The dictionary definition of opportunity is “a situation or condition favorable for attainment of a goal.” A golden opportunity is what the St. Mary’s volleyball team has before them as they enter the 2007 season.
Coming off a surprising second place finish in the Heartland Conference Tournament last year, and with six of seven starters returning, the Rattlers have the opportunity to do what no St. Mary’s team has done before.
“I believe that this team has the ability to be the first volleyball team at St. Mary’s in the NCAA Division II era to go to a regional championship,” Head coach Todd Caughlin said.
But to accomplish that goal they have to get through what Caughlin calls the toughest schedule he has had during his time at St. Mary’s. Four of the first six teams the Rattlers will play this season finished in the top 10 in their regional poll in 2006. Five teams on the schedule advanced to the NCAA Tournament, including Central Missouri State University. CMSU, who will open the season at the St. Mary’s/Texas MedClinic Tournament, finished 17th in the nation and made it to the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament.
Also making the final national poll was longtime South Central Region power West Texas A&M University, who the Rattlers will play twice. The Buffaloes were 11th in the final poll. Truman State University is the highest ranked opponent on the Rattlers schedule, finishing the 2006 season ranked sixth. Barry University and Indiana University of Pennsylvania also earned NCAA Tournament berths last season and will oppose the Rattlers in the first two weeks of the season.
“With all the proposed changes in regionalization, we booked a very tough schedule,” Caughlin said. “At no point do we have a break. Over the first two weekends we will play regionally or nationally ranked teams in 10 of 12 matches.”
What drove Caughlin to schedule such a tough slate of opponents this season was the loss of the automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament. Without that automatic bid, the only way to qualify for the postseason is to finish as one of the top eight teams in the South Central, no easy task to accomplish.
In addition to a very tough non-conference schedule will be an improved Heartland Conference slate. While 2006 champion Montana State University Billings joined the Great Northwest Conference, the Heartland Conference has three new schools joining the fray for this season: Newman University, Texas A&M International University and the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. Playing as provisional conference members in 2006, TAMIU and UTPB each scored significant wins against Heartland foes and combined to win 36 matches.
St. Edward’s University will be strong as always, as should 2006 regular season runner-up Dallas Baptist University. The University of the Incarnate Word went through a rebuilding process in 2006 and should be improved for this season.
“Obviously in losing Montana State-Billings the conference took a hit,” Caughlin said. But with three of the four schools that qualified for the Heartland Tournament coming back, I expect the competition will be strong.”
To combat this tough schedule is a battle-hardened team that went 19-16 last season and showed just how determined they can be, rallying from two games to none down in the Heartland Conference Championship Tournament semifinals to defeat Dallas Baptist in five games. The starting lineup includes three senior starters and four juniors returning from 2006. That kind of experience should make the difference as the Rattlers battle the best that the South Central Region, and the nation, has to offer.
Helping to counter their tough-as-nails schedule is a slate that includes 14 home matches, including the season-opening Texas MedClinic Invitational on August 24. St. Mary’s will also host the Heartland Conference Tournament at Bill Greehey Arena on Nov. 9-10, giving them the potential for one to two more home matches.
“The fact that there is a good balance between home and away matches is a big plus for us,” Caughlin said. “When we travel it’s pretty far, so it helps to make sure that we don’t wear the players out.”
Leading the charge individually this season for the Rattlers is 2006 American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) honorable mention All-American Samantha Weber. Weber, a 6’0″ senior middle blocker from Fort Lupton, Colo., burst on the scene last season, finishing second in the Heartland Conference in attack percentage, second in blocks per game and fourth in kills per game. She earned Heartland Conference hitter of the week honors three times, was a first team All-Heartland pick and first team AVCA All-Region.
Setting the ball for Weber and the rest of the Rattlers again this season will be Courtney Matula, a 5’9″ senior from San Antonio. Matula, already second in St. Mary’s history in assists, is coming off her best season to date. She averaged 11.11 assists and 0.44 service aces per game in 2006. She ranked second in the Heartland in assists and fourth in aces. She earned second team All-Heartland honors for her play.
The Rattlers final senior in 2007 will be Laura Sudano, a 5’9″ outside hitter from East Setauket, N.Y. Sudano was one of the Rattlers most versatile players last season, averaging 2.31 kills, 2.46 digs and 0.56 blocks, while hitting .153 for the season. She was one of just two players to average more than two kills and two digs per game for the season.
In her fourth season with the team is red-shirt junior Sarah Moreno, a 6’1″ middle blocker from Pearland. Moreno came back strong from injuries that hampered her 2004 and 2005 seasons, earning honorable mention All-Heartland honors last season. She averaged 2.53 kills and 0.77 blocks per game last season. Moreno was second on the team behind Weber in blocks and third in kills per game.
Looking to come back strong from an injury this season is Mallary Moehrig, a 5’10” junior outside hitter from La Vernia. Moehrig was well on her way to an All-Heartland selection when she went down with a knee injury at mid season. She averaged 2.90 kills and 2.85 digs per game, both second on the team. She also hit .193, the second best attack percentage on the team.
The final returning starter from last season is junior libero Valerie Teter. The 5’7″ native of San Antonio stepped into a starting role last season and excelled, leading the team with 4.55 digs per game, while being one of just two players on the squad to play in all 125 games. She also had a total of 40 service aces, second on the team.
Five other players return from the 2006 team and will play a key role in the Rattlers success this season. Red-shirt junior Lauren Johnston, a 5’8″ defensive specialist from Coppell, is back after injuries slowed her in 2006, and is hoping to make a bigger impact. Stephanie Solano, a 5’8″ sophomore from San Antonio, had a strong first season coming off the bench and should be a strong contributor again this year. Stephanie Crowell, a 5’11” sophomore middle blocker from The Woodlands, was one of the Rattlers top blockers and should continue her development this season. Ruby McNeely, a 5’11” middle blocker from San Antonio, and Alison Avalos, a 5’6″ defensive specialist from El Paso, each saw limited action in 2006 and look to show more of what they can do in 2007.
Joining the Rattler’s roster for 2007 are three newcomers who should contribute immediately. Jessica Martin is a 6’0″ middle blocker from Spring Branch, who returns to Texas after a year at St. Petersburg College in St. Petersburg, Fla. While there she helped the Titans to a final national ranking of 11th and a Suncoast Conference title. Danielle Mittelstadt is another local product returning after a year away. Mittelstadt, a 5’8″ outside hitter from New Braunfels was a member of the Air Force Academy team last year. Kori McCarver, a 5’9″ setter/outside hitter from San Antonio, will be the lone freshman on the team this year. She was an all-state honoree at Churchill High School and is the heir-apparent to Matula at setter.
“The addition of these three players gives us depth at every position, which we’ll need,” Caughlin said. “There will be good competition at every position. With our schedule we’ll need everyone to get good floor time for us to succeed.”