LEBANON — McKendree University men's volleyball coach Nickie Sanlin is excited for what the future holds for her Bearcat program.
The Bearcats made their debut on Friday night with a 25-13, 25-15, 25-13 loss against Ball State University. They'll head north for tri-matches at Dominican University near Chicago on Saturday before wrapping up the weekend with another tri-match at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.
In all, the Bearcats will play five matches over three days.
The Bearcats' roster has an unusual look in their inaugural season with all 14 active players being freshman, something that Sanlin says will work to the benefit of the team as the program grows. "We wanted players that wanted to do something bigger than themselves,'' said Sanlin, who came to McKendree in 2012 as an assistant coach for the women's program and was named as the men's head coach early in 2013. ''Recruiting-wise, we wanted to bring in players that didn't just worry about volleyball all the time, but are well-rounded individuals.
"These guys have shown from day one a dedication to helping us build something special, to be in on the ground floor and lay the foundation for what we are trying to accomplish.''
The Bearcats have just one setter, but Sanlin is high on Jack MacLean, a Lincoln, Neb., native who handed out 737 assists last year for the High Flyers Volleyball Club.
MacLean also will serve as one of the Bearcats' two captains.
''Jack comes from a state where there is really not much high school volleyball,'' said Sanlin. ''That told me a lot about his character because he's a trend-setter. He's one-of-a-kind and not afraid of hard work.''
Two of the three liberos for McKendree are local products. Brice Miller played at Althoff, where Sanlin had previously served as coach. He lettered four times for the Crusaders and led the team to its first regional championship back in 2010.
''Brice has really blossomed into a solid player,'' Sanlin said. ''He has accepted the challenge of stepping into a big role and will really bring something different to our squad.''
Josh Thum (St. Louis/Vianney) posted 145 kills, 85 digs and 21 service aces as a senior at Vianney. Thum helped lead the Golden Griffins to two Missouri state titles in a three-year span.
The Bearcats' other libero is Kristian Gallardo from Helmet, Calif. He was a two-time all-conference performer at Hemet High School, where he collected 180 digs and 46 assists as a senior.
On the outside, Sanlin will look to a quintet of players to provide the power.
Dustin Borenstein was a four-year letterman at Highland Park High School near Chicago.
Michael Polizzilettered three times at DeSmet in St. Louis, where he led the Spartans in blocks as a senior, while Andrew Schnittker registered 181 kills, 42 blocks and 31 digs as a senior at Buffalo Grove High School.
Spencer Sweetin brings his talents from Francis Howell near St. Louis. Sweetin collected 105 kills and 66 digs as a senior for the Vikings.
Rounding out the list of outside hitters for the Bearcats is James Hill. As a senior, Hill registered 190 kills at Plainfield South, where he helped the Cougars a school record for wins.
On the right side, McKendree will rely on the trio of Maalik Walker from Minooka and Alex Moll and Eric Abrolat from Marquette in St. Louis.
Walker led Minooka to a fourth-place finish at the IHSA as a senior. He registered 137 kills and 95 blocks for the Indians, earning all-conference and all-area honors in the process.
''Maalik will play an important role on the right side for us,'' Sanlin said. He is starting to realize how good he could be. Maalik was another surprise for us this fall. We knew he was good but he matches up physically with the programs we will be playing once we get into our conference.''
Another St. Louis product on the Bearcats' roster is Alex Moll.
An all-metro and all-conference honoree at Lafayette High School, Moll led the Lancers to a Missouri state championship. He had 242 kills on the year and added 23 service aces.
''Alex is the type of player who will do anything to help make our program better,'' Sanlin said. ''He is coming from a program that won a state title last year, so he brings that experience with him. Alex is positive all the time, a pro-team kind of guy. He is one of the most unselfish players I have ever coached.''
In the middle, Sanlin will turn to the tandem of Jordin Ray and Wyatt Patterson.
Ray played at Edwardsville, where he was second on the team in blocks while adding 89 kills for the Tigers.
''Jordin is one of the hardest workers we have in our program,'' Sanlin said. ''He's always pushing his teammates, giving 110 percent on the court every single day. Jordin is extremely smart and has been challenging himself and his teammates.''
Patterson notched nearly 300 kills with 97 blocks as a senior at Homewood-Flossmoor, near Chicago.
The Bearcats will compete as an independent during their first season, but is slated to join the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) for the 2015 season.
The Bearcats' inaugural home match is slated for Tuesday against Missouri Baptist University.