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Crusaders Take Aim at Top of Horizon League in 2008
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
While the 2007 Valparaiso volleyball team returned 10 players, including five starters, it was still a year of transition for the program. The squad competed for the Horizon League crown for the first time, facing new league foes up and down the schedule. The team had to adjust mid-season to the loss of two starters to injury, forcing others to step up and assume larger roles. Still, the Crusaders placed third in their first season of league play and advanced to the league championship match.
Entering the 2008 campaign, however, there is no more transition. They have experienced each of the trips in league play. They have played in each of the league’s venues. They have now adjusted to the rigors of the Horizon League schedule, knowing that they have to be at their best in every single match. For this Crusader squad, the goal is simple: use the knowledge gained from last year’s transition to challenge for a league championship and NCAA Tournament berth in 2008.
The longest-tenured coach in Valparaiso volleyball history, head coach Carin Avery returns for her seventh season at the helm of the Crusader program. Avery guided the Crusaders through their transition into the Horizon League last year, leading the squad to a third-place finish and a spot in the league championship match.
Entering her tenth season overall as a member of the Valpo coaching staff, Avery has amassed 147 victories through her first six years as the Crusaders’ head coach. More impressively, however, she has led Valpo to at least 20 wins in each of her six seasons, making the Crusaders one of just 19 Division I teams to accomplish the feat. She has guided the Crusaders to five straight league championship match appearances, and has three regular season titles, three league tournament titles and three NCAA Tournament appearances during her time at Valpo.
Joining Avery on the sidelines this season is first-year assistant coach Shawn Taylor. Taylor comes to Valpo after one season as head coach at Kansas Wesleyan, where he was named the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference Coach of the Year after leading the Coyotes to a 27-8 record and the conference championship.
The reigning Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year anchors the back line for the Crusaders entering the 2008 season.
Senior Brittany Malicoat surpassed even her own lofty standards last season, breaking her own school record for digs in a season by registering 740 digs en route to earning Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year accolades. The all-league honoree also demolished the previous league record in the category by 161 digs. She finished 23rd in the nation with 5.78 digs/game and led the Crusaders in digs in 31 of their 33 matches. Also a threat from the service line, the senior finished second in the league with 0.34 aces/game and ranks tenth in Crusader history with 113 career aces.
“We’re banking on another successful season from Brittany,” said Avery. “We hope she can produce the same kind of numbers that she did last year. If we can get her touching the ball on every play, good things will happen with our team.”
Also returning in the back row is junior defensive specialist Haley Wise. Wise averaged 2.06 digs/game while appearing in 79 games as a sophomore.
“Haley had a great year for us last year,” said Avery. “While she didn’t play in every game because of the system we were running, for us to be successful this year, we feel she has to be on the court to be another ball control player opposite Brittany.”
The Crusaders bring back one setter while also bringing in a freshman at the position for the 2008 season.
Junior Kim Bukowski received the first significant playing time of her career last year, earning ten starts while playing as part of Valpo’s 6-2 rotation. Taking full advantage of the opportunity to play, Bukowski averaged 7.32 assists and 1.27 digs per game. Through two seasons, she already ranks eighth in Valpo history with 1,007 career assists.
“Entering this season, it is great for our team that Kim received lots of playing time last year,” said Avery. “Our offensive production was high when she was in the rotation, and we’re counting on her to continue running the offense at that level this year.”
Freshman Jenny Pokorny joins the Crusaders after an exceptional high school career at Geneva [Ill.] H.S. A three-time All-Area and All-Conference honoree, Pokorny set Geneva’s single-season assists record with 896 helpers as a junior, and also set the school career assists mark with 2,511, ninth-most all-time in Illinois.
“We are excited to have Jenny join our program,” said Avery. “She is not only a great setter, but a great competitor. She has all the intangibles that we were looking for in our setter for this year’s recruiting class. She also gives us some height at the position, which is something we haven’t had since I have been here.”
Three middle hitters with starting experience give the Crusaders depth at the position entering the 2008 campaign.
Senior Allison Sears looked on track for one of the most dominating years by a Crusader middle in program history in 2007, earning two All-Tournament team honors and a Horizon League Offensive Player of the Week accolade in the first four weeks of the season while averaging 4.16 kills and 1.11 blocks per game. But a season-ending injury suffered at Bowling Green derailed her junior year, and Sears has been rehabbing ever since in an effort to get back to full strength for her senior season.
“We are crossing our fingers that Allison will be healthy for the start of the season,” said Avery. “If she is close to 100%, she will be one of our top players both offensively and defensively. She is also an ideal leader on the court with her fierce competitive streak.”
Sophomore Katie Layman was the beneficiary of Sears’ injury, stepping in after not playing in the first ten matches of the season. Layman averaged 1.01 kills per game and led the Crusaders with 0.98 blocks/game, leading Valpo in the blocks department in eight consecutive matches and 16 times total on the year.
“Katie received a lot of playing time last year due to injuries, and that will only make her better entering her sophomore year,” said Avery. “She was our best blocker last fall and made some great strides during the spring season.”
One of just two Crusaders to appear in every game last year, sophomore Tara Newton was a steady performer in the middle for Valpo throughout her freshman campaign. She posted 1.62 kills and 0.63 blocks per game in 2007, and stood out in the first two matches of the Horizon League Championship, posting 20 kills on just 33 swings to help Valpo to the league title match.
