?I really feel like my upper-classmen have really worked hard in the off-season to tackle some of the things that would make them better players,? Ratzlaff said. ?I feel like, as a unit, they?ve become very driven to perform, to have a season to remember.?
Another prominent player on the squad of a year ago, senior defensive specialist Clancey Kelley, has been medically cleared to play following a knee injury she sustained during the spring.
Tabor returns a total of 13 active varsity players and added nine newcomers.
?I decided this year, what we really need is to have a corps of freshmen that can grow and develop together,? Ratzlaff said. ?That?s the feel of what Tabor has been, and that?s what this class is.?
The eight freshmen include Samantha Janzen, Mandilyn Phillips, Stephanie Ens, Jessica Dixon, Samantha Vanranken, Cortney Janzen, Carissa Bartel, and Erin Dick.
The newcomers have skill, but also stand out for their collective height, with four standing 5-foot-11 or taller.
?I?m not sure you always want to be returning most of the players from a team that finished fourth in the conference,? Ratzlaff said. ?But in this case, having the group of returners we do will be like having a whole new team.?
Senior Heather Witham, who stands 6-3, is a player Ratzlaff expects even casual fans to notice?even more than last year.
Witham arrived as a transfer from Sterling, and Ratzlaff sees her game rising to a new level with the Bluejays.
?Heather has had one of the most incredible improvements in one off-season that I?ve ever seen,? Ratzlaff said. ?She?s coming in super, super strong. She?s always had size, and now she has size and drive?and she is playing really, really well.
?Heather didn?t receive all-conference honors last year, but I think there?s no question that she?s going to earn the right to those this year,? Ratzlaff said.
Cohlmia returns as a statistical leader on the outside in kills and aces per game and contributes greatly to the Bluejays? serve reception and return stats.
Crosson (6-0) brings height and quickness to the middle of Tabor?s defense at the net.
Kelley dislocated a knee cap during the off-season and has missed most of the summer. But Ratzlaff expects her to have a significant role with the squad.
?Clancey came into our program having to learn a lot in a very limited amount of time,? Ratzlaff said. ?She is one of the most competitive, driven people, one of those people that sparks great competitiveness on the team.
?So we?re just working on building her back to where she wants to be with that knee, and she?s still very feisty,? Ratzlaff said.
?She improved her game a great deal during the season last year and quite a bit during the off-season before the injury.?
The Bluejays had no returning starters a year ago, and the result was a 12-6 record in Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference play and 19-14 overall.
But in addition to the experience and cohesiveness gained playing together a season ago, Ratzlaff expects the team to benefit from the size and skill of nine incoming players, eight of whom are freshmen.
?I?m thrilled to have a lot of the talent coming back,? she said. ?For me, this is a completely different team than last year, in a million different ways.
?I think they understand exactly where we?re trying to go,? she added. ?The girls that performed well last year are performing even better this year, and it?s exciting to see that improvement.
?And it helps them take ownership of the program, to have put that much work into it,? she said. ?A lot depends on the readiness of the incoming girls, and our success depends on coming together to fill the spots we need filled.?
Tabor opened, as usual, with a flurry of non-conference tournament games just before the start of conference play. At the College of the Ozarks tournament in Point Lookout, Mo., Tabor plays four times in two days.
The Bluejays then make a quick turnaround to meet Bethany at 7 p.m. Sept 7 in Lindsborg.