Aug. 24, 2012
The previous three seasons have been good ones for the Villanova volleyball program, which tallied 56 wins from 2009 through 2011, including 40 victories with a .667 winning percentage just in the last two years. Head coach Josh Steinbach is beginning his sixth season leading the program and can feel good about the consistency his team has shown in the competitive BIG EAST Conference.
Much of the success in the past three seasons came from a core group of players that included an All-American in libero Kim Maroon and All-BIG EAST performers in Maggie Mergen and Morgan Petkovich. That trio was part of a large senior class in 2011 and the Wildcats graduated seven players from last season.
Continuing to play at a consistent level without that senior class will be a challenge but Steinbach remains excited about the direction that the program is heading in. His outlook has a lot to do with the eight players that return to the team and the class of seven talented freshmen who will immediately have significant roles on the court.
"Even though we are young there are some areas where I think we can be better than last season and I also think our freshmen can step up for us," Steinbach said. "In our practices the freshmen have seemed to be comfortable on the floor right away and that confidence will help them early in the season."
One of the main areas of improvement that Steinbach sees is in the team's blocking ability. He has also been pleased with the work of two young setters on the roster and knows that Villanova will continue to be an excellent defensive team.
"We could end up blocking the ball better than perhaps any of the teams I have had here," Steinbach said. "We have some very physical blockers and our setting has come a long way. In the meantime we are still very strong defensively. The trick is going to be how good our offense can be."
Strength in numbers could be the route that the Wildcats take towards having a good offense. There may not be any one single player who will put up huge scoring numbers but the sum of the various parts is a trait that Steinbach likes in his team.
"The offense relied very heavily on Maggie and Morgan the last two years so we have to figure out how to replace their production. We are balanced and our setting has really improved so that should allow us to spread other teams out and create some holes on the floor that will make it a little easier on our attackers. There isn't necessarily one clear-cut leading scorer but there are a number of people who can get the job done."
Both the short-term and long-term prognoses for Villanova look good. With the players that return and the potential of the freshman class the Wildcats have another very talented group and will look to their consistency as a key for the season. At the same time the future is a bright one.
"I really like the potential of the incoming class," Steinbach said. "I have a vision of where this group can lead us in the next three to four years and these freshmen have a chance to be a great class for us."
Early in the season the freshmen will need to hit the ground running and demonstrate the roles that they are capable of playing in their first taste of the collegiate game. Using the team's preseason workouts as a barometer, the transition should go smoothly.
"All of our freshmen push each other in practice and it is really satisfying to see a group as large as this one really get after it in the gym," Steinbach said. "Each player is probably on a different timeline and is going to adjust to the college game at their own pace but as a group they have done a great job."
The top two returning hitters for Villanova are senior Krista Andersen and junior Carly Edwards, who both have a chance to step into a more prominent role on the court. Andersen had 282 kills last season and leads all returning players on the roster with 850 career kills. Edwards totaled 112 kills in 2011 and is fresh off her first taste of international experience after representing the United States in two promotional tournaments in China over the summer.
"Krista is a solid offensive player and she needs to have a good year hitting the ball," Steinbach said. "Carly started for us most of last season and the next step for her to take is to become someone who can deliver consistently when she is on the court."
Sophomore Molly O'Neil returns healthy for her sophomore season after injuries caused her to see limited floor time last year. She is a great athlete and the energy she plays with is a spark for the rest of the team. Freshmen Lauren Carpenter and Colleen Hickey will also make contributions. Carpenter comes from an elite club team and Hickey is a local product whose physical play project well at the collegiate level.
Edwards and senior CeCe Twitty are part of the group of strong blockers that Steinbach mentioned, as are freshmen Gabby Pethokoukis and Brittney Rembert. Last season in 60 sets Twitty had 87 kills and 18 blocks while the 40 blocks for Edwards ranked fourth on the team and are tops among the eight returning players.
