By Devon Jeffreys
PHOTO CAPTION: Junior Krista McAra, along with five other players, returns this season to the Lady Saints lineup.
With a schedule that includes more than 40 matches, the volleyball team has the opportunity to make this season a memorable one even if there is no opportunity for a postseason berth.
“The more opportunities we get to play the better we’re going to be and the more fun we’re going to have and that’s why we’re here,” sophomore Leah Melton said.
Although the outlook is good for the Lady Saints going forward, struggles can be expected from a team with more newcomers — seven — than returnees — six. With the loss of five seniors, three that were all conference players — Melissa Bear, Liz Layfield and Holli Strompolis — inexperience may play a role in the beginning of the season.
“The outlook is good, we’ve got some good athletes returning, we’ve got a great new class coming in,” head coach Taylor Mott said. “I’m just excited to see what we can do. It’s hard when you’re not playing for a championship or the possibility of a championship so I figured we would schedule as many matches as possible and play until we can’t play anymore.”
Four of the six returning players saw extended playing time last season when the ladies advanced to the regional final. Mott thinks junior middle blocker Krista McAra will have a big impact this year for the team.
“McAra has comeback and has been working really hard, she’s improved probably the most out of everyone,” Mott said.
Sarah Spraggins returns for her sophomore season as libero. Spraggins took home Florida Sun Conference Libero of the Week honors twice last season. Carrie Arnette, the team’s only senior, will continue to set for the Lady Saints while junior Jessica Wedemyer, whose 54 blocks last season were fourth best on the team, compliments McAra at the middle blocker position.
Also returning are junior Liz Moyer and sophomore Kelly Boese. Both players saw limited playing time last season. Moyer was expected to have a big impact on last year’s squad but suffered a leg injury that left her out for about two months. The setback left Moyer with little ability to contribute down the stretch because of her lack of seasoning all year. Moyer will be expected to be a big contributor at outside hitter. Boese did not figure into the starting squad, but was used off the bench by Mott as a freshman.
Mott began adding to the 2006 team before the spring semester began, adding two St. Augustine natives to the squad. Melton and Justine Burkhardt come to Flagler from Pedro Menendez High in St. Augustine. Both ladies played at the NCAA level last season before deciding to transfer to Flagler. Melton started her college career at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg where she started at middle blocker as a freshman and was named to the Sunshine State Conference All Freshman Team and posted the fourth highest block percentage in NCAA Div. II. Burkhardt comes to Flagler from NCAA Div. I Winthrop where she red-shirted as a freshman. Both Melton and Burkhardt knew Mott from club ball and felt a comfort zone in Flagler’s system.
Along with Melton and Burkhardt, who joined Flagler in the spring of 2006, Mott brought in five more players this past fall to round out the squad. Freshman Katie Beale joins the Lady Saints from Stuart, Fla. According to Mott, Beale will be fighting for a starting position as an outside hitter right away. Also coming in are freshmen Gabby Torrez and Becky Hendrian.
Flagler also added two juniors to the roster in transfers Audrey Hippensteel and Catie Culleton. Hippensteel joins Flagler from Broward Community College where she was Female Athlete of the Year in 2005. Mott feels Hippensteel will fit in well once she gets acquainted with Flagler’s system. Culleton comes to Flagler from Nease High School by way of FCCJ.
“She’s very strong on the right side and has good experience,” Mott said of Culleton. “She puts up a good block and will definitely be an offensive weapon.”
The players Mott recruited will be expected to contribute immediately to the team.
“Some of them will have to fill positions right away, on the right side,” Mott said. “They’re all going to have to make an immediate impact. With the 42 matches we’ve got this year, everybody is going to have to play a lot. Most college teams play 28-30 maybe 35 matches, and we play 40 plus. So we’ll need all the man power we can get.”
Although the team has lost a lot of experience in its graduated players, Mott feels the team has a lot of talent and it won’t take them a full year to gain the experience. She also thinks the additions will be a great fit for the current team.
“I think the new players will compliment the returning players really well,” she said. “I think we’re going to have a little bit more depth than we normally have. There is going to be competition at every spot. That’s not always the case with us so it’s good that it will be an option this year.”
According to Mott, the team’s biggest strength is on offense and they also have the potential to be a great blocking club. She changed the defensive system so there may be an adjustment area there, although she says the bigger blockers that forced the switch should be able to take away more of the court.
“It’s been pretty exciting because it is like a fresh start for the whole team,” Melton said. “We lost a lot of players, but that’s a chance for us to start over new and everyone has been bonding and clicking so well.”
The ladies have not let a lack of postseason get in the way of their goals going into this season.
“If we look at it as pushing all the way through and taking it as just one game at a time we’re really improving our skills for when we can get to postseason,” Burkhardt said. “We’re looking at it as we have this much more time to prepare for when we do get to go.”
Although the light may seem farther down the tunnel this point, the team believes there is always something to play for.
“We are all working hard and we were working hard to go to the national tournament last year,” McAra said. “This year is all about rebuilding and working hard so we can go when we’re eligible.”
The Lady Saints want to improve their record on the road, where they struggled last season. Keeping a sterling record at home may also be a priority. The team was undefeated at home until the regional final loss to Savannah College of Art and Design, who return to Flagler Gym on Nov. 3 for the Lady Saints final game of the season.
The Lady Saints first home match is Thursday, Aug. 31, against the William Penn Statesman of Oskaloosa, Iowa. William Penn is a member of the NAIA’s Midwest Classic Conference.