Courtesy of Akron Athletic Communications
On the heels of the most successful season in nearly a decade, the University of Akron volleyball team is prepared to pick up right where it left off, carrying the newfound momentum into the 2013 campaign - its 40th season of collegiate volleyball.
The Zips graduated five seniors, four of them starters, from a team that exhibited the greatest single-season turnaround in the Mid-American Conference and of any Division I team in the country in 2012. UA posted a 12-win improvement a year ago (4-25 to 16-13), marking its best overall record since 2003. The Zips also advanced to the MAC Tournament quarterfinals for the first time in nine seasons.
“Last season was a huge step forward for our entire program,” sixth-year head coach Ron Arenz said. “Our returners now know what it takes for us to compete at that high level, and we will be counting on their leadership to put us back in a position to succeed.”
The leadership starts with senior captains Alex Cocklin and Jill Paluch. Cocklin returns as one of the Zips’ most prolific scorers from the outside, and Paluch is set to begin her third straight season in command of the back row as the primary libero.
Cocklin led the team last year averaging 3.26 kills per set as Akron’s most dangerous outside hitter, swinging for double figures a total of 19 times. She is expected to serve as an excellent on-court mentor for Tori Lanzillotti, who had limited playing time in her rookie season due to injury, and newcomer Julia Smagacz.
“Alex will be our senior anchor on the outside after making great strides during her first three years,” said Arenz. “Although we are relatively young, Tori and Julia are both very physical and have the potential to develop into some of the best attackers in the conference.”
Paluch has settled in nicely to her role as libero and will remain a key component of UA’s serve receive. Twin sisters Brenna and Callie Mack join the program this year as defensive specialists and will be integrated into the system as well.
“We are fortunate to have our starting libero returning in Jill who will provide us stability and familiarity in the back row,” Arenz said. “Brenna and Callie will challenge for roles of their own right away and strengthen us at every position with their skill sets.”
Alex Wiederholt is back for her fifth year to complete the Zips’ trio of seniors in 2013 and will spend the majority of her time on the right side. Joined by Amanda Bedell, a local product from nearby Hudson High School, Arenz is counting on Wiederholt’s veteran status to help initiate the left-handed freshman to the college game.
“Alex has spent the last four years learning about and working on what it takes to be successful in an Akron uniform,” Arenz said. “Her size and level of talent makes her a formidable opponent, and she will be a great leader and source of motivation for Amanda, who brings a unique perspective to the right side.”
The loss of Tina Dimitrijevs to graduation left a significant hole for the Zips to fill at the net, but Arenz is confident his new young rotation of middle blockers will rise to the occasion. Mary Delich and Kelsey Wilson return with some experience, as Delich is the lone junior of the squad and Wilson worked her way into the starting lineup near the end of last season. The freshmen tandem of Jessica Kloehn and Julie Shallman will also compete for time in the middle.
“The middles are probably the most fluid position we have at this point - everything is wide open and playing time is anyone’s game,” Arenz said. “It benefits us because we have a lot of options and different combinations we can work with to keep our opponents guessing and stay competitve.”
The Zips endure another hit at setter with the departure of Morgan Kuhn, who left Akron ranked sixth all-time in career assists. Sophomore Ashley Holder and freshman Karley Kusan will work together to fill the void, and could potentially develop a nice one-two punch on the court as Holder had with Kuhn toward the end of her career.
“Ashley has a terrific setter’s mind, she puts up a good ball and it is nice to have her consistency back,” said Arenz. “She has one season under her belt and has worked hard to take over the reigns. With her physical nature, Karley has the ability to push Ashley and make her even better.”
Akron opens the season on the road at Southern Illinois Edwardsville on Aug. 31, playing a doubleheader against Indiana State and tournament host SIUE. The Zips are set to host their own Akron Invitational for the 18th year the following weekend on Sept. 6-7, welcoming Tennessee Tech, Niagara and Milwaukee.
A midweek match at Robert Morris Sept. 10 and two more tournaments at Montana State (Sept. 13-14) and St. Francis (Pa.) (Sept. 21) round out the non-conference slate before UA dives into MAC play.
The Zips will face rival Kent State at James A. Rhodes Arena on Friday, Sept. 27 in the first installment of the PNC Wagon Wheel Challenge for the 2013-14 academic year. Akron is also scheduled to host defending MAC Tournament champion Bowling Green on Nov. 15, which made its second NCAA Tournament appearance a year ago.