Ashland University's volleyball team is coming off just its second non-Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament-qualifying season since 2004.
The Eagles aren't used to not playing beyond the regular season – which has been a motivating factor in preparations for the 2015 campaign.
"I'm really pleased with the progress we've made so far in the gym," said AU head coach Cass Dixon, beginning her fifth season at the helm. "There seems to be a great chemistry so far – leadership from our older players, willingness to be accountable, but then also take information without thinking we know it all already. There's been a really good feel in the gym, which makes it easier for us overall.
"They are seemingly great motivators of themselves, so we don't need to have a heavy hand. It's a completely different feel than the team that we had last year."
Coming off a 2014 season in which they went 10-15 overall and 10-8 in the GLIAC, narrowly missing another GLIAC Tournament appearance via tiebreaker, the Eagles are looking to get off to a quicker start than one win in the first eight matches a season ago.
"It definitely is extremely important to have a better start," Dixon said. "When you have good starts, you're going to have greater confidence sooner. With us, though, we're not trying to look too far ahead."
Ashland's 15-player roster has a near-even mix of eight returnees and seven newcomers.
"We've been talking a lot about trusting the whole process, because a lot of this stuff is new," said Dixon. "If we can focus on that process of understanding what we are asking for and trusting that system, we're going to get a lot further sooner.
"We will never be able to win a conference championship or anything like that with just only having one player. All along, we have stressed that it's a team. We have threats at every position, but we need to be able to utilize those threats through our ball control and our setting."
To that end, Ashland returns its top four two-way players from 2014 in junior outside hitters Alli Cudworth (299 kills, 188 digs) and Casey Clark (206 kills, 285 digs), junior middle blocker/right-side hitter Rylee Scott (174 kills, 165 digs, 68 blocks) and senior middle blocker Samantha Zuber (166 digs, 85 blocks).
Zuber and outside/right-side hitter Audrey Metzger (55 kills) are the Eagles' two seniors.
"The combination of those three, the competition amongst them is going to make us better as a whole offensively," Dixon said, "but also defensively, because our team is going to be seeing really great looks from different setters."
Ashland's five freshmen are defensive specialist/liberos Kaitlin Bean and Molly Rajewski, middle blockers Reanne Neal and Michaela Ping (will redshirt) and middle blocker/outside hitter Jordan Mackay.
"We have a really great freshman class," said Dixon. "They all work really hard and they all want to be successful. I don't know if any of them will start, but even if they are not starting, they are pushing our starters to be that much better than what they were last year.
"I really look for everyone to step up and have a role at one point or another."
As far as the conference is concerned, the Eagles are expected to battle Findlay and Hillsdale for the South Division title. The Oilers (three), AU (two) and Chargers (three) split the eight first-place votes in the division.
"Traditionally, you have your Grand Valley and your Ferris. Everybody is a viable threat up there in the North," Dixon said. "Everybody is a viable threat in the South, too. We always battle with Northern Michigan, we always battle with Saginaw. Those are going to be some key matches for us.
"On our side, we have Hillsdale and Findlay again. There are other quality teams in the South, too."
Ashland will begin the 2015 season with tournaments at Clarion (Sept. 4-5) and Indianapolis (Sept. 11-12) before opening at home against Findlay on Sept. 18.