After successful volleyball coaching stops at the Division I and Division III collegiate level, first-year McKendree University coach Lisa Orlet recently completed her first season in Division II.
"There really seems to be the best of both worlds here at McKendree," said Orlet, whose squad finished its first season in the Great Lakes Valley Conference 15-16 overall and 9-9 in conference play. "Here the players can compete at a very high level, but they also get to be involved in a lot of other things on campus. They're able to be college students even moreso than I was as a Division I player."
Orlet mixed in a group of four freshmen and four transfers and, after a slow start, the Bearcats finished strong. They won eight of their final 12 matches, but are ineligible to compete in the postseason conference tournament until 2013.
"Winning some bigger games toward the end of the season, I really felt it showed we were growing," said Orlet, a former volleyball standout at Kansas during her playing days. "I had to learn what the GLVC was about and where our competition was going to be, how to build our program to where we could compete at that level.
"I think we learned pretty quickly that we're going to have our work cut out for us. What helped a lot is the university is very supportive of the athletic program."
As a first-year coach working with mostly new players, Orlet felt the Bearcats accomplished a lot.
"We brought in four transfers and another four freshmen," she said. "Being able to do that and blend with the current kids, having that whole spring with the other kids before I had to come into the fall with the new freshmen, it was a great opportunity to get everybody on the same page."
Orlet admired the GLVC's mix of strong athletic talent and academics.
"They liken it to the Big Ten of Division II," she said. "I've heard that over and over again because we are the strongest academically."
One of Orlet's first tasks was finding a capable setter. She turned to Belleville West graduate Abby Hanger, a 5-foot-10 junior who transferred to McKendree from Missouri State-West Plains.
A defensive specialist and libero by trade, Hanger quickly adapted to setting. She finished the season with 1,244 assists, becoming only the third player in McKendree history to top the 1,000-assist mark.
"She started training hard back in January and really brought her game along, working extremely hard to establish a new position," Orlet said. "She's a true defender through and through. But she reads the court well and I'm big on defense and knew we needed the ball control, so we moved her to setter.
"She played injured quite a bit, but she was a dominant player. "
Orlet said not everyone could make a position switch like Hanger, who also had 284 digs.
"At the college level, it's a lot faster," Orlet said. "You have to see the court and you have to definitely have a very high volleyball IQ. She had a little bit of experience from high school and was able to adjust to the position well."
McKendree developed three strong attackers in junior outside hitter Maureen Nesbit (team-leading 373 kills), freshman middle hitter Lauren Apetz (366 kills) and freshman outside hitter Hannah Wessel (296 kills).
Nesbit is a 5-10 junior transfer from Butler, who previously starred at Althoff High, while Apetz and Wessel (Gibault High) are freshmen.
Nesbit made the switch from libero to outside hitter, but also finished second on the team with 407 digs.
"She was really good, she did a lot of work on her approach and getting her transition footwork down," Orlet said. "Her ball control is her strong suit. She's a very good defensive player and adapted well as the season went on.
"She got better and better with her hitting choices."
Apetz, whom Orlet first met while recruiting for Washington University, contributed 366 kills and a team-leading 91 blocks.
"On her personality and gym presence, I wanted to be in the gym with her," Orlet said. "I knew she'd bring an energy that I like in the gym. She's always excited and always has a smile for you and is trying to improve her game."
Wessel helped lead Gibault to the state tournament as a senior.
"She's been working hard to bring her passing along and improved a lot as the year went on," Orlet said. "Her athleticism is going to take her places."
Orlet said junior libero Maddie Kelly and freshmen right-side hitters Taylor Voss (Central High) and Rachel Nelson also made important strides.
Kelly averaged 5.02 digs per set and had 617 overall.
"She reads the court at a very high level and was the first Bearcat to ever make GLVC Player of the Week," Orlet said.
Nelson had 180 kills and 87 blocks, while Voss had 57 kills and 39 blocks.
"(Voss) has a real natural block and did a lot of things to shut down the opponents' outside hitters," Orlet said.
Among the eight incoming recruits still in high school are Mater Dei outside hitter Bailey Kampwerth, Edwardsville setter Aubry Dickmann, Valmeyer hitter Paige Whipple and middle blocker Sophie Fairman from Staunton.
"We've got to shoot for some lofty goals," Orlet said. "We want to win conference and make it into the national tournament. Once you establish goals like that, then everybody got on board with the work it was going to take to get there."
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at email@example.com or 239-2454.