NORTON, MA- Behind strong defense and the vast versatility of the Wheaton College women's volleyball team's 11 athletes, head coach Ben Read hopes a strong finish from the 2008 season carries over to this fall's squad.
"Last year it really took half a season to play together as a team, and that's when the wins started coming," said Read, whose charges went 11-8 down the stretch to end up 13-20. Victories in three of their final four New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) matches put the Lyons at 3-6, as they qualified for the postseason with a 3-0 victory in their regular season finale. "We do have individual players who we expect a lot from, but we don't really have individual stars. We need to play as a team to win."
In order for the squad to attain its goals of finishing above .500 both overall and in league play, as well as advance beyond the first round of the league tournament, Wheaton will need to win the close matches. Two NEWMAC losses came in four sets last season, while another was by a 3-2 count against perennial regional power Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Defense will be key, as Read has preached the importance of treating every point as being the most critical of the match, deducing that offense is a byproduct of defensive stands. "If you can control things on your side of the net and pass well, you can run your offense," said Read. "Defensively, we want to put the other team in situations where they're apt to make mistakes. We don't have the biggest team at the net, so we'll set up a solid block and play defense around it."
On a roster that includes four freshmen, only senior Lauren Kraus (Westboro, MA/Westboro) stands as tall as 6-0. Read looks to compensate for that lack of height by making his versatile Lyons create match-up problems for the opposition. "A lot of our players can play multiple positions," said the coach. "We have multiple people that could set. Our outside hitters could also play the middle or right side, if need be. It's nice to have that flexibility and be able to change in various defenses and move people around."
Read is joined by a trio of assistant coaches, with Doree Blanco returning for her second season, and Dave Ludwig and Kristen Romanko each serving their first year. Kraus lends leadership during her second season as captain and as the lone fourth-year Lyon. A middle hitter who also saw time on the outside last fall, Kraus had 315 kills, 67 blocks and 53 aces as a junior.
Junior defensive specialist Kristen Hunt (Milford, CT/Jonathan Law) should play an integral role on the defensive side after setting a school record for digs as a freshman and surpassing the 1,000-dig plateau for her career as a sophomore. Hunt is also a member of Wheaton's softball team. Classmate Becca Rose (Sudbury, MA/Lincoln-Sudbury Regional) runs the offense, having turned in 807 assists to go along with 185 digs from her setter spot last season, while 5-11 right-side hitter Kaitlyn Stokes (Tewksbury, MA/Tewksbury Memorial) appeared in 31 of 33 matches a year ago.
Sophomore Emily Davisson (Carpinteria, CA/Laguna Blanca School), another defensive specialist, collected 383 digs as the team's primary libero in 2008, and 5-11 middle hitter Lauren McGrath (Wading River, NY/Shoreham-Wading River) saw time in every match. As a freshman, McGrath also qualified for the NCAA Championship as a high jumper with the track & field team. Miranda Howitt (San Francisco, CA/International), a 5-9 outside hitter, was strong on both sides of the net with 245 kills and 201 digs. She further displayed her versatility during Wheaton's must-win season-finale victory by recording 28 assists as the setter, and she could see additional time there after additional work at the position during the spring.
A quartet of freshmen joins the program for the 2009 season. At 5-7, Christina Cannon (Milford, NH/Milford) is an outside hitter and a defensive specialist but also has experience in the middle, and 5-10 outside hitter Rachel Vergara (Needham, MA/Needham) could also see time on the right side while learning to play the middle. Olanna Nissim (Greenwich, CT/Greenwich) provides her 5-8 frame as an outside hitter, and defensive specialist Frances Trimble (Rapid City, SD/Northfield Mount Hermon School) completes the class.
In 2008, the Lyons squared off against six eventual NCAA Tournament qualifiers. Besides facing league foes Springfield College and Wellesley College, Wheaton swept Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference (MASCAC) Tournament champion Bridgewater State College and narrowly fell in five sets to Keene State College.
The slate is similarly difficult this fall, as the Blue and White again faces Keene State and 2008 NCAA Tournament participant Endicott College, taking on both during the Gordon Invitational on September 5. Wheaton kicks off conference play 10 days later at Springfield, last year's NEWMAC regular season and tournament champion. The NEWMAC Tournament begins with the first round on November 3.