With Six Starters Back, Volleyball Aims for Fourth Straight NCAA Berth

After a highly successful first season under head coach Abbey Sutherland, the UW-Stevens Point volleyball team returns 12 letterwinners and six starters as it seeks its fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance in 2014.

Last season, Sutherland led UWSP on its deepest-ever NCAA Tournament run, as the team defeated three consecutive top-six teams and won 24 straight matches before falling to No. 3 Cal Lutheran in the national semifinals. The Pointers also won their third straight Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) championship and posted an overall record of 35-5, the most wins in program history since 1985.

In her second season, Sutherland, the reigning WIAC Coach of the Year, wants to keep the same mindset in order to maintain the success of her first season. "Last season I had to take it one step at a time because I was so new to everything and had to get to know the players so quickly," she said. "I had to take it one day at a time and I want to learn from that and bring the same mentality to this year."

Among the six starters returning are a pair of All-Americans in senior setter Alexis Hartman (Deer Park, IL/Lake Zurich) and junior middle Emma Brunkhorst (Germantown, WI/Germantown). Last season, Hartman was named a Second Team All-American by the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) and became the first-ever UWSP player to be named WIAC Player of the Year, while ranking 10th in the nation in assists per set (10.72). Brunkhorst was selected as a Third Team All-American by the AVCA and earned a spot on the NCAA Championship All-Tournament Team after ranking 25th in the country in hitting percentage (.364). Hartman, Brunkhorst and senior Sarah Breuer (Beaver Dam, WI/Beaver Dam) will serve as team captains in 2014 and will provide valuable leadership for a team that also has seven freshmen on the roster.

"All three of our captains have strong leadership qualities, so we have really good leadership," said Sutherland. "I push them hard but I don't have to worry about them and the others working hard every day. They not only lead by example but also do a nice job of giving feedback to others both on and off the court."

Also returning for the Pointers are junior defensive specialist/libero Hannah Picel (West Bend, WI/West Bend West) and sophomore outside hitter Krista Loos (Sterling, IL/Sterling). Picel led the conference with 661 digs last season and was named to the WIAC All-Defensive Team for the second straight year. Loos earned a spot on the All-Midwest Regional Team and was an Honorable Mention All-WIAC player in her freshman season.

The lone departed starter from last season's team is Allison Davis (Rochelle, IL/Rochelle Township), who led the WIAC in total blocks (160) and was sixth in the nation in blocks per set (1.32). In her senior season, Davis was an AVCA Honorable Mention All-Midwest Region selection and a First Team All-WIAC choice as part of a UWSP frontline that was third in the country in blocks per set (2.69).

"We are going to miss Allison both offensively and defensively," Sutherland commented. "Her blocking really helped us during our NCAA run, so we will need to fill that role. We need to count on other people and be more balanced because we don't have Allison, but I think that will also make us better."

With Davis' departure, Sutherland will turn to a mix of returners and freshmen to fill in, including freshmen Danielle Coleman (Rockford, IL/Keith Country Day ) and Ellen Drewry (Waunakee, WI/Waunakee) and sophomore Gabby Thomas (Henderson, MN/LeSueur-Henderson). Sutherland has been impressed with the freshmen class so far in practice and knows the class will have a role to play this season.

"You can tell that they're freshmen new but they are good enough to play," Sutherland said of the freshman class. "Ellen really stepped up in the scrimmage. Kendra (Kundinger) has kept the practices competitive as the other setter and I've thrown a lot of information at her that she's handled well. Ellen and Danielle have both done a nice job and we're going to have to count on them."

Coming off last season's appearance in the national semifinals, UW-Stevens Point enters the 2014 season ranked No. 3 in the AVCA Division III Coaches Top 25 Preseason Poll and the Pointers are the preseason favorite to win their fourth consecutive WIAC crown.

"Initially it was exciting because I'm proud of what we did." Sutherland said about the AVCA ranking. "But now that we're in practice, I've forgotten about it. It's not that I don't think we're talented, because I do, but we've got a lot of work to do and I'm just focused on making progress."

UW-Stevens Point will be tested with a non-conference schedule early in the season. The Pointers will take on Saint Benedict and Augsburg, two teams that were also at the NCAA regional last season, in the first tournament of the season in St. Joseph, Minn. on August 29-30. Later, UWSP will face Wartburg and St. Thomas, teams the Pointers defeated in five and four sets, respectively, in the regional.

"We've got some really big non-conference matches this season because we're playing almost everyone we played in the NCAA regional last season," Sutherland said of the schedule. "We know we have a challenging schedule but at the end of the day, it will better prepare us for later on in the season."

Given the difficult schedule and a roster with 13 underclassmen, Sutherland reiterated her desire to repeat last season's mindset in 2014.

"I'm going to try to pound it into our brains to just focus on the moment," she said. "We have to learn to rise to the occasion because we're going to have a target on our back. People are going to get after us, so we have to learn how to keep our composure and handle that, while focusing on getting better and not worrying about the rankings."

Courtesy: UW-SP


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