Hoisting the ODAC trophy at the end of the season and playing in
the NCAA’s has almost become a foregone conclusion for the
Washington and Lee volleyball team. The Generals boast an 89-3
conference record since 2000 and have made eight-straight
appearances in the NCAA Tournament. W&L was picked by the
coaches to win the league once again in 2009, albeit in a closer
vote than usual that featured four different teams garnering at
least one first-place vote.
When asked about the league parity this season, W&L head coach Bryan Snyder noted that between a few question marks on his team, as well as a more competitive league, the road to the postseason may be a little more bumpy than in years past.
“We have a different group of returnees than we have had in seasons past,” Snyder noted. “As we start practice we are real wide open in terms of our lineups and what kind of system we could run. Also, there are some other good teams in the league. Virginia Wesleyan is really good. They have experience and could contend. Randolph-Macon is pretty solid, Bridgewater is also pretty talented, so its going to be a tough league this year.”
Randolph-Macon finished last season with a 9-1 league record, its only blemish a 3-0 defeat at the hands of the Generals. Bridgewater and Virginia Wesleyan, who finished 6-4 and 7-3, respectively, gave the Generals all they could handle last season, pushing W&L to five sets before ultimately falling. It is that on-court experience of his juniors and seniors that Snyder will rely on in 2009.
“We have really good experience in the junior and senior classes,” Snyder notes. “They have played in a lot of meaningful matches and a lot of close matches and that is going to help a lot. The chemistry is really good, they work hard and they really buy in to what it is that we are trying to do.”
Of that experienced senior class, senior outside hitter Rachael Phillips (Tampa, Fla./Tampa Prep) is one of several players that Snyder will look to lean on. A three-year letterwinner and a team captain this year, Phillips is the reigning ODAC Player of the Year and was an all-state and all-region player a year ago. She placed third in the ODAC with 376 kills (3.3 k/g) and enters her senior season ranked ninth all-time at W&L with 919 kills.
“We are going to ask a lot of Rachael this year,” said Snyder. “We want her to be involved in the bulk of what we do and see if we can get her as many touches as possible.”
Looking to join Phillips on the outside will be junior Marah Schmitz (Phoenix, Md./Dulaney). Schmitz, who saw a great deal of action last season at several different positions finished third on the team with 205 kills, but recorded a hitting percentage of just .159.
“Marah has a good skill set and good knowledge of the game,” Snyder observed. “She moved around a bit last year and hopefully that experience that she gained will lend itself to some consistency this year.”
Another player who will look to grab some playing time outside is sophomore Megan Daily (Mountain Brook, Ala./Mountain Brook). Daily saw action in 20 games as a first-year and had 46 kills. Snyder hopes that she can build on a solid first-year and compete for some time in her second season.
“Physically, she is an imposing figure. She can really be an offensive weapon for us with a little bit of consistency,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest question mark for the Generals this season is who is going to play the right side. Gone is 2008 Honorable Mention All-America honoree Jessica Ulrich, the latest in what has been a string of highly productive right sides for W&L. Enter senior Kelly Harrison (Knoxville, Tenn./Webb School) and perhaps first-year Bailey Walker (Centennial, Ohio/Regis Jesuit).
Harrison, who split time between the right side and the libero positions a year ago, led the Generals with 417 digs and added 46 kills. She is a good athlete who appears to have the leg up on paper, but is another player that Snyder hopes will develop some consistency, particularly on the offensive side.
Snyder also likes Walker, a 5-11 first-year, to compete for the spot.
“She would make sense there, as she is a little bigger and she is a lefty. If she can quickly get the hang of things she is going to have a shot. “
The middle blocker position features a pair of returnees looking to make big strides in junior Louise Brooks (Baltimore, Md./Bryn Mawr) and sophomore Lindsey Dee (Tallahassee, Fla./The Maclay School).
Brooks, who stands an even six feet tall, broke into the starting lineup last season and appeared in 115 games. She had 180 kills and 77 blocks, including tying for the team lead with 14 solo blocks.
“Last season she supplanted a returning starter and really came to relish being the go-to person, “ Snyder recalled. “She had a great spring and with some higher goals for herself she could have a really good year.”
Dee, one of the team’s tallest players at 6-1, saw action in 60 games as a rookie notching 28 blocks and 20 kills.
“She is going to be given an opportunity to play,” noted Snyder. “She needs to play a little better on offense, but she is skilled and could take a big step this year.”
A pair of first-years will also look to add some depth in the middle. Stephanie Malaska (Redmond, Wash./Eastside Catholic) and Taylor Maxey (Poway, Calif./The Bishop’s School) will both figure in the mix, with Maxey being an intriguing prospect at 6-3.
The Generals’ deepest spot on the floor is at the setter position where they return a pair of seniors and a junior, all with a great deal of experience. Team captain Kristi Stevens (Overland Park, Kan./Shawnee Mission South) will look to come back after missing a chunk of time last year with a shoulder injury, while Megan Steinhardt (Cedar Park, Texas/Cedar Park) is also back after earning Honorable Mention All-ODAC honors last season after notching 930 assists. Also in the mix is junior Jenna Finger (Homer Glen, Ill./Lockport Township).
Stevens, is currently eighth all-time at W&L with 1,496 assists and Steinhardt is currently 10th all-time with 1,153 assists. Finger played in 59 games last year and had 160 assists and 91 digs. Having three accomplished setters gives Snyder the ability to keep an experienced and accomplished setter on the court at all times.
“It is going to be a good competition between the three of them this year,” Snyder observed. “Depending on how things go, it will really have a domino effect on the court as to whether we play a 6-1 or a 5-2 and where some other people may or may not play. With all of them though, it really gives us some flexibility in how we do things.”
If the right side is an open competition for playing time, then the defensive specialist position is wide open. At least four players returning this year played the position at one time or another last season and they will be given an opportunity to compete for the job this year.
Junior Summer Goldberg (Marietta, Ga./Woodward Academy) and sophomore Megan Tomlinson (Petersburg, Pa./Huntingdon Area) will both look to increase their playing time from a year ago. Goldberg played in 55 games and Tomlinson saw action in 44. The pair combined for 165 digs and 19 service aces. First-year Cameron Hill (Tampa, Fla./H.B. Plant), who will compete for time as the defensive specialist.
The Generals’ feature a difficult schedule as they look to advance to the NCAA’s for the ninth year in a row. The ledger features a pair of matches against No. 1 Emory, as well as contests against No. 2 Juniata, No. 23 Eastern, a pair against NCAA participant Christopher Newport, as well as dates with St. Mary’s (Md.), Mary Washington, Thomas More, and Salisbury.
“We open with a great tournament on Sept. 11,” Snyder noted. “We have the defending National Champions and preseason No. 1 Emory as well as preseason No. 2 Juniata and Christopher Newport, who are both always strong, coming to town. That is going to be some great volleyball.”
“The schedule is very difficult,” Snyder added. “But I hope that it can kind of shorten the learning curve for some of the newcomers. Those two match ups with Emory early in the year are going to be a great measuring stick for where we are. Either way, we are looking forward to getting the season underway and getting on the court.”
The Generals’ first match of the season is set for Sept. 11 against Christopher Newport in the opening match of the W&L Invitational in the Warner Center. Start time is 5:00 pm.