In past seasons, the Horizon League Volleyball Championship was held at a predetermined site. For each team, the regular season was essentially just for seeding, with one school knowing well in advance it would be the host school. For the first time in the history of Horizon League volleyball, the regular season champion will host the league tournament, which adds a little more flame to the fire. The 2010 Bulldogs have made their intentions loud and clear:
Bring the Horizon League tournament home to Hinkle Fieldhouse.
“We feel like we have great depth and strong players at every position, which will create a lot of competition for our players,” head coach Sharon Clark said. “We return a strong core of upperclassmen. When you look at our roster, with five freshmen some people would consider us young. But our new players come in with good experience and are more ready than freshmen we’ve had in the past.”
Clark’s 11th team at BU appears to have the ingredients to bring the tourney home to Hinkle. The team returns five starters – including an AVCA honorable mention All-American honoree and an all-league setter - plus the libero from a team that went 21-14 in 2009. Clark says this year’s squad also has the size and versatility to compete for the league title.
“We’re bigger and we’re a much better blocking team,” Clark said. “We are also much more versatile. We have players who can hit on the outside as well as play in the middle. That’s a big plus for us. We’re not so one-dimensional.”
NEWCOMERS JOIN WOLFE ON THE OUTSIDE
The outside hitting corps is definitely a strength for Butler this season. The unit features a senior All-America candidate as well as a pair of highly-regarded freshmen and a community college transfer.
Leading the way is senior Jessica Wolfe, a first team All-Horizon League performer the last two years and an all-region pick last fall as well. At the end of last season, Wolfe became the second player in Butler history to earn AVCA All-America recognition, following Areal Bienemy in 2003-04. The 6-2 senior led the Horizon League with 4.01 kills per set and 4.62 points per set. She ranked in the nation’s top 50 in both categories.
“Jessie is our core,” Clark said. “She came into camp as physically strong as she’s ever been. She’s hitting and blocking well, just doing the things she’s always done for us. She’s always been very confident and aggressive. The difference for her now is that she understands the bigger picture about the team. As a senior, she has that maturity about her.
“We think she’ll raise her game to a higher level this season. Jessie wants to be the best. And at the end of the day, that’s the most important thing. It’s rare to find someone who thinks that way all the way through.”
Freshmen Maggie Harbison and Tade Atanda (Todd-ay Ah-tahn-da) and community college transfer Maria Mayer are also projected to take a lot of swings opposite Wolfe. Clark is extremely optimistic about the group of outside hitting newcomers.
Harbison is a versatile 6-1 player from Carmel, Ind., who is expected to be able to contribute immediately. The freshman was an all-state player in high school and set school records for kills in a season and career.
“Maggie is physically ready and well-conditioned to play for us this season,” Clark said. “She adds so much to our game with her ability to ball handle. She’s strong and can hit well, and she definitely adds to our blocking game.
Motade “Tade” Atanda is another freshman outside hitter to watch. The 5-7 California native is an explosive athlete who makes up for being undersized with quickness and leaping ability.
“Tade is incredibly dynamic and athletic. We fully expect her to contribute this season,” Clark said. “She has picked up what we do pretty fast. She’s a great hitter and a very good blocker. Some people might see her as a bit small, but she plays very big.”
DAWGS ‘SET’ AT SETTER POSITION
Butler has two capable setters in sophomores Gina Vera and Kelly Hunter. Vera was the primary setter in 2009, earning Horizon League all-newcomer status and finishing second in the conference in assists per set. Vera, who spent a portion of her summer in Europe, finished 44th in the nation in assists per set as a freshman last year and was in the national rankings each week. Clark says Vera will be even better as a sophomore in 2010.
Gina did a great job training in Europe. She came back in better shape than she showed up last year,” Clark said. “We see her as a top 30 setter in the country. And even though she’s just a sophomore, she plays like a senior and our players trust her.
Not only is her passing usually on target, Vera thrives as a defender in the setter position. She is a major piece to BU’s blocking game, which is a big part of Butler’s on-court system.
Hunter saw action in 32 matches and 88 sets last season, primarily becoming an asset in Butler’s service game. She
“Kelly does a great job for us serving and passing,” Clark said. “She’s one of the best passers on the team. She can step in at any time and solidify are serve receive and pass well for us. She’s definitely a step ahead now than she was last year as a freshman.”
