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New-Look Crusaders Gunning for Fourth Straight Mid-Con Title in 2006
Thursday, August 24, 2006The 2005 Valparaiso volleyball season was a coronation. The final piece in a puzzle that saw four seniors, the first to complete four seasons under Carin Avery, go 103-31 and win three straight Mid-Continent Conference championships.
Now, with the careers of Katie Bova, Liz Mikos, Lauren Moulton and Jessi Novak relegated to the record books, the 2006 Crusaders have a chance to write a legacy of their own. In Valpo's final season in the Mid-Con before a move to the Horizon League in 2007, the young and hungry Crusaders are primed to step out from the shadows and pick up right where their predecessors left off.
Already the winningest coach in program history, Carin Avery is back for her fifth season at the helm. The Mishawaka, Ind. native has won at least 20 matches in each of her first four seasons, and has led her teams to a ridiculous 40-2 record in the Mid-Con in the last three seasons. Avery can become the first Valpo coach to win four straight regular season and conference tournament titles since men's basketball coach Homer Drew won five in a row from 1994-99.
Avery won her 93rd match midway through last season to surpass Cindy Harris on Valpo's all-time wins list, and her 103 career victories place her fourth all-time in Mid-Con history, in only four seasons. Avery's winning percentage at Valpo (.762) is among the best in the country and the top percentage ever in the Mid-Con.
Joining Avery on the bench this season is first-year assistant Keith Schunzel. A highly-decorated collegian at Ball State, Schunzel served on the Purdue staff last year, helping the Boilermakers to a Sweet Sixteen appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
OUTSIDE HITTERS/RIGHT SIDES
With the departure of Jessi Novak, Lauren Moulton and Amy Palash, the Crusaders have a young and inexperienced group of hitters on the 2006 squad. Junior Tiffany Meikle, who blossomed filling in for an ill Palash down the stretch in 2005, is the leading returnee at the position.
At the 2005 Mid-Continent Conference Tournament, Meikle turned in the best two matches of her career, combining for 13 kills, 19 digs and five blocks as the Crusaders downed IUPUI and Oral Roberts en route to the title. Meikle earned All-Tournament honors for her performance, and will be counted on for more of the same in 2006.
Also back for 2006 is sophomore right side Jill Meyer, who played well in limited action in 2005. Meyer appeared in 12 matches as a freshman and recorded at least three kills in all but two of them, totalling 42 on the year. The 5'10" Meyer shined early in the season, setting a career high with seven kills against host DePaul at the Blue Demon Invitational on September 3.
Behind Meikle and Meyer, the Crusaders have two very talented freshmen, led by 2005 Northwest Indiana Times Player of the Year Angie Porché. A graduate of TF South High School, Porché led the Rebels to four straight conference championships and earned All-Conference honors three times.
Along with Porché, the Crusaders also add 5'11" Val Bollenbacher to the mix. A native of Bremen, Ind., near South Bend, Bollenbacher was a three-time All-Conference star at Bremen High School, leading the Lions to a pair of league titles.
In the middle, even with the graduation of all-time blocks queen Liz Mikos, the Crusaders bring back some serious muscle.
That group is led by two-time All-Conference star Jessie Fox, a major piece of the last two Mid-Con Champion Crusader teams. Fox had the best blocking season by anyone not named Mikos is school history in 2005, racking up 150 blocks on the year. Fox averaged 1.28 blocks per game last season, the fourth highest average in the Mid-Con.
But the senior doesn't just excel defensively, Fox is also a dangerous weapon when attacking. Her career hitting percentage of .247 is the seventh best mark in school history, and her 708 kills through three seasons have her on pace to crack the Crusaders' all-time top ten list before the season's end.
Along with Fox, the Crusaders also return promising sophomore Allison Sears. The Elkhart, Ind. native missed most of the first half of last season with a knee injury but came on strong later in the year. A two-time First Team All-State star in high school, Sears finished the year with 31 kills in only 14 games, including nine October 15 at Centenary.
Also back for 2006 is Nicole Schulz, who could also see time as a right side. Schulz has played in 19 matches during her first two seasons and picked up 35 kills and 20 blocks. Schulz put forth a well-balanced four kill, two block, two dig effort last season at Chicago State on October 29.
Katie Bova, who won each of the last two Mid-Continent Conference Setter of the Year awards is gone, and the competition for the Crusaders' new setter is wide open.