“As a freshman, Tara received playing time that is going to help her enter this season more prepared,” said Avery. “She got on-the-job training on what it takes to be successful in the middle at this level. Tara made improvements in a lot of areas this spring, and we are very excited about her progress.”
Joining the Crusaders’ corps of middles in 2008 is freshman Katie Britton. Britton led Marian [Ind.] H.S. to the state title match as both a junior and senior, leading her squad in blocks and kills both seasons.
“We are excited about Katie’s potential here at Valpo,” said Avery. “We were lucky to get her away from several Big Ten programs. She moves extremely well for her size and can be a force at the net. With her size and mobility, we will be testing her at many different positions to see where she can best help our squad.”
The first All-American in program history leads the contingent of returning outsides for the 2008 Valpo volleyball team.
Junior Angie Porché made Valpo volleyball history last season when she was named an honorable mention All-American by the AVCA. Also an All-Midwest Region selection, Porché made her mark on the Crusader record books by tallying a school-record 584 kills on the year on 1,480 attacks, also a single-season program record. She was consistent throughout the season, posting double-digit kills in 30 of 33 matches and surpassing 20 kills on 14 occasions. She also vastly improved on the defensive end, closing the season with an average of 2.70 digs/game and registering at least 10 digs in 17 matches.
“Angie had a fabulous year for us last year, especially considering she was only a sophomore,” said Avery. “She put up the numbers she did despite being the focus of every opponent we played. Other teams felt that if they stopped Angie, they would stop our team, but she found a way to rise to another level and keep producing for us. I hope this year we can diversify the offense a little more and hopefully take some of the opposition’s focus off of Angie so that she can be potentially even more dangerous.”
Senior Jill Meyer started last year in a backup role as a right side hitter, but due to injuries found herself on the court more often than not, where she proved she could produce. She averaged 2.20 kills and 0.42 blocks per game in 2007 and broke double figures in kills on 11 occasions. She stepped up her game in the Horizon League Championship, registering 10 kills in Valpo’s opening win over Butler and then putting up 13 kills on .402 hitting as the Crusaders beat host Milwaukee.
“Jill had some great matches for us last year, and when she was on top of her game, we were a better team,” said Avery. “One of our keys for this year is for Jill to be on top of her game and producing for us in every match.”
Junior Val Bollenbacher saw significant playing time last year at outside hitter and will have the opportunity to earn a starting spot opposite Porché this year. Bollenbacher closed last year as Valpo’s second-most prolific offensive threat, posting 3.39 kills/game for the Crusaders. She reached double figures in kills 22 times, including eight straight matches to close out the 2007 season.
“Based on Val’s spring performance, we are really looking for great things from her this year,” said Avery. “We were able to use her as a focal point in the offense in the spring, and felt she did a good job eliminating some of her errors from the fall. Her performance this year will be a big key in our success.”
Sophomore Andrea Balsis appeared in 12 matches during her first season with the Crusaders and shone from the service line, posting 11 aces, including seven against St. Francis, the third-most aces in a match in Valpo history.
“Andrea is somebody who could really give us a lift this year,” said Avery. “She is the best server we have on our team. She really took some big strides during the spring season, strides that will make her an asset on the court for this year’s squad.”
Freshman Amy Groesbeck will look for playing time on the right side in her first season at Valpo. She earned All-Conference honors as a senior while helping guide Wheaton North [Ill.] H.S. to a regional championship berth.
“Amy comes from a high-level club team and is very well trained,” said Avery. “She is a big, strong athlete with a heavy arm who gives us some height in the front row. These attributes will help her fight for playing time as a freshman.”
Six 20-win teams from a season ago highlight the 2008 Valparaiso volleyball schedule.
The Crusaders will open the 2008 season at the Shamrock Invitational, hosted by Notre Dame, from August 29-31. Valpo will kick off tournament action against Nevada on Friday the 29th before facing IPFW on the 30th and Notre Dame on the 31st.
From there, Valpo heads to the adidas Classic in Bloomington, Ind., hosted by Indiana, September 5-6. Besides the host Hoosiers, the Crusaders will also face Louisville and Wake Forest at IU. Valpo concludes the pre-league tournament slate the next weekend at Western Kentucky, taking on Tennessee Tech and Furman in addition to the hosts.
“This is by far the toughest pre-conference schedule we’ve played in my years here,” said Avery. “Hopefully these matches will prepare us well for the rigors of Horizon League play.”
The Horizon League slate, a double round-robin schedule, opens up on Friday, September 19 at Butler. Valpo’s first three league matches will be contested on the road before the Crusaders open up the home schedule at the Athletics-Recreation Center against Cleveland State on October 3. Non-league matches interspersed through the league slate include hosting IUPUI and traveling to Bradley, DePaul and Chicago State.
The 16-match league schedule concludes Saturday, November 15 when the Crusaders host Wright State on Senior Day. The Horizon League Championship will be held from November 20-23 and will be hosted this year by Cleveland State. The league champion will receive an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
“We are excited entering this year because we are more familiar with the Horizon League,” said Avery. “Last year was a transition year for the program entering the new league, and we’re looking forward to take the knowledge we gained last year and challenge for a league championship this coming season.”