There's a palpable theme of excitement in the Manchester University volleyball program.
Who could blame them? The Spartans made a big climb from year one to year two under head coach Bryndon Paulsen, going from a five-win team in 2014 to 10 victories in 2015 which included victories over league powers Rose-Hulman and Mt. St. Joseph University as part of a berth in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference's postseason tournament.
The next step might not be far away, either.
"I'm excited for (the season)," Paulsen said. "A good nucleus is back with some potential in the first-year student-athletes to go along (with it). We feel good and are ready to go.
There's work to be done as in any season preparation," he added. "As an example, while serving was good a year ago … proving very aggressive which is what we want to keep going … our serve receiving was an area we want to improve, as it's important for us in setting up our offense. The biggest thing we need to address is consistency. There were too many times last season where we played well on certain points and not so good on others."
Up front, the tandem of senior outside hitter Courtney Chowning (Yorktown, Ind.) and sophomore middle hitter Hannah Tevis (Royal Center, Ind.) tops the returning group. Chowning was a first team all-HCAC selection in 2015, compiling 269 kills, 262 digs, 24 blocks and 13 service aces. Tevis, gaining a spot on the league's all-freshman team, wound up with 211 kills and 40 blocks. Sophomore outside hitter Farren Miller (Lebanon, Ind.) and sophomore right side hitter Haley Duncan (Albion, Ind.) added 107 digs and 101 kills, respectively.
"Courtney will be a four-year starter, and we're still hoping for more consistency from her especially more plus plays," Paulsen said. "Miller played the important service receive back row area which was key last season, and she really upped her front row game in the spring. (Junior Ally) Roskos (of Elkhart, Ind.) could be used on both sides, as we'll need that versatility being short in right side hitters. (Sophomore Kaitlyn) Mindiola (of Roachdale, Ind.) is back from an injury last year and has been working on her hitting. (Freshman Emily) DeWitt (of Brookston, Ind.) is a possibility, too, as we like what we've seen from her. She's a good passer and explosive hitter," Paulsen pointed out.
In the middle, Hannah showed last season that she can take over a match if the ball gets to her in the right situations," he added. "(Sophomore Emma) Voelker (of North Bend, Ohio) was by far our best blocker a year ago but didn't see much time due to who we had up front. Among the freshmen, we have (Riley) Patterson (of Walkerton, Ind.) who is smaller but can hit the ball hard, and (Emily) Bailey (of Kokomo, Ind.) who is a smart player that's capable of hitting good shots and can block well. While the right side is thin, Duncan is back. She was up and down last season but did get good experience. We're hoping the .333 she turned in at the conference tourney is a sign of things to come."
Getting the ball to that crew is in the capable hands of sophomore Dakota Stanichuk (Troy, Mich.). She just missed earning a slot on the conference's all-freshman squad behind 804 assists and 50 service aces. Senior Heather Racine (Evansville, Ind.) adds experience to the area, having appeared in 21 matches to date.
"If the two top teams in the conference hadn't had freshman setters, she would have been on the team," Paulsen admitted. "It was good to see her get an honorable mention award. She ran our offense the way we wanted from the middle of last year on. Dakota was up and down as first years can be, but there is so much upside to her game. Heather is a steady and consistent player, not getting too high or low which is nice to have. (Sophomore Bree) Baldini (of Monticello, Ind.) had a good fall and spring working out some tactical issues and may see some floor time. We also added (sophomore Bekah) Raichel (of South Austin, Ind.) in the spring to the setter and defensive specialist role."
Defensively, it's a wide open competition for the libero and defensive specialist spots, according to MU's head coach. Sophomore Morgan Oliver (Alexandria, Ind.) had a sparkling freshman campaign with 228 digs and was also strong from the back line offensively with 19 service aces. "(She's) pretty solid as a returning starter," Paulsen said. "In all honesty on defense, she's unbelievable. She'll need to work on service receive, but there are so many advantages of her being on the floor because she can take over a game on defense." Fellow sophomore Bailey Kohr (Bluffton, Ind.) looks to work her way into the rotation, too, while the Black and Gold also have a pair of freshmen, Anna Marie Lawrie (Indianapolis, Ind.) and Caroline Aikin (Muncie, Ind.), available as well. "It's always nice to have depth (in the back row)," Paulsen said. "There's never a time you can't use more serving and passing options."
Even with the impressive resume at each position, the Spartans' third-year head coach feels the balance towards a winning campaign occurs with an intangible. "If there's success for us, we'll need to quickly grow up," he admitted. "We can't use youth as an excuse any more. It all goes back to consistency … not getting too high or too low. There needs to be a focus on our good. If that's the case, it will be a strong season."