LEBANON — In her first season as the head volleyball coach at McKendree University, Lisa Orlet led her team to a 15-16 overall record and a 9-9 mark in the Bearcats' first season as members of the Great Lakes Valley Conference.
With McKendree now full NCAA Division II members, Orlet, her players and coaching staff are looking forward to the prospects of the 2013 season, which begins Friday and Saturday in Pensacola, Fla., at the Hemingway's Invitational. The Bearcats will take on Wheeling Jesuit University and Florida Tech on Friday before meeting Albany State University and the University of Arkansas at Monticello in Saturday's matches. The weekend event will be hosted by the University of West Florida.
"There was a lot of learning for us last season, for both the players and for the coaches," said Orlet. "Last year we wanted to put ourselves in a position to go the (GLVC) tournament (finish in the top eight of the league) even though we were not eligible for it. Now that our team has had a full year together, and put in a lot of off-season work, you can see the growth they have made. Our players are catching up to that physical style of play that you see from the top-tier teams in the GLVC. We want to be recognized as one of those programs, and I think the work that has been put in, we will be able to match up that way as well."
Orlet has 10 returning letter winners, including every five starters, back from last year's squad. In addition, the Bearcats have put together one of the strongest recruiting classes in program history. Orlet believes this combination of experience and young talent will factor largely into the success of the McKendree squad this season.
"I definitely think we have options for every situation," said Orlet. "That takes the pressure off of everybody having to perform big in every moment. It's an adjustment to have that level of competition in the gym but it makes everybody better. It's been very exciting to watch in the pre-season. We have had some intense scrimmages in the first couple of weeks together with both teams going at it hard. It definitely does nothing but make us better in the long run."
On the outside, McKendree has two players returning who combined for more than 600 kills last season. Senior Maureen Nesbit (Althoff) led the Bearcats with 373 attacks a year ago, while sophomore Hannah Wessel (WaterlooGibault) finished third with 296 kills. Nesbit also showed her all-around skills by leading McKendree with 31 service aces while handling 407 digs, which was good for second. Wessel contributed 32 assisted blocks and 101 digs as well.
The duo will be joined by freshman Bailey Kampwerth (Breese Mater Dei), who led Mater Dei High School with 284 kills as a senior and was a special mention All-State selection for the Knights.
"Maureen and Hannah both performed well last year and both had some big moments for us," said Orlet. "Bailey has come in and really pushed both of them and has worked her way into the lineup. I think the three of them complement each other very well."
Sophomore Taylor Voss (Breese Central) and junior newcomer Kelsey Johnson (Breese Central) will help fortify the right side for McKendree. Voss saw action in 23 of the Bearcats' 31 matches last season, posting 57 kills with 43 blocks, which was good for third on the squad. Johnson comes to McKendree from NCAA Division I Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where she appeared in nine matches for the Cougars. Johnson was an All-Area performer during her career at Breese Central High School.
"Kelsey came in ready to play and has showed great athleticism," said Orlet. "She and Taylor add a different dimension on the right side and allow a big block. That has helped us in the decision to switch to a 6-2 offense and consistently gives us three attackers on the front row."
Another option on the outside for McKendree is freshman Allison Schneider, who has been slowed by a pre-season injury. Schneider had 260 kills and 55 aces last season at Lindbergh High School, where she was an All-District and All-Conference performer.
In the middle, Orlet has been impressed with freshman Sophie Fairman (Staunton), who starred last season at Staunton High School. Fairman had 307 kills and 129 blocks as a senior for the Bulldogs and earned All-Area and All-Conference accolades.
Sophomore Rachel Nelson and junior Trina Isaak (Highland) also return to solidify the middle for the Bearcats. Nelson was second on the McKendree team with 87 blocks in 2012 and also added 180 kills. She was also third on the squad with 20 service aces. Isaak helped out with 29 kills and nine blocks in limited action.
Sophomore Lauren Apetz, who paced the Bearcats with 91 blocks last season while finishing second on the squad with 366 kills, will miss the first month of the season with a leg injury. Despite the early absence of Apetz, Orlet believes that the team is well-stocked in the middle.
