MOUNT CARMEL -- When Wabash Valley College began its first volleyball season in over 15 years, Head Volleyball Coach Mark Colvin entered the 2018 season with a sense of optimism -- that optimism proved to be well placed early on.
The Lady Warriors began the year 3-0 and the program was filled with a sense of joy. Albeit the schedule wasn't as challenging as what they'd see down the stretch, it was a start for the program regardless. That is, until injuries and a spree of losses plagued the team.
They'd go on to lose 14 of their next 16 games, battling through a stretch that would try the patience of the players and coaches alike. Many were ready to give up, numbers dwindled on the team through the injuries and some girls stepping away -- one problem winning could have certainly helped solve, but it was tough to accomplish with as depleted as they were.
At the time they were highlighted by their pair of hitters, Jacquie Alldredge and Brooke James (who received All-Conference honors), their lone sophomore -- that is until Alldredge went down. She tore her ACL in what was a devastating blow for the team morale and one the team couldn't seem to recover from.
On the court they had some glaring weaknesses, primarily their serve receive and teams exposed that whenever given the opportunity against the Lady Warriors, who finished the 2018 season 10-25.
James is off to new ventures, Alldredge departed following the season (due to her injury), and six other Lady Warriors departed. Now, entering the program's second year, they're hoping to flip the script on the program's fortunes with a cast of new faces, but also five returning sophomores who received a luxurious amount of playing time to provide some veteran leadership.
The five returners from the team, sophomore setter Kate Broster, sophomore libero Abby Vaughan, sophomore outside hitter Payton Sievers, sophomore hitter Maddie Craig, and outside hitter Felicity Elkin, each of whom will call upon their experience to help guide the Lady Warriors into the future.
Colvin feels that any of the five returners could shine and make the kind of impact and provide the needed leadership the Lady Warriors will need in order to be successful.
"It could be any one of them to be honest," Colvin spoke of his returners. "We finally figured out Abby was our libero after not too long, so figured that out and no turning back there. We have the two outsides [Payton Sievers and Felicity Elkin], they were usually alternating when Jacquie was in there, sometimes they'd play together, but they're just better. Then Maddie's just got the length, the height, she's just a big girl. She's powerful and when she's on she can really hit it down, dominate over there a little bit. Kate our setter -- she learned a lot last year with the calls, we got some calls on the hands, she's really learned about that."
Among the cast of newcomers, Darian Barnard, a 5-foot-8 freshman middle hitter from Muncie, Ind., Carsyn Robinson, a 6-foot freshman right side hitter from Grayville, Yoliann De Jesus-Tejedor, a 5-foot-10 middle hitter from Brandon, Fla., Valerie Ramos Allende, a 5-foot-5 setter from San Juan, Puerto Rico, Andrea Andujar Mangual, a 5-foot-9 outside hitter from Carolina, Puerto Rico, Alondra Martinez Melendez, a 5-foot-4 libero from Coamo, Puerto Rico, and Alondra Miah Sanchez, a 5-foot-7 middle hitter from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.
Colvin feels each of these ladies can push for playing time at their positions and have impressed him tremendously in the early work at practice, which began on Aug. 1.
"[Darian's] a 5-foot-8 middle, a little undersized but she plays tall. She's very talented, she comes from a very good program, Delta, up there. She's real skilled, does a lot of things. You have Carsyn out of Grayville, has some nice height, was on a fourth place state team at Grayville. She can do a lot of things at the net, she's real agile, she can pop it over when she needs to, she can hit. She'll play right side and middle. Then we have the five Puerto Rican girls [Yoliann, Valerie, Andrea, Alondra, and Alondra] and they're all different. You have a right side, a middle, outside, libero and a setter. They can all play really well, really adding a lot to our team, a lot of flare to our team, it's been really interesting. There's some talent there, there really is."
