Story Courtesy of WMU Media Relations
KALAMAZOO -- Western Michigan volleyball begins a new era in 2010 after graduating a record-breaking class of seniors, but expectations remain high for the three-time defending Mid-American Conference West champions. The Broncos have won 20 or more matches in each of head coach Colleen Munson's first five seasons and have a strong nucleus of First Team All-MAC outside hitter Allyson Doyle and 2009 MAC Freshman of the Year middle blocker Jessica Brown mentoring one of the best recruiting classes in the Midwest.
The Broncos return four letterwinners from last season's 24-win team that finished 13-3 in the MAC and reached the finals of the conference tournament for the second year in a row. WMU also inked a six-player recruiting class that was ranked as one of the top-50 in the country by PrepVolleyball.com.
"We're excited about getting everybody on the same page when preseason camp starts," Munson said. "We saw glimpses of what the new kids can do during summer camp, but the older kids have been around them a lot longer and are fired up about their competitive spirit, their personalities and their overall athleticism. They are tremendous athletes that have experienced success at every level they've played and we're looking forward to getting them in our system."
Besides Doyle and Brown, the Broncos also return junior setter Sam Viox, junior middle blocker Ashley Turnage and sophomore defensive specialist Elizabeth "Boo" Sweeney to help the newcomers understand the expectations of a Bronco volleyball player and fill the void left behind by the MAC's career leader in digs, Caitlin Strimel, WMU's career leader in kills, Michelle Moore, WMU's career leader in kills-digs double-doubles, Katie Eberling, and one of the top-five setters in school history, Jillian Mitchell.
"We've talked at length about the legacy the graduating class left behind, but they also didn't come off the court for four years," Munson said. "We now have a group of young women that can potentially do the same thing for the next four years. What we have in place is strong upper class leadership that has been there and lived it and knows what it takes to be successful at Western Michigan University and will teach this new group by what they say and what they do."
With 8-of-11 players entering 2010 as underclassmen, the future is bright for the Broncos, but this season's team is concerned less about the future and more about keeping the Broncos at the top of the MAC in 2010.
"We need consistent production from everybody. Our positional depth is limited, but as a program we've had success with small numbers because everyone is responsible for doing what's needed to reach our common goal," Munson said. "Each player is accountable for their individual preparation and focus to compete at their highest level of ability any time they're on the court. If we can effectively communicate our vision and its necessary commitment to the team, then our expectation of winning championships will be realized. Our primary goals are no different than they have ever been."
The Broncos return only one experienced outside hitter in Doyle. The first team all-conference standout from 2009 is one of the most versatile players in the conference as she finished last season with 325 kills, hitting .281, 459 digs and 100 blocks (all were career highs). Doyle enters her senior campaign with 914 career kills and is sixth all-time in WMU history with 1,217 career digs.
"Allyson's been so consistently good for us over the past three years," Munson said. "On the court, we've asked her to step out of her comfort zone on the right side and be prepared to play wherever we can best utilize her overall abilities. She's had the right side antennae mastered since her freshman year, but it's her diversity that will really bolster this team."
Not only will Doyle be responsible for her own production, but she will also be a teacher for the Broncos' three freshmen outside hitters in Gillian Asque, Ali Gossen and Taylor Richard.
"Allyson's done a very, very good job of preparing herself mentally and physically for success. We've talked to her this offseason about preparing her teammates for success, which is a lot harder to do," Munson said.
Asque is a three-time first team all-city honoree from Chicago and was also a highly sought after basketball recruit, while the left-handed Gossen led Evanston to the best two seasons in school history as a two-time all-state honoree. Richard was named the top female athlete in Nevada by the Las Vegas Review-Journal and led Silverado to back-to-back state championships.
The Broncos return both starters at middle blocker in Brown and Turnage after they helped WMU rank third in the MAC last season with 2.05 blocks per set.
Brown was voted as the best freshman in the conference by league coaches after leading WMU with a .288 attack percentage and 109 blocks, in addition to 396 kills, the most of any returning player on the roster.
"Jess showed off her athleticism as a freshman, but now we want her to be a smarter middle, recognizing and leveraging the weaknesses of our opponents' defense," Munson said. "She's done a really nice job improving her all-around game."
