A program which has enjoyed a sustained level of success few programs can match over the past 15 years, the Valparaiso University volleyball team finds itself in the position of being a hunter in its first season of Missouri Valley Conference competition in 2017.
The Crusaders were one of just nine programs nationwide to win 20 or more matches each season from 2002 through 2015, before suffering through an injury-ravaged 2016 campaign in which they won just 15 matches. Now, the group of seven returnees from last year’s squad look to combine with six newcomers to make an impact on The Valley.
A pair of upperclassmen will lead a contingent of outside hitters for the Crusaders in 2017 which also includes four freshmen.
Katherine Carlson carried the attacking load on the outside last season for the Crusaders, finishing the year with the 10th-most attacks in a single season in program history. The junior finished the 2016 campaign second on the team in total kills (346) and digs (316) and tallied a pair of triple-doubles in the final third of the season. Carlson is on pace to reach the 1,000-1,000 club as a Crusader, as she has totaled 554 kills and 542 digs through her first two seasons at Valpo.
An All-Horizon League selection in 2015 as a sophomore, Allison Ketcham appeared in just eight matches in 2016 before sitting out the remainder of the year due to injury. Ketcham – who received a hardship waiver and retained two seasons of eligibility – has stood out defensively for the Crusaders since joining the squad in 2014, posting 944 digs and leading all non-liberos in the Horizon League in digs/set in both 2014 and 2015. No slouch on the attack as well, Ketcham enters the 2017 campaign with 604 career kills to her name.
Beyond Carlson and Ketcham, a number of newcomers will challenge for playing time. Perhaps the most decorated is Ally Cummings, who was runner up for Miss Volleyball in the state of Michigan as a senior and helped lead Novi H.S. to back-to-back state championships. Jaclyn Bulmahn earned Second Team All-State honors as a junior at McCordsville (Ind.) H.S., while Melissa Flynders was an All-Area selection as a senior at Mokena (Ill.) H.S.
Perhaps the Crusaders’ most experienced position group, Valpo returns a trio of upperclassmen in the middle entering the 2017 season.
Taylor Graboski looks to lead the way for the Valpo middles following a strong junior year in 2016. Graboski was a fixture in the lineup last season, appearing in every set and leading the Crusaders with 367 total kills. A three-year starter, Graboski looks to surpass the 1,000-kill milestone this season, as she enters her final season with 856 career kills. She has also tallied 249 total blocks through her first three years and is on pace to close out her time at Valpo among the program’s all-time top-10 in blocks.
Junior Sydney Bronner led the Crusaders’ defensive charge at the net last season, finishing the 2016 season with a team-best 105 blocks while appearing in all but one match. Fellow junior Kayla Currier, a Horizon League All-Freshman team selection in 2015, missed more than a month of action due to injury last season and posted 85 kills and 44 blocks on the year.
Freshman Peyton McCarthy joins the group in the middle this season. An All-District honoree for Seton [Ohio] H.S., McCarthy earned the highest possible accolade on the club circuit, as she was named Tournament MVP for NKYVC as she helped lead the club to the national title at the USA Volleyball National Championships in the summer of 2016.
Junior Lizzie Zaleski looks to bounce back in 2017 for the Crusaders after falling victim to the injury bug last season as well. Zaleski appeared in all 82 sets over Valpo’s first 21 matches of the season before suffering a season-ending injury, ranking ninth in the Horizon League with an average of 6.59 assists/set. Zaleski totaled 540 assists and 194 digs as a sophomore, and has also showcased her versatility in her first two years at Valpo as she has seen time at right side hitter in the front row in certain lineups.
A stellar all-around athlete, Brittany Anderson joins the Crusaders as a freshman this year. Anderson – who will play both volleyball and softball at Valpo – was an Indiana North All-Star in each of her final two years at Bishop Noll H.S.
Since the inception of the libero position in 2002, Valpo has been one of the nation’s most stable programs at this important position, as the Crusaders have had three consecutive four-year starters at libero.
Freshman Rylee Cookerly will bid to become the Crusaders’ next potential rookie starter at libero after a standout prep career at Brownsburg [Ind.] H.S. Cookerly – Brownsburg’s all-time leader in digs – was named to the Indiana Junior All-Star Team following her junior season, and was named to the PrepVolleyball.com preseason All-America watch list and Defensive Dandies list entering her senior year with the Bulldogs.
Sophomore Alana Brown gained valuable experience in the back row as a rookie last season as well. Brown appeared in a total of 19 matches in 2016 and averaged nearly five digs per match over her last 11 appearances of the year.