"CeCe is a good example of the physical players that we have blocking the ball," Steinbach said. "She needs to play with confidence in the middle because she is someone that other teams will have to worry about."
Pethokoukis has a great feel for the game and Steinbach cited her determined to continually improve herself as a quality that will make her a top notch BIG EAST blocker. Rembert fits into a similar mode and her superior leaping ability and lateral speed make her an asset to the team.
As a freshman last season Allie DiBernardo was not fully healthy but nevertheless played in 27 of the team's 30 matches while stepping into a starting role. She accumulated 912 assists and averaged 9.70 assists per set. Emma Pettit is a newcomer and her excellent volleyball background has already made her into a player that makes smart decisions on the court. Steinbach is happy to have two strong setting options to choose from.
"The setting between Allie and Emma during preseason has been very competitive," Steinbach said. "Early in the season they are both going to see time on the court. It remains to be seen whether they will continue to switch on and off or whether one of them will win the job but regardless of what happens we are in good shape. With Allie and Emma both playing well we are setting at a higher level than before."
Even though the Wildcats have to overcome the loss to graduation of All-American Kim Maroon - whose 749 digs last season are a single-season BIG EAST record - the Villanova defense is still a major strength for the team. Junior Mariah Henley has surpassed 500 career digs in her first two collegiate seasons and should comfortably move into the libero position.
"Mariah is a great defensive player," Steinbach said. "She has had a terrific preseason and she can be as good a libero as there is in the BIG EAST. Mariah is a potential all-conference player because of her athleticism and she is also a natural leader on the court."
"I could see us opening the season with Mariah, Ally and Michelle as our starting defensive players," Steinbach said. "Ally got some experience as a freshman and is coming on strong. Michelle has been a nice surprise so far. She is going to see some time for us."
"Julie is a very good server and will have a role on the team," Steinbach said. "Anna has tremendous first step quickness and can fly all over the court. She is very much in the mold of the great defensive specialists that have worn the Villanova uniform."
The most unusual feature of the Wildcats schedule this season is the team's starting location. Villanova begins the season at home for the first time since 2000 and will host Maryland, New Hampshire and Robert Morris in the Villanova Classic on August 24-25. There could not be a better year for the Wildcats to open the season at home, as Jake Nevin Field House underwent extensive renovations during the offseason.
Villanova will immediately benefit from a replacement and redesign of the main floor, installation of a new scoreboard and an update to the building's sound system. A new playing surface was the focal point of the renovations and the new design is catered towards volleyball.
"Jake Nevin Field House has always been a great gym for volleyball and the renovations make it stand out in the BIG EAST as one of the top home courts in the conference," Steinbach said. "Our players are really excited about all of the upgrades."
Following their home tournament the Wildcats will be on the road the next four consecutive weekends, a span which includes three tournaments and the first weekend of regular season BIG EAST matches. Villanova will see its local Big Five rivals at the Palestra on August 31-September 1 and then goes out of town for the first time when it heads to the Yale Invitational (Sept. 7-8). The last weekend before the start of conference play will be a busy one, as the Wildcats play four matches at the Arizona State Sheraton Invitational.
A new format to the conference schedule means that each BIG EAST team will have two repeat opponents on the schedule. Those teams for Villanova are Pittsburgh and Syracuse and overall the Wildcats will play seven home matches in conference play as well as eight on the road.
In addition to Syracuse (Oct. 27) and Pittsburgh (Nov. 11) the other league foes that come to Villanova are Rutgers (Sept. 28), Seton Hall (Sept. 30), DePaul (Oct. 19), Notre Dame (Oct. 21) and Marquette (Oct. 28).
The Wildcats travel to Connecticut (Sept. 21), St. John's (Sept. 23), Georgetown (Oct. 6), USF (Oct. 12), Pittsburgh (Oct. 14), Louisville (Nov. 2), Cincinnati (Nov. 4) and Syracuse (Nov. 9) in BIG EAST action.