Courtesy of Toledo Athletic Communications
A strong senior class and an improved defense will play important roles in helping the Toledo volleyball program bounce back from a disappointing 2012 season.
Seniors Dakota Harkins, Jordan Kielty, Adria Pryor, Lauren Rafdal and Becca Reidy will account for the first part of that equation and are ready to lead the Rockets in their final collegiate campaign.
“A lot of our success is going to be based upon our senior class,” Head Coach Greg Smith said. “Four of our seniors have been starting in some shape or form since their freshman year, and they’ve seen both success and heartache.
“They have a desire to make sure this is a different season than they’ve ever had. They’re doing the right things and that’s trickled down to our underclassmen.”
Signs of the seniors’ commitment were displayed over the summer by the majority of the Rockets staying on campus to train and get ready for the upcoming season.
“There was definitely an increased commitment from our student-athletes to stay here and work out together this summer,” Smith said. “Whether they were playing in sand tournaments or going to open gyms, this was by far the biggest commitment I’ve seen from a group over the summer.”
UT’s senior quintet will also be counted on to aid in the transition of six newcomers to the Rocket program.
“I see a different attitude among the eight players coming back, and they’re excited about the six players coming in,” Smith said. “This is definitely the deepest team we’ve ever had. I think we’re going to see our team grow based on practices just being tougher. I think people are going to be looking over their shoulders where they didn’t have to in years past.”
The biggest impact Toledo’s newcomers will have is on the team’s defense.
“I really think our defensive prowess in the back row will be improved,” Smith said. ”Defense is such an attitude, and we just didn’t have it last year. A lot of that was due to injuries which affected our consistency and depth in the defensive specialist role.
“This year is going to be different. We are going to have five very strong ball-control players that are going to be on our roster.”
Following is a position-by-position preview for Toledo in 2013:
Seniors Jordan Kielty and Lauren Rafdal are expected to lead the Rockets at the outside hitter position in 2013.
A 2012 Academic All-MAC honoree, Kielty was the only Rocket player to appear in all 110 sets last season. She led the team in service aces per set (0.24 saps) for a second straight season and ranked third with 2.25 digs per set.
“Jordan has been one of our most consistent all-around players during her career,” Smith said. “She also is one of our leaders who is always looking to do what’s best for our team.”
Rafdal led UT with 3.18 kills per set and also tallied 2.07 digs and 0.31 blocks per set last fall. She registered double-digit kill totals on team-high 16 occasions, including a career-high tying 25 terminations vs. Eastern Michigan (Oct. 5).
“Lauren has played all six rotations for us in the past and is going to be in the mix to do that again,” Smith said. “If we don’t need her to do that, then it would take a lot of pressure off her because she can just concentrate on hitting and blocking.”
Providing depth at outside hitter are junior-college transfer Natalia Parreira, as well as freshmen Alyssa Ehrhardt and Maggie Johnston.
Parreira was a first-team all-region honoree at Garden City (KS) Community College in 2012. She helped the Busters advance to the Region VI ‘Final Four’ for the first time in 22 years and averaged 2.59 kills and 2.44 digs per set with a .337 attack percentage.
“There are obviously some unknowns with Natalia, but we do know she’s a very good ball-control type of player,” Smith said. “Her impact for us will be based mostly on her transition from junior college to the Division I level.”
Ehrhardt set school records for kills and service aces at Jacobs High School and was selected to the Chicago Sun-Times all-area third team. Johnston received Milwaukee Journal third-team all-state honors at Germantown High School after tallying 2.5 kills and 5.6 digs per set as a senior.
“Alyssa and Maggie are competitive players that will really help us improve our ball control in the back row and give us additional options up front,” Smith said.
Senior Becca Reidy has been a mainstay for the Rockets at right-side hitter since her sophomore campaign. She averaged 2.20 kills per set a year ago and ranked third on the team with 0.68 blocks per set.
“Becca knows that she’s almost there and I think she’s ready for a breakout year,” Smith said. “She possesses all the physical tools to take control of the right side for us.”
