Coming off a highly successful 2011 season, the Elmhurst volleyball team is earning respect at both the conference and the national level.
The Bluejays opened the 2012 season ranked 11th in the nation, according to a Division III preseason poll of the American Volleyball Coaches Association. Elmhurst also has been picked to win its first CCIW title since the 2005 season, according to the league’s preseason coaches’ poll. The Bluejays’ preseason national ranking is the team’s first since the 2006 season.
In 2011, Elmhurst posted a 31-6 record and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. With a pair of All-Americans, and virtually the entire 2011 roster returning this season, expectations are high for the Bluejays in 2012. The AVCA national poll counts the votes of 24 Division III coaches from across the nation, while the CCIW preseason poll is voted on by the league’s eight coaches.
Elmhurst head coach Julie Hall, the AVCA’s 2011 Midwest Region Coach of the Year, knows that with increased expectations comes increased pressure.
“Coming off of such a strong season and bringing back the entire squad, we’re going to have a huge target on our back throughout the season,” Hall said. “Our players have never really had to play with this type of pressure, so we’ll just have to wait and see how they perform.”
With Elmhurst striving for a conference championship and a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, Hall didn’t shy away from adding high-caliber opponents; instead she sought them out, loading the Bluejays’ schedule with top-25 opponents. Elmhurst will play 10 contests against teams ranked in the preseason top 25, including six of the team’s first 10 matches.
“When we made it to the NCAA Tournament last season, we didn’t play our best volleyball,” she said. “If we’re going to qualify for the NCAA Tournament this season, we need to be ready for the caliber of teams that we may face. This is by far the toughest schedule I’ve ever had in all my years of coaching, and I certainly think that our schedule has to be one of the toughest schedules in all of Division III,” Hall said.
The Bluejays turned in a strong showing at the start of the season, posting an unblemished 4-0 record at their own season-opening tournament for the first time since the 2004 season. Elmhurst upended the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Lake Forest College and Bethany Lutheran College before closing the tournament with a thrilling five-set win over 15th-ranked University of Chicago, a team responsible for one of the Bluejays’ six losses in 2011. Junior middle hitter Megan Reynolds and senior outside hitter Antonéya Veasy Smith were both selected to the all-tournament team for their strong play.
Elmhurst didn’t fare as well the following weekend, as the Bluejays posted a 1-3 record against four top-25 teams, including top-ranked Washington University.
“With the caliber of opponents and the overall difficulty of our schedule, we knew there might be some occasions where we would take our lumps,” said Hall. “Hopefully, we’ll learn from the losses and our mistakes.”
Elmhurst slipped to 12th in the national poll following the losses, but the Bluejays bounced back by opening CCIW play with key road victories at Millikin University and Carthage College.
“Opening conference play with a pair of wins is huge,” said Hall. “Millikin had beaten us the past two seasons, and Carthage had our number for the past several years. In order to contend for a CCIW title, we had to get off to a fast start in conference play.”
Elmhurst’s 2012 squad is keyed by returning All-Americans Reynolds and Perrie Morgan. Last season, Reynolds led the Bluejays in kills (415), kills per game (3.12), hitting percentage (.367) and total blocks (163). Morgan, a senior libero, was the 2011 squad’s leader in digs (686) and aces (53). The Bluejays also return all-conference selections all-conference outside hitters Veasy Smith and Sam Szarmach, along with all-conference setter Erin Thill.
“The overall talent and potential on this team are incredibly strong,” said Hall. “Keeping everyone healthy will be key for us. Our goal is to play like a top-10 team throughout the entire season so we’re mentally and physically prepared to make a strong run at the end of the season.”