SKYHAWK VOLLEYBALL LEANING ON SENIOR LEADERSHIP IN 2014
August 27, 2014
MARTIN, Tenn. – Emily Keaton and Allie Whimpey were both freshmen starters when the University of Tennessee at Martin volleyball team made its run to the Ohio Valley Conference championship match in 2011.
Three years later, the duo has the same championship aspirations as the two senior leaders on a Skyhawk team that missed the postseason for the first time in the last three years in 2013.
“Missing the tournament last year is definitely motivation for Allie and Emily,” said Skyhawk head coach Darrin McClure, who enters his seventh season at the helm of the UT Martin volleyball program. “It was hard to swallow. They are motivated to helping lead the team back into the conversation of best teams in the conference. I’ve never had a pair of seniors who wanted to be more successful than these two want to be in their last year. They really want to lead this team to a championship.”
Combined, Keaton and Whimpey led the team in kills in 22 matches – as the pair tied for the team lead with 303 kills apiece. Together, the two program mainstays have 1,501 kills, 1,064 digs, 274 blocks and 125 service aces between them.
“We expect leadership from Emily and Allie,” McClure said. “I sat down with both of them at the start of the preseason and told them that the best things they can do to help their legacy here is to just continue to be coachable. They are no doubt leaders off the court – they are both excellent students and are very invested in UT Martin.”
Although his top two offensive threats are back in 2014, McClure says the team has two strengths that make this team different than past seasons. The Skyhawks will lean heavily on defensive specialists Chelsea Bowles (545 digs in 2013) and Colleen Larson (252 digs while playing in limited rotations in 2013).
“Defensively, we are pretty strong,” McClure said. “I believe we have the best two defensive specialists in the conference in Chelsea and Colleen. Those kids can play with anybody and we have them as a unit – they will both be on the floor at the same time. They are both very tough competitors and great teammates. They are all about making each other better.”
The other expected area of strength is his team’s versatility, which allows McClure some flexibility in any situation.
“We have a lot of players who can play different positions so we can toy with different lineups,” McClure said. “We had been limited in that area in years past. I can see us running a multitude of different styles of offensive sets and seeing what transpires so we can put our best team on the court.”
Two-year starter Amanda Crask returns at setter. The Louisville, Ky. native has already racked up 2,053 career assists and has also tallied 349 kills, a .213 attack percentage, 475 digs and 71 blocks in her young career.
“Amanda put a lot of pressure on herself last year,” McClure said. “But she had a good spring and I have never questioned her work ethic. Being a junior now, she is a lot more mature socially and that is going to help her out on the court. With Madison Bergren here now pushing her every day in practice, I think we are going to see the best out of Amanda this year.”
The aforementioned Bergren has been a part of a hungry freshman class who has impressed McClure in fall preseason camp. That group includes setter Bergren, outside hitters Lael Ceriani and Grace Hardin, middle blocker Madison Molitor and opposite hitter Mandy Glon, a redshirt freshman transfer from UAB.
“It’s been a very competitive preseason,” McClure said. “All of our newcomers have really made an impact. They have worked hard every day in practice and let the returners know that they want to see playing time as well. They have great attitudes at practice and came to campus in good physical condition.”
McClure also continues to see growth in a sophomore class that gained invaluable experience in 2013. Larson shined defensively while Julia Devinney (team-high 77 blocks) and Alisha Erves (team-best 0.71 blocks per set) also made impacts as freshmen.
“Julia and Alisha worked hard over the summer and I know that because I stayed in touch with them a lot,” McClure said. “They are a little more seasoned this year and I expect both of them to be a big part of our team. Being more consistent is the key for them.”
Two more sophomores who expect to make a mark are outside hitters Madison Wessling and Michelle McLaughlin. Wessling came on strong as the 2013 season progressed, capturing OVC All-Newcomer accolades after seven double-digit kill performances (all against league competition). McLaughlin was never at full strength in the fall but has bounced back well from shoulder surgery in the spring.
“Madison came in this fall and has worked hard with our strength and conditioning program,” McClure said. “She’s always been a great leaper but now she has a stronger arm. The only thing that was holding her back last year was her defense but now she has become one of the better defensive outside hitters we have.”
“We have options at left side and outside,” McClure said. “That depth is created because of Michelle. We weren’t sure how she would be physically at this point because of her surgery but she has impressed us a lot and competed very well.”
With its four upperclassmen starters and a dynamic mix of young talent ready to contribute, UT Martin appears primed to join the chase for an OVC crown in 2014.