Head coach Sharon Clark says the 2012 edition of Butler volleyball is one of the most talented teams in years. Several experienced players may set the table for Butler to have a winning season for the fifth straight year. Whether the team can put all the pieces together and playing in a new conference will be the year's top storylines.
"We have more depth and we have more talent," said Clark, starting her 13th season at BU. "Our team this year has a great work ethic and great off-court chemistry. We're blessed to have that.
"We have the pieces. But we need to put the pieces together."
CONFIDENCE ON THE OUTSIDE
Butler has four outside hitters returning this season. Clark says that she is confident in the group and all four players will contribute this season.
Senior captain Rachel Barber headlines the group. Barber transferred to BU last year after playing two seasons at New Mexico and was a rotation player last season. The 6-1 Arizona native had 65 kills, 26 digs and 18 blocks last season, but will have a much bigger role this year.
"Rachel is one of our captains and will be a major factor for us," Clark said.
Two sophomore outside hitters, Belle Obert and Kelly Kyle, return after strong freshman seasons. Both players were named to the league all-newcomer team last season. Obert averaged 2.26 kills and 2.36 digs per set with six double-doubles last season. Clark says it's actually her blocking skills that make her a valuable commodity.
"Belle is a phenomenal blocker," the Butler coach said. "She will be one of the best blockers we have had in our program."
Kyle, a 6-1 Indiana native, averaged 2.57 kills and 2.81 digs per set while starting all 30 matches last year. She also ranked second on the team with 22 aces. Kyle had knee surgery in the spring and is rounding into form.
"She is still recovering from the surgery, but Kelly is such a well-rounded player," Clark said.
Another experienced outside hitter is 6-4 Chelsea Kirkpatrick, who is in her second season at BU after playing at DePaul.
STRENGTH OF THE TEAM IN MIDDLE
Clark says the middle blocker crew is "by far the strength of our team. The group includes four strong players, including junior all-league candidates Maggie Harbison and Claire Randich.
Harbison and Randich have each started the past two seasons and have combined to provide Butler a formidable blocking duo. "They have played well together," Clark said. "Now they have the maturity and the seasoning to get done what we need to get done."
Harbison was named All-Horizon League last season, leading the conference in block assists and ranking second with 1.16 blocks per set. She averaged 1.95 kills and 2.92 points per set and was among the league leaders in aces.
"Maggie has the experience, she's a great server and she's a power hitter," Clark said. "And her one-foot takeoff has improved night and day since her freshman year."
Randich, who battled injuries last fall, rounded into form at the end of last season and was posting big numbers by late October. She had 11 blocks vs. Valparaiso and seven in the league tourney against Cleveland State. Randich is also a capable hitter, posting a .302 hitting percentage as a freshman in 2010.
"Claire has gotten stronger and she is the most physical player on the team," Clark said. "She is a power hitter and a great blocker."
Butler got a boost in the middle when 6-4 Indianapolis native Erica Stahl transferred to Butler for this season. Stahl played at Cincinnati last season but returned home, and after shoulder surgery, seems to project as a rotation player this season.
"Erica has a huge presence at the net," Clark said. "She is a good blocker and she will contribute this season."
Sophomore Stephanie Kranda can also be listed among the middle blockers, but the 6-0 Kranda is a versatile player that helps on the court in many spots. Kranda started 11 matches as a freshman and can also play setter.
"It's been fun to watch Stephanie get better each day," Clark said. "She has come a long way. She's a great jumper and a great hitter. She is very quick off the floor."
Butler has three players on the roster who can play setter. In addition to Kranda, newcomers Morgan Peterson and Natalie Wichern are primed to run the offense this season. "We finally have depth at the setter position," Clark said. "For the last three years, we've basically played with just one setter."
Peterson, a junior who played the last two seasons at Middle Tennessee State, will have an immediate impact for the Dawgs. The 6-0 Peterson is a dynamic athlete who, despite being new at Butler, has quickly made a connection with Butler's hitters. Clark says her athleticism and skill have made for a quick transition for Peterson.
"Morgan is a physical player and the best blocking setter I've ever had," Clark said. "She's a brilliant student as well. We're in good hands when Morgan is on the floor. She brings a lot to the table."
Wichern, a freshman who played at nearby powerhouse Brebeuf Jesuit, has been injured in the preseason but is good enough to contribute immediately.
"Natalie is a winner, she's always been a winner," Clark said. "She has incredible touch on the ball and sees the court very well. When she gets back completely after her injury, she'll make a major impact."
YOUTH ON DEFENSE
Butler has three sophomores and a freshman at the defensive specialist/libero positions. It is the youngest area on the team, but the team has four players who can do the job. "All of them can contribute and everyone is playing at a high level," Clark said.
Sophomore Brooke Ruffolo was last year's starter at libero and collected accolades as a freshman. She was an all-newcomer team pick and was twice named the league's player of the week. Ruffolo averaged 4.44 digs per set and added 65 assists and 11 aces last season.
"Brooke was great last year," Clark said. "She's always played hard, but now she's gotten better technically. She is playing smarter."
Jadyn Yarling is a sophomore who played in 66 sets last season and showed a lot of promise. Clark said Yarling had a very strong spring season and is playing very well in the preseason.
"Jadyn is a great passer and she's hustling down balls all over the court. She's been on fire," the Butler coach said.
Sophomore Christina Saenger also returns along with freshman Natalie Meert. "Christina is a competitive player and she's a great vocal communicator," Clark said. "Natalie is a feisty player who brings a lot to the table."
In all, BU returns 10 letterwinners and four starters (plus libero) from last season's 16-14 team. The Bulldogs open Friday, Aug. 24 at DePaul. The home opener is the Friday, Sept. 7 when Butler hosts Western Illinois and Stephen F. Austin.