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Volleyball Picked to Finish Third by America East Coaches
Eighth Year Head Coach Ian Blanchard
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – The UMBC volleyball team was picked to finish third in the America East this season by the league coaches, the conference office announced on Tuesday afternoon.
Coming off of the program’s fourth straight trip to the America East Championships, UMBC was picked to finish behind only two-time defending conference champion Albany and 2011 tournament finalist Stony Brook. The Retrievers and Seawolves each received one first place vote while the Great Danes garnered the remaining six first place votes to total 35 points.
New Hampshire, the other semifinalist from last year, was picked fourth with 23 points while Binghamton and Hartford tied for fifth with 15 points. Providence rounded out the poll in seventh with six points.
Senior captains Katie Kelly (Diamond Bar, Calif./Diamond Bar) and Ali Loynachan (Whitby, Ontario/Sinclair), along with junior captain Hallie Carter (Huntington Beach, Calif./Edison), will provide the leadership for a balanced 2012 Retriever squad which returns 12 letter-winners including America East All-Rookie member Hannah Schmidt (Catonsville, Md./Mount de Sales).
The Retrievers raise the curtain on the 2012 campaign this Friday, Aug. 24 at the two-day Battle of the Bay Tournament across town at Morgan State. On day one, UMBC takes on local rival Towson and host Morgan State before facing Coppin State and St. John’s on day two.
Coming off of a school record fourth straight appearance in the America East Tournament, the 2012 UMBC volleyball team looks to do something the program has not done since 1998 when the Retrievers were in the Northeast Conference (NEC) – win a conference championship.
Although UMBC is one of only two schools to make it to the conference tournament each of the last four seasons, the Retrievers are looking for more. While making the tournament is great, winning the championship remains the goal.
“Our goal is always to win the America East title,” said eighth-year head coach Ian Blanchard. “I think we’ve done a lot to improve the culture through hard work, and it is exciting to see the growth and improvement. There has been a great vibe that permeates through our practices, meetings, and video sessions that everyone is working hard.”
Despite losing three key players from last year’s squad, Blanchard is confident that this squad is capable of achieving that goal.
“Everyone on the team knows that we lost some key athletes,” said Blanchard. “But every team goes through it, so we’re going to do everything that we can to take that next step.”
Though two of the losses include now-graduated Allie Spaay and Iman Kennedy, both of whom rank among the school’s top-10 leaders in career assists and blocks, respectively, the Retrievers retain plenty of experience. The Retrievers’ 2012 edition includes four returning starters and a total of 12 letter-winners from a year ago as well as two redshirt freshman and two incoming freshman who Blanchard thinks will blossom quickly.
”We’re excited to get back in the gym as always, but particularly because we have a nice mix of veterans and newcomers this year,” Blanchard said. “They are interacting well and have come together in a short amount of time. Everyone on this team recognizes and respects each other’s role, and I couldn’t be more pleased.”
Even with the talented incoming class, the Retrievers’ best “recruit” will not even take the court this season. First-year assistant coach Jenni Hirneisen comes to Baltimore following time at her alma mater, Colorado State, as well as with the USA Women’s National Volleyball Team as an assistant technical director.
“There’s really no way to paraphrase what Jenni brings to this program,” said Blanchard. “The amount of quality information that she provides to the players in every facet of the game is beyond measure.”
With the loss of Spaay to graduation, Blanchard now looks to two veterans – Rebecca Garrigues and Mallory McIntyre – and a true freshman, Paige Miller, to take the reins at the setter position. Both returners have seen action in their first two seasons while Miller comes to UMBC with a strong background at the high school and club level.
“It hurts that we lost Allie [Spaay], but I’m confident in the three we have,” Blanchard said. “Becca and Mallory were able to learn a lot from her, but now they know it’s their time to step up and use the experience they have. Paige, meanwhile, comes from a great background, and with her high level of composure and her uncanny ability to move on, I expect her to challenge for the spot as well.”
Veteran leadership can be seen at both of the hitting positions despite the departure of 2011 America East Rookie of the Year Dalton Tolliver. After playing a defensive role towards the end of last year, junior Hallie Carter, who is one of three captains for the Retrievers, will move back to a more offensive position in 2012. As a sophomore, the Huntington Beach, Calif., native played in all 103 sets for the Retrievers, upping her career marks in kills (153) and service aces (24) while ranking seventh in the conference for digs with 681.
