Led by first year head coach Craig Letourneau, the 2011 Wheaton College women's volleyball squad returns nine student-athletes from last season's squad and welcomes four newcomers who hope to return to the Lyons to the New England College Women's and Men's Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) Tournament following a two-year hiatus.
Letourneau brings a wealth of experience to Wheaton, having led both Rhode Island College and Emerson to regular season league championships in 2004 and 2009, respectively. While at Emerson, Letourneau earned Great Northeast Atlantic Conference (GNAC) Coach of the Year honors in 2009, when he guided the Lions to a 30-7 mark and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
"I am beyond excited about this opportunity to make Wheaton women's women's volleyball one of the top programs in New England," Letourneau said upon his appointment as head coach in March. "Wheaton is a great school academically and athletically and plays in one of the best athletic conferences in the country. Hopefully we can jump right in and attract student-athletes who have a great passion for the game combined with the knowledge that a great education is key to success in life."
Letourneau inherits a squad which returns three of its top five kills leaders from a year ago. Juniors Rachel Vergara (Needham, Mass./Needham) and Christina Cannon (Milford, N.H./Milford) ranked second and fifth in kills in 2010, respectively, and will serve as the primary outside hitters for the Lyons in 2011. Vergara tallied 201 kills (1.91 kills/set) and recorded three doubles as a sophomore, including one in both ends of a tri-match with Smith and Mount Holyoke on Oct. 23. She posted a career-high 19 kills against Clark on Oct. 12.
Cannon, meanwhile, returns for her third season in Norton after notching a total of 92 kills in 29 matches (16 starts) in 2010. She registered a career-high 13 kills against Emerson on Oct. 28, a season-high eight digs against Smith on Oct. 23, and also posted a career-high two blocks on four occasions.
"Both Rachel and Christina are a bit undersized outside, but we're really teaching them how to score points in different ways, including tips and blocks," explained Letourneau. "They're both capable of putting the ball away if they get an open look."
Sophomores Lindsay Tebbetts (Gilmanton, N.H./Gilford) and Marguerite Copeland (Woodbridge, Va./Oldfields School) will see the bulk of the playing time in the middle. Tebbetts finished third on the Lyons with 123 kills (1.21 kills/set) last season - including a season-high 12 against Babson on Oct. 26. Copeland appeared in 17 matches, tallying five kills and three blocks.
"Tebbetts is a returning starter and Marguerite is extremely athletic," said Letourneau. "She is very long and is coming around after not playing much as a freshman. I'm a middle oriented coach. In eight of my nine years of coaching, my middle's have led the conference in hitting percentage and swings. We may not lead the conference this year, but I want the ball going through the middle."
Senior Emily Davisson (Carpinteria, Calif./Laguna Blanca School) is the Lyons top returner in digs (401), assists (48), and service aces (34). She finished eighth in the NEWMAC in digs (3.68/game), recording 10+ in 20 of the Lyons 30 matches and five matches with 20+ digs. Davisson notched a career-high 46 digs in a match against Smith on Oct. 23 and dropped in a season-high seven service aces against Emerson on Sept. 4.
"Our libero's are very capable of passing the ball well and playing strong defense," said Letourneau, who mentioned that junior Frances Trimble (Rapid City, S.D./Northfield Mount Hermon School) and freshman Megan Donahue (East Lyme, Conn./East Lyme) would share time with Davisson at libero. "They're all very scrappy. We want our team to be based around bettering the ball, to be scrappy, pop things up, and make the other team earn their points."
Junior Olanna Nissim (Greenwich, Conn./Greenwich) is the Lyons second-leading returner in digs (157) and also tallied 55 kills, 31 service aces, and 15 assists as a sophomore. This year, Letourneau sees Nissim as his primary setter.
"Olanna was an outside hitter and defensive specialist the last few years, but she has some setting experience from high school and has very good hands," explained Letourneau. "She has really progressed dramatically over the first two weeks of camp and shown flashes of brilliance. She has a confidence and presence on the floor, which is what you need from a setter."
Sophomore Kara-Jane Walker (Needham, Mass./Needham) also returns and provides depth for Letourneau. Walker notched 25 kills, 10 digs and five blocks (one solo) in 24 matches in 2010. The Lyons also welcome in five newcomers - including four freshmen - who Letourneau hopes will be key contributors during their time wearing the blue and white: Kassandra Harrison (Bala Cynwyd, Pa./Lower Merion), Donahue, Leigh Hunt (Milford, Conn./Jonathan Law), Ariella Levine (Astoria, N.Y./Archbishop Molly), and Jocelyn Stone (Keene, N.H./Keene).
Donahue helped East Lyme H.S. knock off Darien in the Connecticut Class L championship last season while Hunt was a member of the Jonathan Law H.S. women's volleyball team which captured a pair of Southern Connecticut Conference (SCC) titles during her tenure. Levine served as captain of the Archbishop Molly women's volleyball team in 2009-10 and 2010-11, was named junior varsity Team MVP in 2008-09, and received the Coaches Award in 2007-08 and 2010-11. Stone was a member of the Keene H.S. women's volleyball program while Harrison played at Lower Merion H.S.
"Leigh and Megan are two players that can have an immediate impact for us," said Letourneau. "Megan can make a splash on defense while Leigh is very athletic. She definitely has a chip on her shoulder. She works hard, gets after it, and is open to anything you tell her. She's learning three different positions right now - outside, middle, and right side - and she's doing a great job of it. She's very steady in the front row and is really taking what we're saying and running with it.
"I think Ariella is a very technically sound player. Once she learns to get her feet to the ball and stop her movement and balance herself, she will make solid passes and play good, solid defense. Jocelyn is a great kid. She is someone that has the ability to help us in practice by playing middle and right side. She blocks steadily and puts the ball in play on the offensive end. She is working hard, loves being a part of the program, and loves learning the game. She will steadily improve."
Prior to the start of camp, Letourneau announced that juniors Emily Davisson and Christina Cannon will serve as team captains for the upcoming season, saying "Christina and Emily are doing a great job thus far as captains. They really do a great job leading both by voice and by example. They don't take any plays off, and the rest of the team has followed and stepped up in that regard. Working hard is something we've talked about since day one. I'm not worried about making mistakes with skill. I want them to continue to work hard and I want their effort to be there on all occasions."
The Lyons open their season Thursday night, Sept. 1 when they travel to Rhode Island College for a 7 p.m. match, then open the home portion of their schedule by hosting the Wheaton Invitational on Saturday, Sept. 3. They will take on Emerson at 10 a.m., Western New England at 4:30 pm, and Eastern Connecticut State at 7 p.m. Wheaton will play its first NEWMAC match on Sept. 13 against Coast Guard at Emerson Gymnasium.
"In those first few matches, we're just looking to find out where we're at," said Letourneau. "We're trying to see where we need to go and what we need to work on. I want our ball control to be solid and to do a good job blocking up front. If we can get those things down, we're going to be a solid team that can compete against anyone we play. The offense will come from there."
Letourneau added, "Everyone on the team is improving. They're trying to get what I'm saying and what I'm trying to teach them. We're trying to push the envelope, which is how you get better."