Following two seasons in which the Washington and Lee volleyball team fell short of capturing the ODAC Championship, one may think that the goal for a team that had won eight straight conference titles dating back to 2001 would be to once again attain that conference hardware. But Head Coach Bryan Snyder and his team have their sights set even higher.
Snyder's squad certainly proved that last season, posting 28-7 record and advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament before falling, 3-1, to eventual national runner-up Emory University.
Among the players that return from that tournament team, which posted the Generals' first NCAA win since 2006, are three First Team All-ODAC performers, a group of sophomores that gained a significant amount of experience last season and a senior class that has shown tremendous leadership.
Senior captains Megan Tomlinson and Megan Daily, who were both captains last season, bring a significant level of experience with them, and more importantly, the work ethic and intangibles that makes them ideally suited to lead.
Last year, Tomlinson played in 71 sets, recording 74 digs and 21 service aces, while Daily finished second on the team with 260 kills to go along with 92 digs and 25 total blocks.
"Tommy (Tomlinson) represents this program so well, and it begins in the offseason with her," noted Snyder. "She is a great leader and can help us in a lot of different ways. On the court, she can plug a hole and really fill a lot of different positions for us. She could see some time as a DS or a back-row hitter, and she is also a very good service sub and fills that role well."
Of Daily, Snyder said "she always works her way into the lineup. It always seems there is a chance she may get beat out, but she is such an intelligent player -- always mentally engaged and she finds a way to contribute for us."
Junior libero Cameron Hill joins Tomlinson and Daily in a leadership role as the third captain. Hill, who was a First Team All-ODAC performer last season after leading the conference with 540 digs and contributing 42 service aces in a league-high 126 sets, is one of W&L's most experienced players in terms of on-court experience, having played in more sets over the last two seasons than anybody else on the roster.
"Cam's game experience is huge," Snyder pointed out. "She has started each of the last two seasons and you could see her grow from being a freshman to last year and having a much better idea of what is going on out on the court. She just knows how to play. She doesn't get tired, she gets to a ton of balls and she makes great touches when she does get there. We are going to try and expand her range a little because she does get so many great touches, we want to give her more opportunities."
More touches is probably not a bad thing for someone who already ranks in the Top 10 all-time at W&L in digs with 1,042.
Aside from the talented and experienced group of captains returning for the Generals, Snyder welcomes back a roster loaded with…well, talent and experience.
Embodying both talent and experience is senior middle blocker Lindsey Dee. A first Team All-ODAC performer last season, and a presence in the lineup each of her first three years, Dee led the league last season with a .344 hitting percentage en route to posting 251 kills. She was also among the league-best with 122 blocks, the second-most in a season at W&L.
"Stats don't reflect how good she is," Snyder pointed out. "She makes decisions really well, she uses her eyes really well and she is great physically (she stands 6-1) and I could see her having a big year again."
Perhaps the Generals' most talented player returning is sophomore outside hitter M.A. Boles. Snyder put it succinctly when saying "she does everything."
She put up one of the most prolific stat lines in the ODAC in her first season. The first team all-conference performer, and both the ODAC and AVCA South Region Rookie of the Year honoree, Boles led the ODAC with 424 kills, the sixth-highest season total in school history, and finished fourth in the league with 49 service aces. She also ranked among the league leaders with a .221 hitting percentage and 343 digs, while adding 42 blocks and 23 assists.
"She is an amazing learner and plays at such a high level," said Snyder. "She is so good that she opens up things for a lot of other people because so much attention is often focused on her."
Several other sophomores who gained a significant amount of experience a season ago are back in the mix and will figure more prominently in the Generals' plans in 2011. Meghan Meleski is back, now with a firm grip on the setting position. Middle blocker Emily Hudson comes in vastly improved and in contention for a starting position, and Allison Rouse is seriously contending for the second outside hitter position.
Meleski, who saw roughly two-thirds of the playing time at setter last season returns after leading the team with 716 assists in 80 sets played as a rookie. She also contributed 149 digs and 27 service aces in her debut campaign.
"Now she is thinking like a sophomore," Snyder noted of Meleski's improvement in regards to decision making. "Physically she is great, but last year you saw some of those first-year mistakes. This year the decision making is better and she has had a great camp."
Hudson has been a pleasant surprise in camp thus far. Despite playing in just 13 sets as a first-year, she was able to show some flashes of promise at times and, coupled with a great offseason of training, Snyder likes what she brings to the table this season.
"She may end up starting the season for us in the middle," he noted. "She is definitely going to contribute for us in some way. She has really found her niche and has been playing great all camp."
The final sophomore who saw action last season and is expected to step up this year is Rouse. The Michigan native tallied 89 kills in 45 sets last season and began playing some of her best volleyball late in the season.
"I am expecting big things from her this year and we need her to play well," Snyder proclaimed. "She is absolutely pushing Daily for that second outside position. She's a good athlete, we just need her to come along with the mental aspect of the game, but she can be really good for us."
Another sleeper-type player having a tremendous camp is junior Taylor Maxey. The school-record holder and two-time ODAC Champion in the discus, Maxey has jumped between middle blocker and right side in her first two seasons, but is expected to play exclusively on the right side this year.
"Look for some big things from her this year," Snyder quipped. "She is going to get some kills and some blocks for us. She is probably our biggest physical presence and she has worked really hard to improve her technique."
With experienced players returning at every position on the floor, playing time may be difficult to come by for Snyder's rookie class, but he pointed out no fewer than four that have a chance to impact the 2011 season.
Defensive specialist Kelly McManus, middle blocker Katie Toomb, setter Corinne Hemmersbach and outside hitter Rachel Guarisco were all players that Snyder mentioned as capable of contributing right away.
"Kelly is a lot like Cameron," Snyder said. "She is a good athlete and will definitely get a chance to contribute."
Toomb is also a player that Snyder sees contributing early as she is battling with Hudson for the second middle position, while Hemmersbach will serve as the backup setter. Guarisco is in the mix at outside hitter, though the position is deep with the likes of Boles, Daily and Rouse returning.
"I really like this first-year class," Snyder claimed. "We have a good player at every position and possess really balanced depth across the board."
With all of the experience and talent that his roster boasts, one can see why Snyder likes his chances of reclaiming the ODAC Championship and knocking off some of the nation's "elite".
"We play four teams in the Top 11 teams in the country in the regular season," Snyder noted. "Plus, the ODAC is getting stronger each year with teams like Randolph-Macon, Lynchburg and Virginia Wesleyan."
That increased parity in the league was evidenced by the fact the W&L and R-MC, which advanced to the Round of 16 in last year's NCAA Tournament after defeating W&L, 3-2, in the ODAC finals, each earned five first-place votes from the league coaches in tying for the top spot in the preseason poll.
"There has been some talk among the girls about ODACs," Snyder said. "It was a tough loss last year, but I think the girls took the loss to Emory in the NCAAs even harder. While we want to win ODACs again, we don't want to set our goal at just ODACs and be satisfied with that. We can compete with the best in the country and that's what we are looking to do."
The Generals open their season on Friday when they take on Peace as part of the Averett Invitational. W&L's first match in the Warner Center will take place on September 9 at 5:30 pm against Averett when the Blue and White will open play in the 2011 W&L Invitational.