Story courtesy of Toledo Media Relations
Heading into his second season as the leader of the Rockets' program, Head Coach Greg Smith's primary goal is to maintain the momentum established from his inaugural campaign.
Toledo enjoyed one of its best seasons in school history in 2009, posting a 17-12 win-loss mark. The Rockets also tied for second place in the MAC's West Division which was their highest finish since the conference went to a divisional format in 1997.
UT lost just two starters from last year's squad and returns a pair of second-team All-MAC honorees, OH Amber DeWeerdt and S Kassie Kadera, as well as MAC All-Freshman Team member Sondra Parys to the fold.
"Having most of our nucleus, including three key players, back from last year's team certainly gives us something that we can build on," Smith said. "When you add what we consider a top-flight recruiting class, I think we have an extremely bright future."
Smith was particularly enthused about his team's growth during the off-season. It was the first time he and the Rockets' coaching staff were able to spend time working exclusively on the fundamental aspects that are critical to a team's success.
"We had a tremendous spring where we made good strides in the strength department and became more cohesive as a team," Smith said. "We also emphasized the mental side of the game quite a bit, because I felt that was an area that could help us become a more consistent team."
Toledo opened its 2009 campaign by winning its first three tournaments, highlighted by a victory over Big East foe Louisville.
The Rockets will be challenged this season by what is a more formidable schedule than last year. UT's non-conference slate features six schools (No. 9 Michigan, No. 40 Michigan State, No. 48 Furman, No. 79 Wisconsin, No. 83 Marquette and No. 86 Creighton) that were ranked in the Top 100 of last year's final NCAA RPI rankings.
"I always think as a coach and as a player you want to play tough competition because it's a fun challenge," Smith said. "That's what our scheduling philosophy is going to be, because we have to learn to win matches against top competition at some point.
"The sooner you start putting those types of teams on your schedule the quicker you are going to learn."
The following is a look at the Rockets by position:
Left-side hitter is likely the Rockets' deepest and most talented position.
Junior OH Amber DeWeerdt is expected to lead the Rockets after earning second-team All-MAC laurels and averaging 3.30 kills and 3.36 digs per set last year.
"Amber became a lot stronger and played with more confidence in the spring," Smith said. "She probably took the biggest strides of all of our hitters, and there are a lot of exciting things about her game right now."
Sophomore OH Sondra Parys emerged as one of the top offensive threats in the MAC during her rookie campaign. She led all freshman and ranked eighth in the league with 3.32 kills per set.
"Sondra didn't progress as much as we would have liked in the spring due to a stress fracture," Smith said. "She can be a force for us at the net, but the big key for her will be to remain healthy."
Providing depth on the left side will be freshmen Jordan Kielty and Lauren Rafdal.
Kielty received third-team all-state, all-region and all-conference honors as a senior at Canton (MI) High School just eight months after suffering an ACL injury.
Rafdal helped Brebeuf (IN) Jesuit High School to a 34-1 record last fall and a Class 3-A state title by posting a team-high 331 kills and ranking second and third in digs (210) and blocks, respectively. She is a four-time all-state honoree, second-team as a freshman and first-team as a sophomore, junior and senior.
The Rockets have two veterans to turn to on the right side in senior Margot Joniec and junior Cassie Kleespies.
Joniec and Kleespies split time with sophomore Bailey Blank last year and will have an opportunity to earn the starting nod this fall.
Joniec's top performance was a 15-kill showing in a 3-1 win over Northern Illinois (Sept. 26), while Kleespies provided 14 terminations in a 3-2 triumph over Central Michigan (Nov. 6).
"Margot was really starting to come on last year before she would get injured," Smith said. "Cassie also played very well at times, and they're both candidates to start for us."
Also figuring in the mix on the right side is 6-2 freshman Becca Reidy. An Indianapolis, IN native, Reidy enjoyed a strong summer and earned All-America honors at the 2010 AAU Junior National Championships. The four-time all-city selection at Brebeuf Jesuit averaged 2.84 kills and 0.93 blocks per set as a senior.
Toledo needs to replace departed starters Liz Sundburg and Sarah Wilson at middle blocker.
The two leading candidates are sophomores Bailey Blank and Bethany Irwin.
Blank registered a .195 attack mark and 1.43 kills per set at right-side hitter during her rookie campaign.
"Bailey's quickness, athleticism and arm swing are more conducive to be in the middle," Smith said. "She had a very good spring considering the fact she had not played there since she was a sophomore in high school. She picked up on the things we were looking for very quickly."
Irwin came on strong at the end of the season after being hampered due to injury during the first half of the year. One of her top performances came when she notched seven kills, four blocks, two aces and a .357 hitting mark vs. Bowling Green in the MAC Tournament.
"We were able to get a glimpse of what Bethany could do late in the year," Smith said. "I think she can have a breakout year for us, because of the strides she was able to make in the spring in addition to getting healthy."
Six-foot-one freshman Dakota Harkins also will have an opportunity to make her presence felt in the middle. Harkins earned first-team all-state accolades as a junior and senior at Canal Fulton Northwest (OH) High School as well as District IV Player of the Year and Northeastern Buckeye Conference Player of the Year honors as a senior.
Junior Kassie Kadera is the frontrunner to quarterback the Rockets' attack for a third-straight year. The second-team All-MAC honoree led the conference with 10.91 assists per set.
"Kassie did a wonderful job this spring and displayed tremendous improvement," Smith said. "I felt her leadership grew, and she gained more confidence setting our offense."
Freshman Adria Pryor may challenge for some playing time at setter and provide the Rockets with the option of going to a 6-2 offense.
Pryor quarterbacked Center Grove High School to a 33-4 win-loss mark and an appearance in the Indiana Class 4-A state semifinals last fall. She led the state with 10.70 assists per set as a senior to earn second-team all-state, All-Metro South, all-conference and all-county accolades.
"I think Kassie and Adria are going to have a strong competition with each other," Smith said. "We really developed our offense in the spring, and having two quality setters is going to allow us to expand it further and become more diverse."
Senior Katie Westerfeld took over the libero duties midway through last season and never looked back. She averaged 4.05 digs per set in MAC play to rank 10th in the league.
"Katie did a good job of solidifying the libero position last year and continued in that role this spring," Smith said. "She has the edge to be our starter, but I think we will have some good competition."
Sophomore McCall Paynter made significant contributions in her first collegiate campaign, averaging 2.61 digs per set.
"McCall matured into her role as a back-row specialist in the spring, and I think she will continue to grow in that role," Smith said.
Smith also said that freshman OH Jordan Kielty could challenge for time at the libero postion.
"We have the versatility at libero that allows us to see what's going to be our best lineup," Smith said. "I think we will have a strong back row, and I am hoping this allows us to be a solid passing team."