Head Coach Greg Smith challenged his squad during their spring season to form a new identity.
Smith believed a change in mindset was in order following a 2011 campaign that saw the Rockets experience their fair share of tough losses.
“One of the main things we wanted to accomplish in the spring was to create a different court atmosphere,” Smith said. “Our players did a great job taking ownership of the team and developing a chemistry which was different from last year. We saw a lot of positive changes, but we still have room to grow.”
Helping the Rockets achieve their change in mentality is a group of veteran attackers — senior Sondra Parys and juniors Dakota Harkins, Jordan Kielty, Lauren Rafdal and Becca Reidy — who have seen a lot of action since their freshman year.
“We’ve relied on this group of hitters a lot the last two seasons, and now I think they’re ready to step up as leaders,” Smith said. “They’ve gone through the battles together, and I think that experience is going to be huge for our program. They can push themselves and their teammates to go above and beyond what they’ve experienced so far.”
Toledo lost several tight contests in 2011, including 3-1 defeats to No. 18 Michigan and No. 25 Ohio State. The Rockets also dropped 3-2 setbacks to NCAA Tournament participants Ball State, Central Michigan and Western Michigan. Smith is hoping his team’s new mindset can turn those type of losses into victories.
“The difference between winning and losing is so slim,” Smith said. “We need to realize that we aren’t that far away as a program. I think we have the pieces in place, and now we just have to go out and make things happen on the court.”
The Rockets are hoping one area that can help them do just that is in the blocking department. UT ranked 10th in the Mid-American Conference last year at 1.7 blocks per set and has room to improve.
“We made a lot of progress with our blocking in the spring after focusing on that a lot,” Smith said. “We didn’t deviate from other aspects of the game, but we did really concentrate on it. Making these improvements can take a lot of pressure off our floor defense and allow us to be a better defensive team.”
Following is a position-by-position low for Toledo in the 2012:
Experience and depth are two words that can be used to describe the Rockets’ outside hitter position.
“We have three players who have started at the collegiate level and that’s nice to have,” Smith said. “We have experience and point scorers who we can turn to.”
Senior Sondra Parys returns for her final season as a Rocket after battling injuries and illness the last two years. The 2009 MAC All-Freshman Team member led UT with 2.91 kills per set last year and tallied a season-high 21 kills, 11 digs and .315 attack percentage vs. No. 25 Ohio State (Sept. 10).
“Sondra is finally starting to feel healthy and hopefully this will be her year,” Smith said. “She is such a powerful attacker who can be a difference-maker for us.”
Juniors Jordan Kielty and Lauren Rafdal are also candidates for a starting spot after showing glimpses of their potential in their first two seasons. Kielty led the Rockets in 2011 with 0.25 service aces per set, ranked third with 2.40 digs per set and earned all-tournament team honors at the Blue-Gold Invitational and Michigan/adidas Invitational. A MAC All-Tournament Team member as a freshman, Rafdal tallied 2.48 kills per set in 2011, including a season-high 21 kills and .357 ATK% vs. Miami (Oct. 22).
“Both Jordan and Lauren have greatly benefitted from another year in our program,” Smith said. “Jordan is a strong all-around player and vocal leader for us, while Lauren possesses the potential to take over matches with her physical ability.”
Junior Becca Reidy is the clear-cut starter at right-side hitter after enjoying a breakthrough season in her sophomore campaign. After seeing time on the right side and in the middle as freshman, Reidy ranked second on the team with 2.65 kills per set last year. She notched a career-high 21 kills against Ball State (Oct. 27) and matched her career best with five rejections vs. Eastern Michigan (Nov. 12).
“Becca grew a lot as a player both on and off the court in the spring,” Smith said. “She’s become more assertive and taken on a greater leadership role. I think when somebody does that they are going to go above and beyond what they’re capable of.”
Providing depth on the right side will be sophomore Allison Griffiths, a transfer from NAIA Aquinas (MI) College. The DeWitt, MI native earned co-Wolverine Hoosier Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year honors last season after averaging 2.49 kills per set.
“I think Allison gives us some depth on the right side, but we’ll also look at what she can do on the left as well,” Smith said. “She brings collegiate experience to the table and has the ability to really fight for a starting position for us down the road.”
Junior Dakota Harkins and sophomore Brooke Frazer have a leg up on the starting nod for the Rockets at middle blocker. Senior Bethany Irwin and freshman Daiva Wise are expected to provide the team with valuable depth.
Harkins emerged as one of the most efficient attackers in the MAC last year, ranking seventh in the league with a school-record .321 hitting mark. The Canal Fulton, OH native also led the Rockets with 0.90 blocks per set and posted a .413 ATK% and 1.05 bps in her final five matches.
