Aug. 24, 2009
EDWARDSVILLE, ILL. - As the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville volleyball team enters year two of the transition to NCAA Division I status, coach Todd Gober has put together a young group eager to take the Cougars to the next level.
"We are a very athletic team, and I'm happy with our versatility. A lot of players are able to play multiple positions which gives us a lot of possible combinations. It's made it difficult to come up with a starting six," Gober said.
Gober will have to quickly figure out his starting six since the Cougars open the 2009 season Friday at the Indiana State Invitational. SIUE plays four matches during the two-day tournament. The Cougars face UMKC and Akron Friday and then take on North Dakota and Indiana State Saturday.
The Cougars have youth and experience in some key areas such as defense. Tiffany Turner (Mt. Pulaski) returns as the team's libero.
"Tiffany is doing well. She's going to play a key role for us," said Gober.
"Defense is where we have the most experience," said Gober. "I like our ball control."
The Cougars must have ball control, especially on serve receive as the team returns no experienced setters. The duo of Sammi Minton (Milwaukee, Wis.) and Jamie Mueller (Waukesha, Wis.) are freshmen and are being handed the reins of a program that just lost All-American Mallory Clements, who now serves as an assistant coach for the program.
Gober said the two newcomers are adjusting well so far to the speed of college volleyball. Right now, the two are working on their timing with their new teammates.
"Sammi is the more dynamic of the two," said Gober. Conversely, Mueller brings a different set of tools to the game. "Jamie really surprised us with her deception and accuracy."
Gober said he is contemplating playing both setters in the rotation but would settle for one setter if that doesn't fit the moment.
The new setters definitely will need to find the team's top returning hitter in 6-foot, 1-inch Sydney Winslow (Farmington, Mo.). She boasted 311 kills last season and a .256 hitting percentage as a right-side hitter.
"Sydney is having a tremendous preseason," said Gober. "She came in very focused and is becoming a leader on this team. I can see the rest of team already looking to her as one our go-to players."
Gober said Graunke is a very polished player while Mosher provides a big, physical presence.
A pair of returners gives the Cougars strength at the outside hitter position. Noelle Franke (St. Louis) and Brittni Birkey (LaFontaine, Ind.) return as a pair of players who saw significant playing time last season behind a mostly senior crew.
"Preseason, Noelle has been our most effective outside hitter," said Gober. Franke recorded 131 kills last season, the second most by a returner.
Gober said Birkey established herself as a mainstay during the 2009 spring season.
"Clearly she's a leader on the court and off the court," Gober said. "She is someone we're counting on to start."
The newcomers on the outside also are trying to force their way into the lineup. Gober said he won't have a problem inserting freshmen Brooke Smith (Godfrey) and Danielle Cushley (Lodi, Wis.) into the lineup. Both play with athleticism and power and will push to make their case to be on the court.
The middle hitter position is loaded with fresh faces. The improvement, noted Gober, is the team's ability to play higher above the net in comparison to last season when the team was 13-14.
"We've taken a step up athletically in our ability to play above the net," Gober said.
One player already inked in for a spot in the lineup is junior transfer Karie Downing (Ottumwa, Iowa). The 5-11 Downing was an All-American last season at Indian Hills Community College and posted 613 kills last season.
Gober said he plans to have Downing not only play the middle hitter position but also take an active role in the defense. "For a middle hitter, that's very rare," he added.
Sophomore transfer Jessica Hemann (Breese) played last season at Southwestern Illinois College. "If we're able to run the middles well," said Gober, "she's someone an opponent has to commit on. Jessica makes the other people behind her better."
Mosher and Graunke also will be looking for playing time at the middle hitter position.
SIUE has five home contests this season. The first home match is a 6 p.m. contest on Sept. 23 against Evansville.