Coming off of a magical 2003 volleyball season, the Valparaiso University Crusaders head into 2004 looking to repeat the success of a year ago. The defending Mid-Continent Conference champions are coming off of their first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history, and look to remain at the top of the league's standings.
Valpo finished with a 27-8 record overall and 13-1 mark in league play to capture the regular season title last season. Head coach Carin Avery returns eight players from last year's team and has brought in six newcomers that will look to gel with the returnees to continue the championship tradition that has begun at Valpo.
Avery, the reigning Mid-Con Coach of the Year has three First Team All Mid-Con performers returning for the 2004 season. Libero of the Year Sara Silcox spearheads the Crusaders' defense. The senior from Michigan City, Ind. finished 18th in the nation in 2004 with 4.56 digs per game, and her 543 total digs on the year set a new school single season mark. She enters the year with a string of 17 consecutive double-figure dig matches after recording 31 total last year. Silcox heads into her final season needing just 255 digs to become the Crusaders' career leader in that category.
Silcox and fellow senior Lindsey Moore will be responsible for providing the team's senior leadership. Moore is also a defensive specialist, giving Valpo one of the most experienced back rows in the league. Moore averaged 2.48 digs per game in 2003 and also finished second on the squad with 29 service aces.
The Brown and Gold also sport a talented junior class. Liz Mikos was another First Team All Mid-Continent Conference selection last year. The middle blocker ranked second in the nation among all Division I schools with 1.77 blocks per game.
Mikos, a member of the Mid-Con All-Tournament Team as well, shattered Valpo's single season total blocks record last year with 196 total. Her mark broke the old one by 66 while she also set the new single season solo block mark with 46. She moves into her junior year ranked seventh all-time on Valpo's block charts already and looks to continue her climb this year.
Right side hitter Lauren Moulton joined Mikos and Silcox on the Mid-Con First Team last season and looks for another stellar performance this year. The conference Athlete of the Month for October last year, she finished third in the Mid-Con hitting at a .290 rate for the season. She joined her classmate Mikos as a force at the net finishing fourth in the league with 1.03 blocks per game. Moulton registered 17 double-figure kill matches in 2003 and tallied at least one block in every match.
Junior Katie Bova has big shoes to fill this year as she moves into the full-time setter position. She will quarterback the Crusaders' offense after taking over for Cyndi Norman who graduated from Valpo second all-time in career assists. Bova was the only member of the Brown and Gold to appear in all 127 games throughout the year last season, playing mostly on defense. She finished the season with 355 digs, and posted a team-high 40 service aces.
The team's fourth junior, Jessi Novak, will see considerably more playing time in 2004. An outside hitter, Novak has steadily improved throughout her first two year's with the Brown and Gold. Last season, in a limited role, Novak averaged nearly two kills per game and also recorded 2.25 digs per game.
A pair of sophomores make up the final returning group for the Crusaders. Jessie Fox returns in the middle after appearing in 39 games during her rookie season. Fox averaged 2.36 kills and 0.38 blocks per game during the year. She showed signs of what she is capable of doing when she registered 14 kills at Bowling Green.
Beth Cabernoch is the final retunee for the Crusaders this season. Cabernoch appeared in seven matches last year and recorded three aces at Centenary. She will look to see more action this year from the right side.
Coach Avery has brought in a talented group of newcomers that will look to continue the winning tradition at Valpo. Sara Hughes was a three-time All-League selection at Perrysburg High School in Ohio and will look to back Bova up at the setter position.
A pair of outside hitters also arrive at Valpo with stellar prep credentials. Tiffany Meikle was a Fourth Team All-State selection in Wisconsin as a senior playing for Monona Grove High School. She will join Amy Palash as the rookies hitting from the outside.
Palash led Saint Francis High School to the state championship in Illinois as both a junior and senior. Twice named to the State All-Tournament Team, she also earned Second Team All-State honors during her high school career.
Nicole Schulz will join Valpo's talented group of middle blockers this season. Schulz helped lead Kettle Moraine Lutheran High School to two state titles and another runner-up finish in Wisconsin.
A pair of defensive specialists also arrive at Valpo to begin their collegiate volleyball careers. Heidi Hammond led Merrillville High School to a pair of sectional titles in Indiana while setting school records for digs in a season and career.
Hammond will be joined in the back row by another newcomer Alex Chism. Chism transferred in to Valparaiso from Miami (Ohio) where she did not play volleyball. With four years of eligibility remaining, she will vie for playing time after taking a year off from the sport.
Valpo's schedule will be a challenging one as the Crusaders attempt to defend their conference title. The Brown and Gold will open at the Athletics-Recreation Center on September 1 as the Wolverines of Michigan travel to Valparaiso. The Crusaders will travel to three non-conference tournaments this year. Ball State, Kentucky, and Saint Louis will all host Valpo for a weekend event.
The Crusaders' non-conference slate also includes trips to both Notre Dame and Purdue, while the Brown and Gold will entertain DePaul, Toledo, and IPFW at the ARC.
Mid-Con action will begin September 24 when tournament runner-up Oral Roberts invades the ARC. The conference tournament is set for November 19-20, with the event taking place in Tulsa, Okla. this season.
The nucleus is in place for another successful Valpo volleyball season. The only question that remains is how quickly will the newcomers mesh with the returnees? If it happens quickly, the Crusaders could be in line to defend their 2003 conference title.