Will tradition continue for Mount Olive volleyball program?
By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on September 1, 2006 2:08 PM
MOUNT OLIVE -- The most-successful senior class in Mount Olive College women's volleyball history left its mark and established a high standard for this year's team.
Three-time All-American Heidi Busch, Sara Christie and Colby Mangum combined for 109 victories during their four-year career and helped put the Trojans among the nation's elite teams. Mount Olive claimed just its second Carolinas-Virginia Athletics Conference regular-season championship since 1997, and earned its second consecutive bid to the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional.
Can the tradition the prolific trio started continue?
Senior Anna-Marie Luft and junior Sam Mitchell, two players who were also instrumental in the Trojans' conference-title run last season, anxiously await the challenge before them.
"We have some really talented, amazing freshmen," said Luft, a two-time all-CVAC first-team selection. "Put them together with the 'base five,' and I think the expectations are really high, even though we're a young team.
"A lot of coaches are looking at us and saying we lost our 'solid three,' but in reality we just built a new one around them."
Returning with Luft and Mitchell are senior libero Nikki Murphy; and sophomores Mallory Peavler and Kari Ham. Seven freshmen and two junior college transfers complete the Trojans' 14-player roster -- the program's largest team since moving to Division II in the mid-1990s.
Mount Olive opened its season today in an eight-team tournament at Carson-Newman (Tenn.) College. The two-day event concludes Saturday and the Trojans begin defense of their CVAC crown at home Tuesday against Coker (S.C.) College.
"We're looking forward to the weekend and showing what our team has," said Mitchell. "It will be our first exposure to anyone and will give us a chance to see what we can do against other teams.
"This (weekend) could start our season off really well. There is going to be a lot of pressure on us and our freshmen to perform well."
"Solid 3" to "Base 5"
Luft, who has moved from middle hitter to the right side, surpassed the 1,000-kill mark last season. The Swansboro native collected 370 kills and served 49 aces.
"It's a huge change for me, but I like it," said Luft. "Our two (freshman) middles are pretty solid. I'm still not adapted to it, but I think by Friday, I should have it. If not, I know what I need to do."
Mitchell pounded out 457 kills, the second-highest total for a sophomore in school history, a year ago. The 5-foot-10 outside hitter has nearly 900 kills for her career and finished second only to Murphy in digs in 2005 with 290.
Murphy, riddled by injuries during her first two seasons, recorded a career-best 440 digs a year ago. Peavler filled in at setter for an injured Christie and settled into a defensive role when Christie returned to the lineup.
Ham, a former standout at South Lenoir, played 124 games and provided 30 blocks.
Third-year coach Sasha Gutor and second-year assistant Gordon Kirby spent the offseason scouting players in numerous tournaments. Their search included finding suitable replacements for Mangum and Christie, but both hope that an upperclassman will fill the void left by Busch.
"To replace a three-time All-American, that's something an upperclassman will hopefully step into," said Kirby. "I think it will make the girls work more as a team on the court with everybody wanting to be the 'go-to' player and wanting the ball."
Working in the middle are freshmen Racey Bartley and Corie Skislak, a former JUCO standout at Gulf Breeze (Fla.) Community College. Bartley's brothers Chris and Nick play on the men's basketball and volleyball teams, respectively. Skislak's sister, Caitlyn, is listed as an outside hitter for the Trojans.
Three players are vying for the setter position -- freshmen Joanie Werling and Karrie Orr, and JUCO transfer Mariangelix Cordero. Orr played with Bartley at Jacksonville.
"They've been doing a great job working on the offensive plays and working on timing with the hitters," said Kirby. "I see these ladies with the same mindset that Sara had. With the leadership from Anna, Sam and Nikki, I think they'll continue to grow and keep this program going."
Joining Mitchell on the outside are freshmen Heather Pope (5-foot-10) and Alicia Mote (5-9). Kirby said Ham will work with Luft on the right side.
"I think the techniques that coach Gutor has taught these young ladies, they should be able to match up with the hitters we had last year," said Kirby. "Sam and Anna are great examples for the freshmen to see, and it's good to have them as leaders.
"We should have the same power, but it will be a matter of who wants the ball and wants to be a hitter at crunch time."
Peavler and freshman Meagan Sanderson are the defensive specialists. Murphy stays at libero, but can serve this season. The libero is still not allowed to play on the front row.
"Even though we have a 'fresh' buid this year, we feel like we've brought in enough talent that we can bring (the level of play) back up to where we were last year," said Mitchell, who received first-team all-CVAC recognition last season. "With a good attitude and good talent, it will help us be just as good as we were last year."
League coaches picked the Trojans, despite the loss of their three precedent-setting seniors, to finish second behind eight-time defending champion Lees-McRae.
Kirby thinks L-MC and MOC will receive stern regular-season tests from second-year member Converse (S.C.) College and Coker. Any of those four teams can easily seize the CVAC tournament title and automatic regional berth.
Mount Olive is playing a 28-match schedule that includes another weekend tournament at Wheeling-Jesuit in early October. Kirby expects the Trojans will see several region opponents and realizes the results must be favorable for NCAA tournament bid recognition.
"(The bid) is also based on how we perform in conference and the conference tournament," said Kirby. "I think we can compete with the four teams we're going to battle to stay in the top five. I think with game experience, they'll want to grow and get better."
The CVAC changed its tournament format this season. The top five teams receive bids to the quarterfinals, while the bottom six face "play-in" games.
After the Coker match, Mount Olive faces four consecutive conference opponents on the road. The Trojans return home Sept. 16 to start a six-game league homestand against Queens University of Charlotte.
Mount Olive plays its final six regular-season conference matches on the road.
Mount Olive finished 28-8 and set a school record for CVAC wins (19) in 2005. ... Kirby is serving as interim head coach for Gutor, who is currently coaching the Ukraine women's national team. ... The Trojans have won 15 or more conference matches each of the past four seasons. ... Grand Valley State is ranked No. 1 in the CSTV/AVCA Top 25 poll. ... Two-time Atlantic Regional champ Lock Haven (Pa.) University is ranked 15th.
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