Change is in the air for the St. Mary’s University volleyball team. With the loss of three starters from the 2007 squad, head coach Todd Caughlin had his hands full getting his team ready for the 2008 season. But a strong core of returnees, combined with another promising group of incoming players has Caughlin and his staff optimistic for the upcoming season.

The Rattlers didn’t just lose three starters after last season; they lost two of the best players to ever come through the program in Samantha Weber and Courtney Matula. Matula left St. Mary’s as the program’s all-time leader in assists and service aces, while Weber ranks among the top players in school history in blocks and kills.  Add to that the loss of versatile Laura Sudano and Caughlin had a tough task in the offseason.

Prior to the 2007 season, he brought in a class that included All-Heartland Conference pick Kori McCarver and Danielle Mittelstadt.

“I really am very excited because of the combination of the fresh faces with the returnees from last year,” Caughlin said. “By carrying 17 players this year, the competition within the team is going to be amazing. We will be deep in every position.

“Because of the quality of the newcomers, who plays will not be determined by years on the team. It will be determined by who’s getting the job done.”

The American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) approved a major change in scoring for the upcoming season. In 2001 the AVCA went to rally scoring for all games in college volleyball, with the winner in games one through four having to score 30 to win. If a fifth game is necessary, the winner has to score 15 points. This season that will change to 25 points for games one through four. Scoring for game five will be unaffected.

“It will have a big affect on the style and speed of play,” Caughlin said. “You will lose probably one full rotation each game, which can have a big affect on the outcome.”

The Rattlers will be young on the outside with Mittelstadt, a sophomore from New Braunfels, Tiffany Jansky, a junior from Poth, Jessica Martin, a junior from Spring Branch, Katleyn Kershner, a sophomore from San Antonio and freshmen Adrianna Keys and KaSandra Larios battling it out for playing time.

Mittelstadt earned more playing time as the season went on and was one of the team’s most consistent contributors down the stretch. She averaged 0.97 kills, 1.41 digs and 0.21 blocks, primarily coming off the bench. She had five double-doubles, all of which came in the season’s last five matches.

Jansky, a junior from Poth, returned to the team last season and was a strong contributor off the bench. She averaged 2.00 kills, 1.56 digs and 0.25 blocks per game. Keys and Larios will be counted on early to contribute right off the bat at a position that is crucial to the team’s success.

Martin saw limited action last season, but averaged 1.08 kills and 0.33 blocks per game.

“That’s going to be one of our more hotly contested positions,” said Caughlin. “Every characteristic you want in outside hitters we have.”

The loss of Weber will be felt the most in the middle, where she led the Heartland Conference in blocks and kills over the last two years. However, the cupboard is far from bare with junior Stephanie Crowell and senior Sarah Moreno leading the way.  Also looking to make an impact this season in the middle will be freshmen Kirsten Chapman, Holly Moreno and Stephanie Proske.

Crowell has ranked second behind only Weber on the team in blocks each of the last two seasons. In 2007 she averaged 0.91 blocks and 1.82 kills per game, while hitting a strong .235. She reached double figures in kills five times and totaled five or more blocks 10 times.

Moreno overcame injuries that shortened her first two seasons on the team and has been a contributor over the last two years. She earned All-Heartland Conference honors as a sophomore and picked up 1.61 kills and 0.53 blocks per set last season.

“We have some great returnees in Stephanie (Crowell) and Sarah, but some strong newcomers as well,” Caughlin said.  “It should be a good competition for playing time there.”

Last season, McCarver came in and made an immediate impact, serving as an outside hitter and second setter for the Rattlers. She showcased her athletic ability midseason when she posted back-to-back triple-doubles, the only triple-doubles on the team in 2007. For her play she was named All-Heartland Conference and was the runner-up for Heartland Freshman of the Year. She averaged 2.52 kills, 1.60 assists, 1.20 digs and 0.40 blocks per set last season.

Sondra Cui, a true freshman from Schertz, could push for playing time right away.

“Kori was a huge asset last year with the way she can set and swing,” said Caughlin. “But Sondra honestly is one of the best floor managers for a setter that I’ve seen in a long time. She knows the game inside and out.”

Caughlin expects a heated battle for the starting libero position this season. Senior Valerie Teter has held down that position for the last two years. However, senior Lauren Johnston and juniors Stephanie Solano and Allison Avalos will battle with Teter for the starting nod.

Teter has totaled over 1,000 digs over the last two seasons, averaging 4.53 per set. She has also been strong serving, averaging .032 service aces per set during her career and had 35 last season. Teter has reached the 20-dig mark 18 times in her career.

Solano saw significant action as a defensive specialist in 2007, but also shone bright when asked to take charge at the libero position.

Johnston set career highs in nearly every category last season, after struggling with injuries in two of her previous three years on the squad. Last season she played in 108 sets, averaging 1.59 digs per set.  Avalos, a junior from El Paso, has seen her playing time increase each of the last two years and will also be battling for playing time.

“I think that it will be an exceptional battle at this position,” Caughlin said. “Nobody can afford to get complacent. Valerie has been an all-conference libero for us the last two years, but she is going to have some stiff competition this year. It is probably the position we have the most experience in and the most depth.”

Caughlin has never shied away from tough competition during his tenure with the Rattlers and 2008 is no exception. However, Caughlin softened the schedule somewhat by putting together a schedule that includes 18 home contests and two tournaments.

The season starts as always with the St. Mary’s/Texas MedClinic Invitational.  After that tournament they will head west for the Central Washington University Invitational, which will feature three teams with winning records from 2007, including fellow Marianist institution, Chaminade University. The Rattlers will face a string of Lone Star Conference foes with a single match against Texas A&M-Kingsville, then host the Heartland/Lone Star Conference Crossover Tournament.

After the Rattlers complete their grueling non-conference slate, they will be welcomed by a tough list of opponents in the Heartland Conference. Cross-town rival Incarnate Word is the defending conference tournament champion and returns a squad that should again compete for the league crown. Texas-Permian Basin surprised nearly everyone by earning the top seed in the Heartland Tournament in 2007 and should be strong again this season. St. Edward’s and Dallas Baptist have been consistent players in the conference race, while Texas A&M International was another surprise in 2007, finishing as the Heartland Conference Tournament runner-up.

The Heartland Conference Tournament will be at the regular season champion’s home on Nov. 13-15.

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