Dynamic changes are set to define the 2012 season for the Ashford University volleyball team.
Coming off of a 2011 season that saw the Saints post a 22-19 record, including a 6-3 mark in their final season of Midwest Collegiate Conference play, they embark upon a 2012 season that will feature a new conference affiliation and a new cast of student-athletes.
"We're young," coach Micah Cewe said. "We return just one senior and one junior with varsity experience. We have a very large group at the freshman and sophomore level, so communication and getting them to play together will be our biggest test early in the season."
Ashford welcomes back just 37.5 percent (618 of 1,650 kills) of its offensive output and 34.3 percent (81 of 236) of its service aces from a season ago but boasts a seasoned veteran in a key position. Heading the Saints is senior setter Liz Gbur, a three-year starter who enters her final season with 2,841 career assists.
"Liz is going to be big for us this year; she has a big position to fill," Cewe said. "We need a leadership role out of her, and we're ready for her to take it to the next level. After being in our program for three years, she knows what we expect, and there's a lot riding on her shoulders."
Gbur, from Darien, Ill., handed out 1,262 assists while dropping 35 kills and 29 service aces last season and will be called upon once again to lead an extremely youthful team.
"I'm definitely trying to step up more as a leader both on and off the court," she said. "I feel like my job is to bring the team together and set the tone for how the team should flow. I see us going very far. We have a lot of talent, but we're also a very young team. If we can eliminate mistakes, we're going to be very good."
Other key returners are junior right-side hitter Micah Wedemeier; the team's top two blockers from a year ago, Amanda West and Danielle Tombolato; and sophomore libero Karrah Toby. West, from Mokena, Ill., rejected 127 opponent shots last season, while Tombolato tallied 116 blocks. Both are sophomores.
Toby, a Fox Lake, Ill.-native, dug up 353 opponent shots (2.85 a set) in 36 matches last season.
"I think practice has been much more intense than last season," Toby said. "Everyone is trying to work so much harder because no spots in the rotation are set with so many newcomers. I'm really happy with who we have on the team. Everyone meshed together really well this year, which is a really good thing."
A horde of new faces join the aforementioned group, leaving Cewe with more depth than he's been accustomed to the past couple of seasons.
"We have quite a bit of depth in middle and right-side positions, which is unusual from past years," he said. "Factor in our lack of returners and the amount of playing time that's open, we've had a very competitive preseason camp."
Leading the group of newcomers is Morgan Martells, a 6-foot-2 sophomore middle hitter transferring to AU from Parkland Community College. At PCC, Martells was a second-team National Junior College Athletic Association Division II All-American after leading the Cobras to a 41-8 record and a ninth-place finish at the NJCAA Division II national tournament. She powered down 521 kills and racked up 176 blocks in her one-year stint at Parkland.
Hitters Taylor Mullen, Samantha Magnussen and a second Parkland transfer, Nechelle Veal, join sophomore Sarah Garvick, a returner with very limited varsity experience, as threats to earn starting positions.
"This year, blocking will be really huge,” Cewe said. “We brought in some very tall girls, and we really like our front row and our front line. "Morgan is going to be a huge threat for us, and Sam and Taylor are really going to push each other and get better through competition. Sarah has had a great offseason so far, and I'm impressed with her improvement from last season to now."
Another change for the Saints is the move to the Association of Independent Institutions for the 2012-13 athletic year and beyond. Ashford will no longer have a set conference schedule, but, according to Cewe, the league transition is easier for volleyball.
"The A.I.I. presents itself very well for us as a volleyball program," he explained. "The Midwest Collegiate Conference is a one-bid (one automatic national tournament berth) league, while the A.I.I. gets two teams automatically qualified. We have to make the conference tournament, and after that it's anyone's game."
Ashford opens the home portion of the 2012 schedule on Thursday, Sept. 6, when St. Ambrose visits Kehl Arena in Clinton for a 7:30 p.m. showdown. The Saints also host matches against former MCC opponents Mount Mercy, Clarke and Iowa Wesleyan while hosting the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and the nine-team Ashford University Invitational Tournament.
"With a young team it's important to learn from our mistakes early on," Cewe said. "But our goal, as is the goal of most teams, is to peak midseason and keep that momentum rolling through the end of the season and the postseason. We still have a lot to work on, but I'm excited for this team."