Freshman Mary O’Connor is the heir apparent to Reidy at right-side hitter and will look to get her feet wet at the collegiate level. A third-team all-state honoree, she helped Muskego (WI) High School to the state quarterfinals by registering 312 kills and 73 blocks.
“Mary is a very good athlete and has a bright future with our program,” Smith said. “She has to get a lot stronger, and she knows that. I think if we need her to step up this fall, she can do well.”
Senior Dakota Harkins became a force in the middle last season and was rewarded with second-team All-MAC and Academic All-MAC accolades. Harkins ranked fourth in the MAC with 1.06 blocks per set and sixth with a .296 attack mark.
“Dakota is coming off an all-conference year, and I just see her having a great senior season,” Smith said. “She has improved each year in our program, and she is going to be a rock at the net for us.”
Battling for the other starting spot in the middle will be junior Brooke Frazer and sophomore Daiva Wise.
Frazer ranked second on the team with 0.76 blocks per set and averaged 1.34 kills per set in 2012. She tallied a career-high 11 kills vs. Ball State (Oct. 25) and recorded a career-best eight blocks vs. Iowa (Sept. 1).
Wise saw limited action and notched 1.06 kills and 0.59 blocks per set in her first year with the Midnight Blue and Gold. She registered a season-high eight kills, .533 ATK% and four blocks vs. Florida Gulf Coast (Sept. 8).
“Brooke had a good spring and if she can become more consistent she will be a real threat for us,” Smith said. “Daiva improved tremendously in the spring and is beginning to gain the strength and experience necessary to compete at this level.”
Senior Adria Pryor and sophomore Alex Hines provide two options as the quarterback for UT’s offense. Pryor appears to have a slight edge to gain the starting nod after ranking fifth in the MAC with 10.41 assists per game and fourth on the team with 2.22 digs per set last season.
“Adria did well in her first experience as a starting setter last year,” Smith said. “She gained a lot of insight of what it takes to be successful, and if she can build upon that it’s going to be a big key for us.
Hines showed signs of her potential after appearing in 11 contests as a freshman. Her top performance of the season was a 36-assist, six-dig effort at Akron (Oct. 27).
“Alex lost her confidence a little bit last fall and started to get it back in the spring,” Smith said. “She’s going to have the opportunity to start, and we’re hoping her improved play from the spring carries over.”
Freshman Lindsay Smith also has joined the Rocket program as a setter but will sit out the season after suffering a knee injury in February.
“Lindsay is a very good athlete,” Smith said. “We’re excited about her potential and letting her develop. She gives us size at the setter position, and she’s a strong competitor.”
The Rockets’ back-row defense will be the biggest area of noticeable change beginning with freshman Ellen Hays taking over the libero position.
A finalist for Michigan’s Ms. Volleyball, Hays helped Bedford High School to the Class A state finals last season. She finished as the Mules’ record-holder for digs in a match (55) and season (1,322).
“Ellen is a very dynamic person and her potential as a libero is unlimited,” Smith said. “She really controls the back row and shows no fear on the court.”
Joining Hays on the backline are fellow newcomers Alyssa Ehrhardt and Maggie Johnston.
“I’m very excited to have Alyssa and Maggie joining Ellen in the back row,” Smith said. “They are each terrific passers and that’s going to help our transition game immensely.”
Toledo opens its season with the Blue & Gold Invitational (Aug. 30-Sept. 1) where it will host Eastern Illinois, Loyola (IL), Marist and West Virginia.
The Rockets will then compete in the Youngstown State Invitational (Sept. 6-7), Portland/Oregon State Challenge (Sept. 13-14) and Butler Invitational (Sept. 20-21) before commencing their league slate at Central Michigan (Sept. 27).
“Our schedule is a lot more balanced than we’ve had in recent years,” Smith said. “The past three years it was pretty top-heavy, and I wanted to get back to having good competition but with more balance. We’re excited about being pushed very hard, and I think our non-league schedule will definitely prepare us for the MAC.”