Early in practice the Lady Warriors have been trying to bridge the gap in chemistry between the newcomers and the established veterans, though the effort, passing and serve receive all appear to have improved tremendously.
Colvin was often left frustrated on many nights last season with his team's lack of hustle in diving to the floor. Now there's virtually guaranteed to be a girl diving to the floor for the ball on every possession.
"They don't quit," Colvin said. "We've got some saves, girls are hitting the floor, serves are better, the player's learning just went up way fast. There's different styles in Puerto Rico but they've taken to it and they understand and have been a joy to be around. They're talented and they're just growing leaps and bounds. Our freshmen, now sophomores, five really good sophomores, getting that sophomore experience so that's been big for us in getting some leadership. They feel more confident about stuff and worked hard all year and in the summer."
Additionally, Colvin said he and Assistant Coach Syreeta Willis have started to crack down much more this season. He assured it wasn't to be mean, but to set a standard of how the team should universally follow -- attendance wise and participation. Last year Colvin recalled they let some of the ladies catch breaks on missing things or suggest other ideas on when to meet, where to go, and other little stuff. There's no more of that this year.
"We were a little lax on stuff, some rules and stuff," Colvin said. "We let a couple things slide and then before you knew it, it was just an avalanche. So now, when we do something, everybody goes, there's no suggestions, you're going. Gameday rules, maybe if someone's staying someplace else. Just toughening the rules. We're not being mean about it, but you can't let one thing slide because then everybody knows that."
Unlike last year however, they'll be thoroughly tested out of the gate.
The Lady Warriors begin the season with a road scrimmage against NCAA Division III foe Rose Hulman out of Terre Haute, Ind. on Aug. 20, followed by four grueling home games. The home stretch starts with Vincennes on Thursday, Aug. 22 at 6 p.m., Marshalltown on Saturday, Aug. 24 at 7 p.m., John A. Logan on Wednesday, Aug. 28 at 6:30 p.m., and then Lewis and Clark Community College at noon on Saturday, Aug. 31.
Vincennes is always a highly touted club and one that finished 27-13 last season with a share of the Region 24 crown. Logan won the Great Rivers Athletic Conference crown with a 14-0 conference record en route to a 29-9 finish. Marshalltown might prove to be the toughest competition they'll face in the stretch, on the heels of a 34-5 campaign against some top notch competition including Iowa Western. And Lewis and Clark, who defeated the Lady Warriors last season in straight sets,
Wabash Valley held a combined 0-6 record against these foes last season, though that could change with the cycling of the rosters and a now healthy Lady Warrior roster. Encouragingly enough however, they did steal a couple sets from these teams.
"There's nobody easy," Colvin spoke of Wabash Valley's schedule. "We're in the Parkland Tournament, we're in two Vincennes tournaments and we're in the Logan tournament this year. We're in some neat tournaments, a nice little schedule I think playing the maximum games, we're going to challenge ourselves with the strong conference. The top three are really strong and we need to get in there this year. Just an unknown, so many changes year to year and difficult teams. We're working really hard, they can look really good. I just think we're going to be better. The freshmen being sophomores, the talent we brought in, the versatility of everybody, we have a nice lefty on the right side, she's played some middle before. The versatility, the experience of the sophomores now, and they know they don't want to go 10-25."
Colvin wouldn't comment on what players might be emerging for starting positions, as the team will still enjoy another week or week and a half of practice prior to addressing starting positions, but all the ladies are battling and at the very least, will provide a tremendous amount of depth to the team.
But seemingly everything is started to shift for the better and you can't help but feel the excitement around the program. Early raves out of practice, veteran leadership, a group of talented newcomers, everything seems to be piecing together as the season begins.
"I just think come out and see us because we're going to be exciting," Colvin said. "We're going to hit the ball, a lot of different angles, a lot of different ways. We're going to play some defense, nothing's going to be easy on us and we're going to fight to the end I believe. I think we're going to fight and play all of the way through."