Seniors returning for the Tabor College volleyball team are: back row (from left) Carly Kroeker, Ashley Cohlmia and manager Brianna Unruh; front row, Audra (Atwell) Shenk, Andrea Batista and Erin Dick.
Having placed fourth in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference with a 12-6 record last season, the Tabor College volleyball team was picked first in the conference coaches? preseason poll conducted in mid-August.
Since then, the Bluejays have begun to look the part, displaying crisp confidence and heavy hitting during an intra-squad scrimmage Thursday.
After working through a choppy start in the tensionless atmosphere of a glorified practice, the eight varsity-tested returners soon appeared at ease with coach Amy Ratzlaff?s system as with each other.
As the veterans settled into the rhythm of live action, the skills of Wichita State transfer Tina Frick began to shine. Her attacks followed from the flow of the offense and showed considerable variety: a hard hit; an accurate placement; a full windup followed by a gentle tip over the outstretched hands of descending blockers.
It is clear Frick?s ability to blend power, precision and guile will threaten opposing front lines across the conference.
Late in the evening, she won four straight points with her serve, two on aces.
?She transferred in the spring and was with us in the offseason,? Ratzlaff said. ?She?s playing strong to go with her skill and has come in with confidence.?
Ratzlaff said two other newcomers are likely to see varsity action: Paige Tabor and Emily Post.
?Paige has a way of controlling the game in a calm manner and is one of our best serve receivers,? she said. ?Emily is an incredible athlete?her explosiveness reminds me of Ashley Malcom.
?As soon as it all comes together, she?ll be a dynamic player,? Ratzlaff said of Post. ?I?m not sure when she?ll make her mark on the program, but she will. It?s just a matter of time.?
But as significant as Ratzlaff believes the impacts made by the newcomers will be, the Bluejays were picked first primarily because of the strength of the returning core.
Seniors on the team include all-KCAC first team outside hitter Ashley Cohlmia, defensive specialists Andrea Batista, Audra (Atwell) Shenk, and right side Carly Kroeker.
All-KCAC second-team middle blocker Jordan Crosson is a junior, and three returning sophomores will play major roles: outside hitter Gina Hullet, setter Mandi Phillips and middle blocker Cortney Janzen.
Cohlmia led the Bluejays with 326 kills last year?nearly three per game?and also led the team in serving.
?She has always been strong, her vertical leap is improved, and we?re working on adding strategy and variety to her attacks,? Ratzlaff said.
Along with Shenk and Erin Dick, Batista is part of a group of defensive leadership and brings high energy and good footspeed to the back line. Shenk was ?a leader empowered by her teammates last year,? and will be a captain this year. Ratzlaff called Dick ?a very intelligent player, solid and dependable.?
Kroeker has made consistent contributions to the program. ?We expect great things, and she has not disappointed,? Ratzlaff said.
Crosson is ?hitting harder and is a strong blocker.?
Listed at 6-0 on the roster, Ratzlaff said Hullet is up to 6-1 after growing an inch during the offseason.
?She brings a ton of athleticism,? Ratzlaff said. ?She?s grasping the system and she?s jumping well.?
Phillips has ?embraced perfecting setting,? Ratzlaff said. ?She is an intelligent leader, a floor captain, and she?s connecting with our hitters.?
Janzen is primed to take a step forward this year. ?She?s jumping well, and her arm swing is harder and faster than anyone else on the team.?
The 2009 team?s unique attributes include just the right mix of intangibles?leadership, competitiveness and enthusiasm?to present an unexpected challenge through two weeks of practice.
?I?ve been so pleased, but they?re exhausted,? Ratzlaff said. ?I don?t think I did anything different, this group just goes 110 percent all the time.?
She said many of the players live in the area, and noted that many played together over the summer.
?That builds excitement,? she said.
With no shortage of gifted players, but with the graduation of an all-KCAC first team setter Audrey Schellenberg, the Bluejays? offensive identity will change. Schellenberg had been a mainstay and a linchpin of Tabor?s offense for years.
But beyond the predictability of turnover, Tabor will have a taller and physically stronger team?and will see different open avenues of attack than the Bluejays saw a year ago. Ratzlaff said she intends to craft a system that can capitalize.
?We?re a lot stronger and faster, and more experienced,? Ratzlaff said. ?With the tremendous amount of work we?ve put in, we?re feeling like ?What?s next???not just ?Whatever happens, happens.??
The Bluejay season begins with a two-day tournament at College of Saint Mary in Omaha, Neb. Tabor plays Hastings and Northwestern Friday, and Dordt and Morningside Saturday.
Tabor?s first home game is set for 7 p.m. Sept. 9 against Sterling.