Following the unprecedented success of the 2004 season, the Valparaiso University Crusaders look to continue their reign of dominance in the 2005 campaign. Back-to-back Mid-Continent Conference championships and NCAA Tournament appearances have established these Crusader teams as some of the premier squads in Valpo volleyball history, a legacy which this year's team will look to uphold.
The 2004 version of the Crusaders was the most successful in school history, finishing with an overall record of 29-5, including a 14-0 mark in league play. Six starters and five reserves return from that team for two-time Mid-Con Coach of the year Carin Avery, who brings in three newcomers to complement the eleven returnees for the 2005 squad.
Avery returns multiple Mid-Continent Conference award winners, including reigning Player of the Year Lauren Moulton. Moulton, a senior right side hitter, finished among the league leaders in numerous categories, including fifth in hitting percentage (.286), sixth in blocks per game (1.12), and seventh in kills per game (3.36). Moulton also tallied five kills or more every time out for Valpo, including 26 matches with double figures, and registered at least one block in every match for the second consecutive year. In addition, Moulton received conference Player of the Week accolades twice and was Athlete of the Month for September.
Joining Moulton up front is the quarterback of the Crusaders offense, senior setter Katie Bova. Bova, the 2004 Mid-Con Setter of the Year, led the conference with 1,429 assists last season, good for second on the Valpo single-season record list. Bova also ranked seventh in the league in hitting percentage, hitting a stellar .278 for the season. She also displayed her versatility throughout the campaign, finishing with double-digit assists in all 34 matches, double-digit digs 17 times, and double-digit kills twice, including a triple-double against Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament (10 kills, 44 assists, 18 digs).
Middle blocker Liz Mikosł another member of Valparaiso's senior class, continues to rewrite the Crusader record books throughout the blocking categories. Mikos, a Second Team All Mid-Con pick last season, finished with 184 blocks in 2004, good for second-best in Crusader history, trailing only her own 2003 season. She also finished 20th nationally and tops in the Mid-Con by recording 1.55 blocks per game. Her 423 career blocks rank second on the Valpo all-time list, just 20 blocks from becoming the record holder. Not to be overlooked, Mikos also produced well offensively in 2004, producing double-digit kills 13 times and finishing the season with a .261 hitting percentage, eighth best in the Mid-Con.
The Crusaders' fourth senior, outside hitter Jessi Novak, looks to continue to contribute to the Valpo offense this season. In her first season as a member of the starting lineup, Novak was among the league's leaders in digs per game, finishing tenth with 3.33. Novak also produced 318 kills on the season, including a stretch of eight straight matches with ten or more kills. Novak showed a proclivity for the top matches, finishing with 15 kills and 25 digs in Valpo's victory over Notre Dame and putting together 15 kills with only 2 errors in the Mid-Con Tournament championship.
One of two juniors on the 2005 Crusader squad is middle blocker Jessie Fox. Fox, a Second Team All Mid-Con selection, joined with Mikos to form an impressive blocking tandem. Her 140 blocks on the year was the third-best single-season output for a Crusader, trailing only Mikos, while her 1.18 blocks per game ranked as fourth-best in the conference. Fox also stood out offensively for Valpo, tallying 322 kills on the season and hitting at a .280 clip, good for sixth in the Mid-Con.
Alex Chism returns for her junior season as a defensive specialist for the Crusaders. She appeared in 11 matches in her debut campaign for Valpo and displayed her ability in a match at the Billiken Invitational, where she recorded four aces and seven digs against North Texas and was subsequently named to the All-Tournament Team.
Valparaiso also returns five sophomores to the 2005 team. Amy Palash made the Mid-Con All-Freshman Team in her debut season as an outside hitter, in addition to receiving Player of the Week accolades once. Palash finished among the Mid-Con's best in both digs per game (fifth, 4.17) and kills per game (ninth, 3.01). Her 358 kills trailed only Moulton for team-high honors, while her 496 digs placed her fourth on the Valpo single-season list.
Outside hitter Tiffany Meikle is the second returning member of Valpo's sophomore class. In limited action last season, Meikle recorded 57 kills and 66 digs. She showed signs of what she is capable of doing in the Crusaders' hard-fought victory at Oral Roberts, where she registered 12 kills and 17 digs.
Nicole Schulz looks to back up Mikos and Fox as a middle blocker for her second season. Schulz saw action in eight matches for the Crusaders during her freshman campaign, with a four-block effort at Centenary among the highlights. She also put down at least four kills in three of her appearances.
Backing up Bova at setter will be sophomore returnee Sara Hughes. Having received playing time in 11 matches during 2004, Hughes showed she is a more-than-capable backup at the position, with three efforts of at least 23 assists standing out. The final member of the Crusader sophomore class is Heidi Hammond. Hammond will look to earn playing time as a libero this year after seeing limited action as a defensive specialist last season, registering 11 digs on the year.
Joining the 11 returnees are three newcomers who will look to leave their mark on the Crusader volleyball program. Brittany Marks was named to the All-State Team twice during her time at Elkhart Memorial High School. Marks, who will look to earn time at libero this season, led the Chargers in digs and service aces over the 2004 campaign. Prep teammate Allison Sears also joins the Crusaders for 2005 as a middle blocker. Sears was a four-time First Team All-Conference selection and twice made First Team All-State in her career at Elkhart Memorial, while leading the Chargers to a state finalist berth in 2003.
Jill Meyer rounds out the 2005 Valparaiso roster. Meyer will battle for playing time as a right side hitter this season. Meyer comes to the Crusaders from Crystal Lake South High School, where she earned All-Conference honors while leading the Gators to a conference championship.
The 2005 schedule will be a challenging test for the Crusaders as they look to return to the NCAA Tournament for a third straight year. Valpo kicks off the season by traveling to Western Michigan on August 27 to participate in WMU's Fall Kickoff Tournament. The Crusaders' schedule includes four other tournaments, among them the return of the Popcorn Classic on September 9-10. The Popcorn Classic, which will be held at the Athletics-Recreation Center, features Drake, Eastern Michigan, and Saint Louis in addition to the Crusaders.
The InnTowner Invitational at Wisconsin looks to be the biggest challenge of the Crusaders' season, as Valpo will face Villanova, UCLA, and Wisconsin over September 16-17. The latter two teams both made the Elite Eight of the NCAA Volleyball Tournament last season and are both ranked among the top-13 in the AVCA preseason poll. The non-conference slate also features a home match-up versus Illinois-Chicago and trips to Loyola (Ill.), IPFW, and Notre Dame.
Mid-Continent Conference play begins September 23 for Valparaiso as the Crusaders travel to Kansas City to battle UMKC, while tournament runner-up Oral Roberts comes to the ARC November 13 to close out conference play. The Mid-Con Tournament will be hosted by Valpo this year, with semifinal matches being played the evening of November 19 and the championship held on November 20 at the ARC.
Valparaiso returns the vast majority of last year's championship team. The missing piece is at the libero position, where the Crusaders lost back-row stalwart Sara Silcox to graduation. If Valpo can find a suitable player for the position, the Crusaders should once again be a force to be reckoned with in the Mid-Continent Conference and beyond.