COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Fifteen student-athletes from eight different states plus one other country will report to Eblen Center Wednesday for the start of the 2012 volleyball season. The Golden Eagles kick off the year with two weeks of preseason before their first tournament in Chattanooga, August 24-25.
The veteran squad returns seven starters, including the libero. The Eagles are looking to build off of a disappointing finish last year, and earn a place in the newly formatted Ohio Valley Conference tournament. This season, with the addition to Belmont University to the conference, the OVC will break down into two regions, expanding tournament play to the top eight teams (from six in previous years). The winners of each division get automatic berths into the conference championship, while the seeding will be determined by winning percentage.
Tech will play in the East Division along with Belmont, Eastern Kentucky, Jacksonville State, Morehead State and Tennessee State. The West Division includes Austin Peay, Eastern Illinois, Murray State, Southeast Missouri, SIUE and UT Martin.
With preseason underway, the coaching staff is anxious for the start of practice, and excited to see what this veteran squad is capable of accomplishing.
"We have a lot of experience back, 12 of 13 players return. We think we've added two outstanding veterans to the roster. The expectation is that they're ready to be back, they're anxious to be back and they're excited to be back. Our sessions in the gym are going to be high quality sessions," said head coach Jon Blair. "We're going to be deeper in every position this year for the first time. We had depth last year; we didn't have experience within that depth. This year, we have the experience too. It's a good setup for this team; it's just a matter of what we do with it."
That depth and experience will show at the net where the Golden Eagles will be led by senior Kelsey Gray and junior Natalie Penrod. The two powerhouse hitters contributed 328 points apiece last season, with Gray averaging 2.13 kills/set and Penrod averaging 3.01 kills/set. Defensively, Allison May will run the court, sprawling for 4.74 digs/set last season.
Compared to other teams around the OVC, Tech stacks up well and will be in the hunt for the top spot in the East Division and the automatic bid in the conference tournament. Preseason rankings will be released August 15.
"There have been a lot of changes in the OVC," Blair said. "There's been a big swing in personnel in a couple of programs. Having coached a number of years, this is by far the toughest conference to play on the road. The types of venues that you play in are so diverse. You go from small to medium to arenas, and then back to small. It's definitely a challenge when you play away from home in this conference. The venues are very different, the crowds are very different, and the atmospheres are very different. That's something else we're going to try and affect. The philosophy that I've always tried to impart to people is when you walk in a gym that's where you are. It's the best gym you've ever been in. We're going to try and take the attitude that wherever you are, make the most of it so we can play at our best."
Blair says that reaching their best early in the season will be the focus of this year's preseason.
"What we're going to try and do this year is get up to speed a little quicker. We are going to try and put ourselves in a competitive mode very early in the season. We are going to come in and compete for spots early and we want to try and have people understand that you have to come to practice and compete for your spot every day."
With high expectations, Tech hopes to be in the hunt for the coveted conference championship.
"I think there's enough talent on this team that if they play to their potential, this team can compete for an OVC championship," Blair said. "Nothing is measured by potential; it's always what happens on the court. That's the biggest challenge. During preseason, we want to work hard and get competitive and really get some rotational things in place and hope that all the pieces are there. If all those pieces come together than we can look really good."