six occasions last season and earned All-Tournament accolades at the Saluki Invitational.
“Like with our other front-row players, Val and Amy come in as very different players with their own strengths,” said Avery. “Val is a strong all-around player, both in the front and back rows, and has a cannon arm. What she learned on the bench last year while recovering from injury has made her a stronger player. Amy got a lot of valuable playing time last year, really strengthens our block at the net, and also is capable of being a key part of our offense.”
The 2010 season begins this Friday, August 27 in Philadelphia, as the Crusaders will play in two separate gyms on the same day. Valpo kicks off the 2010 slate against Virginia in the early afternoon on the campus of Temple University. The Crusaders then will pack up and travel a few miles to play in the La Salle Invitational for the remainder of the weekend. Valpo will also play pre-league tournaments at Appalachian State and Bradley.
Play at home at the ARC, where the Crusaders have won 84.3% (75-14) of the time over the last eight years, coincides with the start of the double round-robin Horizon League slate, as Wright State comes to town on September 17. Non-league matchups interspersed throughout the league schedule include a home showdown against IUPUI and road meetings with Oakland, SIU Edwardsville, Chicago State and Western Michigan.
The home schedule concludes with matches against Green Bay and Milwaukee on October 29 and 30, respectively, while the regular season ends November 12 at Loyola. The Horizon League Championships will be contested starting on November 19 on the campus of the regular-season champion, with the winner of the tournament earning the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Valparaiso has been selected third in the Horizon League preseason poll this fall for the 2010 campaign. But with the nucleus returning from last year’s squad, the talented incoming class of freshmen, and the continued leadership of Avery on the sidelines, the Crusaders should again be challenging for the Horizon League Championship.