DUO RETURNS AT MIDDLE BLOCKER
In 10 seasons under Clark, the Bulldogs have made their blocking game a priority. Butler has had success in the middle for several years, and that tradition appears to continue thanks to a quartet of skilled blockers on this year’s team.
Butler returns two middle blocker starters from last season in junior Maureen Bamiro and senior Jalesa Lee. Both players give the Dawgs size, athleticism and experience in the middle. Bamiro led the team and ranked fifth in the Horizon League with 1.06 blocks per set last year.
“Maureen has grown so much as a player. She’s gotten incredibly better every year and this year will be no different for her,” Clark said. “She was in great shape and looked good in the preseason.”
In addition to her blocking, Bamiro also packs a punch as a hitter. She finished third on the team last season with 2.12 kills per set and had 10 matches with 10 or more kills.
“She can be dominant at the net,” Clark said. “The biggest improvement she’s made from last year to this year has been her attacking ability. She has more weapons in her arsenal and we believe she’ll be more of an offensive threat for us.”
Lee returns after starting 33 of the team’s 35 matches last season. She was second on the team with 72 blocks last year and was one of the squad’s most efficient hitters. The 6-2 Indianapolis native hit .307 for the season while averaging 1.41 kills per set. In Horizon League play, she hit a sterling .317 and averaged 0.64 blocks per set.
“Being a senior, this is a make-or-break year for Jalesa,” Clark said. “She has battled some knee injuries and surgeries in the past, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised with her progress. Despite the injuries, her arm swing is quick as lightning and she’s fun to watch when she gets going.”
Other players who may see playing time at middle blocker include freshmen Claire Randich, Harbison and senior utility player Susan Lester. Like Harbison, Randich is a versatile player who can go on the outside or in the middle. The 6-0 freshman played for a powerhouse program at Joliet Catholic Academy in Joliet, Ill.
“Claire is a really nice addition. The nice thing about her is that she played with (sophomore setter) Gina Vera in high school so they have an automatic chemistry. She plays without fear.”
Lester joins the volleyball program after a decorated four-year basketball career for Butler. The 6-2 grad student who was a volleyball standout in high school scored 1,275 career points and was an All-Horizon League performer. The Bulldogs are hoping that basketball success transfers over to the volleyball court.
“Susan’s the ultimate role player for us. She has a knack for playing volleyball,” Clark said. “She can play multiple positions, which is what we need. Having played basketball, she is very seasoned and we can depend on her to go out there and compete. As a hitter, she is very physical and can pack a punch.”
DAPRILE RETURNS AT LIBERO
Much like outside hitter, setter and middle blocker, Butler boasts a returning starter at the libero position. Senior Katie Daprile returns for her third season of wearing the opposite colored jersey. The Bargersville, Ind., native has enjoyed a tremendous career at Butler and owns the school’s top two single-season marks for digs. She broke her own school record with 556 digs last season. After repairing an injured shoulder, Daprile appears to be on track for another record-breaking campaign.
“Getting her back to full strength has been important for us. It didn’t take long for her to get her form passing and her defense to get back to where she is,” Clark said. “Her presence on the court and her command of our serve receive have been there for us instantly. She’s a fierce competitor and we believe she can be the top libero in our league.”
Butler has two freshmen who will work behind Daprile and gain experience playing libero in college. Maureen Nesbit and Alli Norris come to Butler and will gain a year of experience in Butler’s system. Nesbit was an honorable mention all-state player on a very successful Althoff Catholic team in Belleville, Ill.
“Maureen has a lot of potential. We’re excited to have her and see her develop,” Clark said. “She’ll be a player to watch in the future.”
Norris was an all-state and UnderArmour American Top 100 performer at Carmel High School just north of Indianapolis. She played on the same high school team as Harbison.
“Alli comes to Butler with good skills and good training,” Clark said. “We want to see her get physically stronger just to maintain through the season.”
CHALLENGING SCHEDULE FEATURES 13 TILTS AT HOME
Butler is playing a pair of early tournaments that will feature top-notch competition before hosting a four-team invitational at Hinkle Fieldhouse in September. BU travels to Baylor and Arizona the first two weekends of the season and will have seven matches under its belt before hosting UNC-Wilmington, Army and Xavier Sept. 10-11.
The Bulldogs open at home Tuesday, Aug. 31 vs. crosstown opponent Marian University. In all, Butler has 13 home matches.
The Horizon League’s regular season champion will host the league tournament Nov. 18-21. The tournament champion earns the league’s automatic bid into the NCAA Volleyball Championship.