KALAMAZOO, Mich. – The 2012 Western Michigan volleyball team looks, on paper, much like the team 2011 team that reached the NCAA Tournament on the strength of a 24-9 record. Missing just two players from last year’s squad, the Broncos have the look of a team not totally satisfied by last year’s successes as they prepare to start the season.
“The expectations we’ve put on ourselves have increased greatly,” said WMU head coach Colleen Munson, who enters her eighth season at the helm. “Our goal is the same, but I think we have a clearer vision of how to get there, and we’re better equipped to do it. We want to make sure the players share that common vision.”
Munson’s team is comprised of players whose young ages might make outsiders think the Broncos are a young squad. While it’s true that the Broncos have just one senior, middle blocker Jessica Brown, Munson says that the experiences of the rest of the team more than make up for any perceived youth movement.
“Our juniors and sophomores aren’t your typical juniors and sophomores, because all of them have been on the court contributing since day one,” said Munson. “Our juniors have had such an impact already, but they’re still constantly looking for ways to improve their games. It’s a completely different perspective.”
Here’s a position by position breakdown of the Broncos:
Terin Norris returns as a redshirt sophomore for the Broncos, and the reigning MAC Freshman of the Year and First Team All-MAC selection looks to build on a rookie season that saw her become one of the top setters in the Mid-American Conference. Norris brings the element of attack in addition to her setting abilities, with her 135 kills in 2011 the most for a Bronco since 2006.
“Terin did a tremendous job running our system last year,” said Munson. “She’s dynamic and very competitive, and we’re absolutely looking forward to what she’s able to do with this cast around her this year.”
Norris also displayed a defensive knack as well, recording 18 Digs – Assists double-doubles in 2011 to set a new single-season program record. Norris became just the third individual in program history to record a triple-double, doing so against Ball State.
The Broncos return a plethora of outside hitters with experience, including juniors Ali Gossen and Gillian Asque, and sophomores Claire Gerwig and Carlee Berland. Throw incoming freshman Caroline Rose into the mix, and Munson will have her choice of combinations to tinker with during the season.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had this many quality outsides with such diverse skill sets,” said Munson. “We’re excited about the depth and the individual skills that each brings, from ball control, to attacking, and blocking.”
Asque established herself as a regular on the right side last year, averaging 2.40 kills per set and ranking third on the team with 58 blocks, while Gossen ranked second on the team with 329 kills in 2011 and posted 302 digs, the most for a non-defensive specialist on the team. Gossen was one of two Broncos to be named to the USA Volleyball National A2 squad this summer, and Munson believes the experiences that she has brought back to Kalamazoo will poise her for a standout junior season.
The juniors are joined by a pair of sophomores in Gerwig and Berland, who earned significant playing time as freshmen last season and are looking for more. Gerwig battled through injury for most of the season, but showed flashes of offensive brilliance; she recorded 15 kills in the NCAA Tournament against Washington, hitting .538 to keep the Broncos in the match. Berland had her own moments, including a 13-kill performance at Wisconsin in which she hit .545.
The wild card among this group is Rose, who plays a strong defensive, ball-control game, but also has the ability to attack. Rose’s versatility will make her an attractive option in a variety of circumstances.
The middle blocker position is at once both the most experienced position on the court – it features the team’s lone senior in Brown – and the greenest, in that the other three players feature one sophomore and two freshmen. However, Munson says that Brown’s leadership should bring the trio of Richelle Ranney, Ave Stout, and Stephenee Yancy along quickly.
“Jess is going to try and teach this group the tricks of the trade,” said Munson. “She’s a great role model for the rest of the group.”
Like the outsides, Munson envisions versatility from this group, as they all bring slightly different skills to the table due to their athleticism. Ranney will look to increase her role in 2012 after having had a full off-season and the team’s Brazilian trip to improve.
“We have very active middle blockers at this point,” said Munson. “Richelle has had more time to train with us, so we’re excited to get her back in the gym and see what she can do.”
The Broncos added two freshmen to the middle in Ave Stout and Stephenee Yancy, and the pair will certainly challenge for playing time early in their careers. Coming in at heights of 6-3 and 6-2, respectively, they give WMU height in the middle the Broncos haven’t seen in some time.
Defensive Specialists & Libero
Lena Oliver has been a steady presence in the back row for the Broncos in her first two years, and the junior will look to top her own record-breaking 2011 campaign in 2012. Oliver has a career total of 1,345 digs, including a single-season program record of 700 in 2011. A two-time COBRA Magazine National Defensive Player of the Year and one of COBRA's Preseason Player of the Year candidates, Oliver will continue to be a thorn in the side of the Broncos' opponents.
Joining her in the back row will be Rose and Kaycee Acree, and Munson believes one of the hallmarks of her teams at Western Michigan – frustrating back row defense – will continue this year.
“They are three dynamic defensive players with tremendous ball control abilities,” said Munson. “They have a real feel for the game.”
Acree returns to the Broncos with a level of national experience, as well; like Gossen, Acree was part of the USA Volleyball National A2 squad, where she was afforded the opportunity to work with 47 other standouts from across the nation. She will look to make a major leap forward in her second season.