Sara Hughes is the only returnee with any experience at setter, serving as Bova's back up each of the last two years. Hughes has tallied 169 assists in her career, including 70 last season when she led the team with a .478 hitting percentage.
Hughes' competition will come from a pair of freshmen, Kim Bukowski and Haley Wise. Bukowski, a native of Waukesha, Wis., was a two-time All-Area and All-Conference performer in high school, leading her team to the Sectional Finals as a senior.
Wise, who graduated from Avery's alma mater, Mishawaka High School, led the Cavemen to four straight Northern Indiana Conference championships. Wise, who earned Second Team All-State honors in 2004 and 2005 may also see time as a defensive specialist.
Valpo's most experienced group in 2006 will be the back line, where everyone returns from a season ago.
Heading up that group is sophomore libero Brittany Marks, who earned Mid-Con All-Freshman honors last season. After stepping into the libero role midway through the year, Marks excelled, averaging a team-best 4.07 digs per game. Marks was named the Mid-Con's Defensive Player of the Week on October 10 after recording 28 digs in two matches during the preceding week.
Joining Marks again will be junior Heidi Hammond who saw time in 29 of 31 matches last season. Hammond finished fourth on the team with 296 digs, including five straight double-digit dig matches from late August through early September. Twice last season Hammond set a career-high in digs, picking up 21 against Eastern Michigan and on the road at Western Illinois.
One of only two seniors, Alex Chism rounds out the Valpo defensive unit. Last season Chism appeared in 34 matches and played in 110 games, the fifth highest total on the team. Confident beyond the service line with only 28 errors in two seasons, Chism set a career-high with 16 digs at Western Illinois on September 24 of last season.
The Crusaders have not shied away from any opponents in the first four years under Carin Avery and this year is no different. The Brown and Gold face a schedule that includes three team's in the preseason Top 25 and five NCAA Tournament teams from last year.
The year starts out in Chicago, Ill. where the Crusaders will meet a pair of future Horizon League foes, UIC and Loyola (Chicago) as part of the two-day, three-match Chicagoland Classic.
After that it's down to Notre Dame, Ind. where Valpo will participate in the prestigious Shamrock Invitational, hosted by Notre Dame. But before the Crusaders take to the court in the tournament they will square off, in Notre Dame, against #6 Santa Clara who lost to eventual National Champion Nebraska in the semifinals of last year's NCAA Tournament.
That Santa Clara match is scheduled for 11:00 a.m. on September 1. At 6:00 p.m., the Crusaders will begin play in the Shamrock Invitational against the host Fighting Irish, ranked 21st in the CSTV/AVCA Preseason Coaches Poll. This year's meeting will be the 24th all-time against their neighbors to the East, who the Brown and Gold defeated on the road in 2004.
On September 2, Valpo gets back to work at the Shamrock Invitational against another ranked team, #13 Missouri who, along with Notre Dame, was in the Sweet Sixteen of the 2005 NCAA Tournament. The day concludes for the Crusaders at 3:30 p.m. when they meet Idaho in the tournament finale.
Valpo has two more non-conference tournaments in the next two weeks, the Cyclone Classic hosted by Iowa State and Western Carolina's fifth annual Catamount Clash Tournament.
The Crusaders also have non-conference matches scheduled against DePaul, Missouri State, Illinois State, IPFW and Chicago State.
As for Valpo's final season in the Mid-Continent Conference, it kicks off on September 22 when the Crusaders welcome Oakland to the Athletics-Recreation Center. Other key matchups include September 29 and October 28 battles with preseason league favorite Oral Roberts, and November 4, Valpo's final home appearance of the season.
If the Crusaders qualify for the conference tournament by placing in the top four during the regular season, they will head to Tulsa, Okla. November 17-18 for a shot at a fourth straight Mid-Con Tournament title and an automatic berth in a fourth straight NCAA Tournament.
The 2006 regular season concludes for Valpo November 24 and 25 in Oxford, Ohio at the Miami Thanksgiving Invitational.
While some of the names may have changed, the Valpo tradition remains the same. And even with great turnover on the court, the Crusader volleyball team still enters the 2006 season with great expectations. This talented mix of young and hungry players with a few battle-tested leaders is aiming high in 2006, setting their sights on leaving the Mid-Continent Conference on top - for the fourth year in a row.