MARTIN, Tenn. – To outsiders, the University of Tennessee at Martin volleyball team may seem untested, as only three of the 12 players listed on the 2013 roster are upperclassmen. However, after a strong spring season in which all seven returning players continually improved, Skyhawk head coach Darrin McClure is excited to get the 2013 campaign underway.
“We only have one senior and some might think that is a disadvantage but it is a positive for us because our returners have gone through a spring season,” said McClure, who enters his sixth season at the helm of the Skyhawk program. “We played tough Southeastern Conference and Big East opponents and that experience helped us prepare for the fall.”
Six of the seven returners are juniors or sophomores who have logged significant playing time in their UT Martin careers. This core group is expected to be the foundation for the program’s success both this season and in the future.
“The growth of our juniors and sophomores has been tremendous,” McClure said. “They all look stronger and are playing more confidently in practice. We have three team captains but all seven returners are doing a great job of leading.”
Those who have followed the UT Martin program in the last few years may notice that this year’s roster size is significantly smaller than in years’ past. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the team is lacking in depth and in fact, McClure has seen an advantage to the fact that the Skyhawk roster consists of a dozen players.
“This is one of the smallest rosters we have had but at the same time, it is one of the closest teams I have ever coached,” McClure said. “We really have spent a lot of time and effort this preseason building team unity. One of our goals is to play for each other.”
In 2012, the Skyhawks qualified for the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament for the second time in the last three years. Heading into that season, UT Martin relied upon Kelly Hogan as one of the two seniors on the squad. However, Hogan’s hot start (37 kills in 14 sets over four matches) was cut short after a season-ending knee injury on Aug. 31.
After a strenuous rehab process, Hogan was granted a redshirt and is embracing the leadership role as the team’s lone senior.
“We missed Kelly’s on-court presence last year, especially during the OVC season,” McClure said. “It’s been a tough road for her with her rehab but her presence alone is huge for our team leadership. She does a good job guiding our younger players and challenging our returners.
An outside hitter, Hogan will be joined by returners Emily Keaton (team-high 262 kills in 2012), Allie Whimpey (343 career kills in two seasons) and Lynsey Hazelwood (205 kills last season, second-most on the team).
“Emily is expected to be our outside anchor,” McClure said. “She has had a great preseason so far and the biggest difference for her has been her leadership presence – she has done a great job setting an example. She is a well-rounded kid who works hard and she has had the best stats on our team this preseason. Lynsey and Allie are probably in the best shape I’ve ever seen them in and I’ve been watching them since club ball. They are very competitive and want the ball all the time.”
The key to any team’s success is having a decision-maker who can quickly identify and assess their surroundings in order to put her teammates in the best position to succeed. McClure is convinced he has found just that person in sophomore setter Amanda Crask, who is coming off an OVC All-Newcomer campaign in 2012.
“I don’t hesitate to say that Amanda will be a big part of our offense,” McClure said. “She knows that we want her to be offensive and we train her that way. She is in great shape – she had a good spring and she worked her tail off this summer. Her best volleyball is ahead of her.”
Sophomores Shelby Hoskins and Chelsea Bowles round out UT Martin’s returners and both will look to step into bigger roles this fall. Hoskins showed flashes of potential throughout the 2012 season, leading the team in blocks and ranking second in attack percentage, while Bowles played in a team-high 115 sets and scooped up 242 digs (second-highest on the team) in 2012.
“Even though she is a sophomore, we want Shelby to be the focal point of our offense,” McClure said. “With her stats from last year, she needs to learn to deal with teams maybe revolving their game plan around stopping her. We may be better defensively right now than we have ever been just based on the things I have seen in practice. That has led to competitive drills and blue-collar practices. Chelsea will step up and have a big role in our defensive scheme and serve/receive scheme.”
For the second straight season, McClure boasts a multitude of talented freshmen. Just as the team’s current sophomores did last season, this year’s five freshmen have shown a willingness to learn every day.
“I have been surprised by the way our newcomers have been receptive to what our returners are teaching them,” McClure said. “There is always going to be a learning curve and you have to learn in fast forward because there is a lot of information to process. The newcomers have started to adjust and they have started to apply those methods to practice each day, which is very encouraging.”
The star-studded signing class includes middle blockers Julia Devinney and Alisha Erves, libero/defensive specialist Colleen Larson, as well as outside hitters Michelle McLaughlin and Madison Wessling.
“I feel good about where our freshmen are right now,” McClure said. “I expect Julia and Alisha to be a big part of our offense as the year goes on. Colleen will be a big part of what we do defensively and a crucial part of our serve/receive patterns and I expect Michelle and Madison will battle for time at outside hitter.”
With a unique blend of veteran returners and an infusion of exciting young talent, the Skyhawks seem ready to challenge for OVC West superiority in 2013.