Turnage led the Broncos with 1.06 blocks per set and added 131 kills for the Brown & Gold.
"Turnage is a natural blocker. This offseason she's been working to improve her offensive game, especially off of one foot," Munson said.
They will be joined by 6-foot-1 freshman Emily Harris in the rotation. A two-time all-conference honoree at Barrington (Ill.), Harris is expected to provide another physical blocking presence at the net for the Broncos.
Viox takes over the setting duties full-time for the Broncos with the graduation of Mitchell. Viox played in 104 sets for the Broncos last season, mostly as a back row replacement and serving specialist. She did set the Broncos during their home tournament and averaged 10.60 assists per set as WMU won a pair of matches. Viox was the primary setter during her freshman season in 2007 and led the team with 986 assists and 11.74 assists per game, which ranked fourth in the MAC.
"Sam is probably one of the best leaders I've ever seen and there's no question she knows how to run a team," Munson said. "She has the instincts of a setter and is very aware of her teammates' strengths and weaknesses to put them in the best situation to be successful. Her tempo and timing with her jump-setting and tipping makes her an offensive threat as well.
"Sam and Allyson are our captains this season and they are responsible for helping craft the vision for the rest of the team. Their words behind the scenes will be an integral part of helping this team grow and improve each day."
In the long line of Bronco setters acting as both quarterback and mentor, Viox will help tutor freshman Terin Norris. Norris is a three-time all-state honoree that led Delton-Kellogg to the state championship match for the first time in school history in 2009.
Perhaps the biggest hole to fill for the Broncos comes on the back line with the departure of Strimel, who finished her career with 2,583 digs, the most in MAC history and fifth-most in the history of the NCAA.
Stepping into her place will be the combination of freshman Lena Oliver and Sweeney. Oliver is a three-time all-state honoree that finished fourth in the voting for Michigan Miss Volleyball as a senior after leading Battle Creek St. Philip to an unprecedented fourth consecutive state championship. She finished her career with a school record 2,620 digs on the volleyball court and school record 1,174 points as a three-time all-state basketball player.
Sweeney played in 28 sets last season for the Broncos and compiled 15 digs and four aces for the Brown & Gold.
"Lena is an athletic, talented and confident player on the court. We look forward to seeing her flourish in the collegiate game as she learns to read her opponents and makes necessary adjustments within our system," Munson said. "Boo has worked really hard in the offseason to consistently be in the right position and make athletic plays. Lena and Boo will be a great defensive combination."
The Broncos continue to play the most challenging schedule in the MAC with seven 2009 NCAA Tournament teams, including three that finished the season in the Top 25, and eight teams that ranked among the top-100 in the nation last season.
WMU opens against Arizona State of the Pac-10 in Dayton, Ohio, on August 27 before heading to Columbus to battle Ohio State, which reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and the third-straight top-100 team to open the season in Pittsburgh of the Big East on August 28.
The Broncos return to Kalamazoo on August 31 for their home opener against Summit League champion IPFW before heading to a three-match tournament at IUPUI.
WMU challenges itself again on Sept. 10-11 when it plays No. 10 Illinois, No. 5 Nebraska and No. 25 Dayton at the Ameritas Players Challenge in Lincoln, Neb. The Cornhuskers reached the final eight of the 2009 NCAA Tournament, while the Illini advanced to the round of 16 and Dayton won its first round match.
"Early in the season we play four tournaments on the road and it is our job to take care of the details of playing these matches as if we were at home," Munson said. "We need to take care of business on our side of the net and challenge our team from the beginning of our season to play at the highest level."
WMU concludes its non-conference tournament schedule with an East Coast trip to Seton Hall to face the Pirates, Northeastern and UMBC. The Broncos also host NCAA Tournament foe Notre Dame at University Arena on Oct. 19.
The Broncos begin defense of their three-straight MAC West titles with home matches against Toledo and Ball State on Sept. 24-25. The 2010 MAC Tournament begins with first round campus site matches on Nov. 16 before moving to the SeaGate Centre in Toledo, Ohio, Nov. 19-21.