"Sophie is extremely athletic and really elevates to the dynamic of our offense," said Orlet. "She can hit anywhere on the net. While she is still getting used to the fast-paced game, Sophie has been fun to watch and will be for years to come. Rachel is a returning starter who really came on strong in the second half of her freshman season. Trina has increased her vertical as well as her speed, and her volleyball IQ has really elevated as well. I really like the depth and talent we have in the middle."
Senior Meghan Dohogne, who can play as a middle hitter and a right-side hitter, will be utilized by Orlet in a utility role. Dohogne was fourth on last year's squad with 267 digs while adding 61 kills in 29 matches.
"Meghan came in as a middle and has really worked hard on her ball control and passing so she can play on the right side or on the outside," said Orlet. "She provides a lot of balance. Meghan knows the game well and is a great communicator on the court."
Orlet indicated that Abby Hanger (Belleville West), who served as the Bearcats' primary setter in 2012 with 1,244 sets, will sit out the upcoming season as a redshirt to allow a back injury to heal properly. With that in mind, Orlet and her staff have recruited a pair of freshman setters in Rebeccan Nauman and Breanna Howe to share the duties this season. In turn, McKendree will run a 6-2 offense instead of the 5-1 set the team employed last year.
Both Nauman and Howe bring impressive credentials to McKendree. Nauman was a four-year letter winner at Yorkville High School and collected more than 1,200 assists and 110 service aces in her career. Nauman earned conference Player of the Year accolades as a senior. Howe also earned four letters during her playing days at Mt. Pulaski High School, where she handed out more than 500 assists as a senior. Howe also helped lead the Wildcats to three second-place finishes in the IHSA Class 1A state tournament.
"The biggest change to our system is adding the 6-2 as opposed to the 5-1 offense," said Orlet. "Sometimes it's tough to throw a pair of freshmen into the fire at setter, but they are both more than capable of the challenge. I feel very comfortable doing that because of their experience and talent. Rebecca and Breanna both have great hands and locate well on their passing. They are definitely setting us up for success."
Senior Maddie Kelly will anchor the back row for the second straight year as the Bearcats' libero. Kelly led McKendree handled a team-leading 617 digs last season while serving up 16 aces. Kelly ranked among GLVC leaders in digs and will be counted on to provide more leadership on the court for the Bearcats.
"Maddie has been tremendous in leading our defense," said Orlet. "She has been a coach before so her court IQ is at another level. Her game and ball control has gotten much more physical in the off-season. Maddie is definitely a dynamic athlete on defense. She keeps us in the game and helps us maintain momentum when she's on the floor."
Freshman Aubry Dickmann (Edwardsville) was recruited as a setter, but has worked in the back row since early in camp with the absence of Hanger. Dickmann was a two-year starter at Edwardsville High School, where she ranked among area leaders in assists with 849. According to Orlet, Dickmann has adapted to her new role quickly at McKendree.
"Aubry is an incredible athlete," said Orlet. "She has been training alongside Maddie and has really picked up the system. She has slipped right into the role on the back row. Aubry is a gamer and will see a lot of time for us."
McKendree went 7-4 in five-set matches last year, but the team was just 3-5 in four-set contests. Orlet believes that the year of experience and added depth will help the Bearcats improve on those numbers in 2013.
"We were in a lot of matches last year," said Orlet. "While our record was good in five-set matches, we showed that we were not consistent enough in finishing off matches. I think that the work we put in during the off-season, plus the added depth, will help us close the gap."
Overall, Orlet feels that her players have dedicated themselves into making a run at a GLVC Tournament berth in their first year of eligibility for the league event.
"Right now I am pleased with their work ethic," said Orlet. "They are working hard on the court and in the weight room. They want to show they are a top-tier program in the GLVC and have accepted the challenge. We've got a lot to prove and we want to show that we're the real deal."
In addition to the season-opening Hemingway's Invitational, the Bearcats will compete in the Peggy Martin Challenge Sept. 13-14 at the University of Central Missouri. McKendree will open GLVC play Sept. 21 at home against the University of Missouri-St. Louis. With the new GLVC pod scheduling format, the Bearcats will face each league opponent at least once during the 2013 season.