“Dakota had an exceptional spring and we’re hoping she can carry that into the fall,” Smith said. “She brought a different mentality into the gym and played with a purpose. She possesses a lot of talent, and I think the sky’s the limit for her as a player.”
Frazer saw limited action in her freshman campaign but produced her best matches against Ohio State (nine kills ) and Michigan State
“Brooke gained a great deal of confidence and got a lot stronger in the spring,” Smith said. “She received a taste of what college volleyball is about last year and is ready to be a solid contributor.”
Irwin enjoyed her best season as a Rocket last year, posting a .281 ATK% along with 1.94 kills and 0.64 blocks per set last fall. The spring wasn’t so kind to the Greenwood, IN native though, as she suffered a shoulder injury and her status for the start of the season is uncertain.
“Bethany had some problems with her shoulder in the spring,” Smith said. “She played well last year, but getting healthy is going to be the biggest key for her.”
Wise brings impressive credentials to the Rockets after helping take St. Francis (IL) High School to the 2011 state quarterfinals and earning Chicago Tribune special-mention all-state honors. At the club level, Wise helped the Crystal Lake-based Sky High Volleyball Club 17 Black team win the 17 Open division at the 2011 AAU Junior National Club championships.
“Daiva Wise is coming in with a boatload of experience,” Smith said. “She’s won national titles with her club team as a starting middle. With that type of experience and the confidence she possesses, she can be a difference maker right off the bat.”
The Rockets need to fill the void at setter left by four-year starter and three-time second-team All-MAC honoree Kassie Kadera, who finished her career ranked second in school history in assists (4,853) and eighth in digs (1,186).
Junior Adria Pryor has the inside track at the position and will be competing for the job with freshman Alex Hines. Pryor has played in just two matches in a Rocket uniform, one each as a freshman and sophomore.
“Adria had a good spring and was starting to come on before she was sidelined due to injury,” Smith said. “She’s beginning to understand the position, and what we want out of her. She has a lot of attributes that would make her a viable starter and will be in the No. 1 spot heading into the fall.”
Hines received third-team all-state honors as a senior at Ladywood (MI) High School and helped the Blazers advance to Michigan’s Class B ‘Final Four’ her sophomore and junior seasons.
“Alex will probably be one of the better athletes we’ll have on our team,” Smith said. “She’s going to do a lot of things as a setter that we haven’t had in our gym due to her height and athleticism. But at the same time, she’s going to be a freshman who needs to gain experience at the collegiate level.”
Senior McCall Paynter and sophomore Meghan Smyth are the leading candidates to replace starting libero Amber DeWeerdt. DeWeerdt finished her career ranked second in UT annals in career digs (1,522) and was 10th in the MAC last year with 3.73 digs per set.
Paynter ranked fourth on the team last year with 2.21 digs and registered a season-best 14 digs vs. Wright State (Aug. 26) and Xavier (Sept. 17).
“McCall had a wonderful spring and developed nicely as a player and a leader,” Smith said. “It’s good having her voice on the court, and she did a great job running our back-row defense in the spring.”
Smyth appeared in 15 matches last year as a defensive specialist, collecting a season-best nine digs vs. Bowling Green (Oct. 21).
“Meghan’s confidence grew a lot during the spring, and I think she will push McCall,” Smith said. “She became a more consistent performer and is someone that we can rely on in the back row.”
Providing depth at defensive specialist will be freshman Celina Diaz. Diaz ranked 17th in California with 7.8 digs per set for Hesperia Oak Hills High School.
“Celina’s a workaholic,” Smith said. “She’s going to work hard to get the job done and is a great athlete as well. She’s played at a high level in California and is going to fight for playing time right away.”
Toledo will face a formidable non-conference schedule to prepare for its league slate.
The Rockets will open their campaign at Ohio State’s Sports Imports Classic (Aug. 24-25) that includes Houston, Oregon and the host Buckeyes.
“We have a more balanced non-conference schedule this season after being really top heavy last year,” Smith said. “The first weekend is going to be the toughest, because we are facing two potentially top-25 teams back-to-back at Ohio State. I’m excited to play that tournament early, because it’s going to give us a great indication of what we need to work on to improve as a team.”
Toledo will also compete at Oakland’s Golden Grizzlies Invitational (Aug. 31-Sept. 1) and Wake Forest’s Black & Gold Challenge (Sept. 14-15) in addition to hosting its Rocket Classic (Sept. 7-8).
“We’re going to be challenged in every tournament we play,” Smith said. “That’s going to be important, because it’s going to help us prepare for conference play.”
The MAC enjoyed possibly its best season ever in 2011 with four teams qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.
“It was such a great year for the MAC last season, and we’re just hoping to build upon that,” Smith said. “I think our conference is going to be very strong again from top to bottom. You’re going to see more parity, because teams are getting better throughout the entire conference.”