Ashland University volleyball coach Cass Dixon is quick to point out that this year's preseason volleyball camp was shorter than usual. That hasn't forced Dixon to lose sight of the big picture.
Dixon, in her second season on campus, has some large plans for this program. Maybe next year's budget will include a telescope. The Eagles were 15-13 last year, 12-7 in the GLIAC. The Eagles closed out the regular season with victories in four of their last five regular-season matches. They won an opening round match against Northern Michigan, 3-0 in the GLIAC Tournament before seeing the season come to an end in the tournament semifinals against Ferris State. While that concluded the 2011 campaign, Dixon spoke of it as a jumping off point for future AU teams.
What Dixon watched at the end of last season and what she's observed in this truncated fall camp has increased her sense of optimism.
"What I've learned from this camp is that I have a great group of girls here and they've worked hard," said Dixon, who had a shorter camp than usual due to AU beginning classes on Aug. 20. "They want nothing more than to be successful. I learned I don't need a captain to have a leader. All of my veteran players have done a good job of leading when they've needed to lead and followed when they've needed to follow."
AU will follow the interstate west this weekend. The Eagles are opening the season Friday and Saturday (Aug. 31-Sept. 1) at the Truman State Days Inn Bulldog Invitational. Ashland will face two regional foes – McKendree and Missouri-St. Louis – plus Winona State and Minnesota-Duluth. UMD begins the year nationally ranked (seventh last week).
After this weekend, the Eagles will travel east to Lock Haven for a tournament next weekend. AU doesn't play at Kates Gymnasium until Sept. 21.
"We're going to play some very good competition," said Dixon of the trip to Missouri. "It will be a good test for us to see where we are right now. I want to play the best teams I can. We need to do that because our conference is so strong. We need to be ready for GLIAC play."
One player who would appear to be ready for anything and everything on the eve of opening weekend is senior outside hitter Brittany Snider (Olmsted Falls, Ohio). A week ago, in a scrimmage against Wheeling Jesuit, Snider looked to be in mid-season form. There were times during that workout when Snider was dominating. Dixon said that was no one-time thing, that Snider has been outstanding throughout fall camp.
"If she can maintain this level on the court all season she'll be a contender for player of the year," Dixon remarked.
Last season, Snider had 210 kills (2.59 kills per set, 15th in the GLIAC) and a .164 hitting percentage. Snider was the 2009 GLIAC Freshman of the Year and she was a second team all-conference pick that season. She's been a constant in the lineup throughout her career and she's one of the veterans this team can turn to at the toughest moments.
Much the same can be said for senior setter Crystal Elliott (Canal Winchester, Ohio). In 2011 Elliott averaged 10.0 assists per set. She was third on the team in digs (199/1.97 digs per set).
Snider and Elliott are the lone seniors on this team. Still, this team isn't lacking for on-court experience. A number of other players received extensive playing time last season and should be bolstered confidence-wise by that late-season surge. Junior Baley Bernthisel (Grand Rapids, Ohio/Otsego) paced last year's team in blocks (42/0.52 blocks per set) and piled up 143 kills (1.77 kills per set). The Eagles bring back 10 letter winners from last season. That's a good starting point for this season.
"Everybody's gotten better at their respective position," said Dixon. "The volleyball IQ of this team is so much better. Every day, each win, every day we go out there, they get a taste of what it's like to be a champion. That helps with confidence."
AU lost two all-conference players from last season – seniors Anesia Benton and Arian Martin. Benton led the club in digs and Benton was second in kills. Yet even with those two logging major time last year, Dixon was able to get her nucleus of underclassmen playing time. That should bode well for this season. Nine players last season saw playing time in 80 or more sets and six of those players return.
A tournament like the one the Eagles are in this weekend could shake a team's self belief. Dixon doesn't believe that will happen. She hopes the veteran nucleus and the four freshmen who have been added will be able to handle the challenges at Truman State.
"Our freshmen have really altered our gym culture," praised Dixon. "How much playing time they will get, I don't know. But I know we're stronger as a whole because of these additions."
The Eagles were picked sixth in the GLIAC Coaches' Preseason Poll. That may not sit well with the players and coaching staff who probably thought last year's run might merit a little higher preseason ranking. But the paper chase is a lot different from the chase on the court, something the Eagles learned last season.
"That's OK," said Dixon of the GLIAC forecast. "Could we be higher? Sure. Could we be lower? Sure. I think we'll be able to surprise a lot of people."