“Hallie is a tremendously skilled volleyball player who can play anywhere on the court,” said Blanchard. “She is one of the most consistent passers as well as hitters, so we’re not exactly sure where she’ll play, but we kind of like that.”
Carter is not the only versatile athlete on the outside for the Retrievers as senior captain Ali Loynachan looks to finish her college career on a high note. Last season the right-side hitter from Whitby, Ontario set career-highs in kills (152), assists (72), and digs (200) while recording three double-doubles.
“Ali is one of our best blockers on the right side, and she’s a constant threat,” commented Blanchard. “She’s also become a great passer, so that helps us be more flexible.”
After inconsistent playing time during the non-conference schedule last year, Vandegrift turned it on when it mattered most for UMBC, accounting for double-digit kills in four America East contests, including an 18-kill contest in the regular season finale at Providence to help the Retrievers clinch a spot in the conference tournament.
“Emily is probably the most versatile hitter on the team this year,” Blanchard said of the Leesburg, Va. native. “She can play both the right side and outside position equally well which allows us more flexibility in our lineups.”
The 2010 Baltimore Sun Player of the Year, Hannah Schmidt did not disappoint in her first season for UMBC. The 6-0 hitter finished her initial campaign second on the team and seventh in the America East with 234 kills en route to being one of two Retrievers on the all-conference rookie team.
”She has really improved, and not just physically, from when she came in at this time last year,” said Blanchard. “She knows the expectations are high, but with her drive and determination, she’ll be able to meet and exceed them.”
Rounding out the position is highly-touted freshman Sherelle Walker from New Freedom, Pa. Named the 2011 PIAA Player of the Year after leading Susquehannock to the Pennsylvania Division II State Championship, Walker brings a high level of raw athleticism to campus.
“She may be the best athlete we’ve ever had here, but she’s still learning how to be a great volleyball player,” Blanchard said. “She is naturally strong and explosive and could turn into a special player over the next couple of years.”
Similar to the setter position, the Retrievers must replace an accomplished veteran at middle blocker, but they also have the experienced athletes to do just that. With two-time All-Academic honoree Iman Kennedy’s graduation, and senior captain Katie Kelly on the mend, UMBC appears thin at the position. Despite nursing a sore shoulder at the end of the year, Kelly finished third on the team with 63 block assists, trailing only Tolliver (74) and Kennedy (73). The Retrievers, however, can expect Kelly, recovering from shoulder surgery, back for conference play and have strong backups starting with junior Emily Witsaman.
The 6-2 Medina, Ohio native, looks to regain her starting spot after a sophomore season in which she saw action in just 21 sets after playing in 26 of the Retrievers’ 29 matches in 2010. As a freshman, Witsaman recorded 91 kills while coming in second on the team with 47 block assists.
“Emily is one of the hardest workers on the team and has had a unique college experience,” Blanchard said. “She hasn’t allowed the challenge to overwhelm her and deter her from getting back into the lineup and helping this team achieve its goal of winning a championship.”
“Both Kristin and Krystal have made significant improvements in the last year, and I expect both of them to be big contributors for us this season,” Blanchard said.
After starting the 2011 season at outside hitter, junior Ali Goc took hold of the libero role and did not relinquish it. Playing in all but one set as a sophomore, Goc led the team and ranked fifth in the conference with 341 digs. The Oshawa, Ontario native, also led the Retrievers with 26 aces, tied with Allie Spaay.
“Ali has always been a good passer, but she continues to get better and better through hard work,” said Blanchard. “She’s come into this season a little more mature, and I think that will have positive effects both for her and our team.”
“Really, I’m confident in putting anyone of the defensive players in the game when the time comes,” Blanchard said. “They all have the skills to help our team win.”
The Retrievers open the 2012 season with a local flavor, competing at the Battle at the Bay Tournament, hosted by Morgan State, on Friday, Aug. 24 and Saturday, Aug. 25. UMBCS takes on local rival Towson as well as host Morgan State on Friday before taking the court against Coppin State and St. John’s on Saturday. This tournament, as well as tournaments at Michigan and East Carolina should prepare the Black and Gold for the ultimate challenge – winning the America East.
“Making the America East Tournament the past four years is a nice achievement, but it’s just a consolation prize,” explained Blanchard. “We won’t be satisfied until we win the conference championship.”