MARTIN, Tenn. – One match. That’s all that has kept the University of Tennessee at Martin volleyball program out of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament in each of the last two seasons.
In 2015, an OVC Tournament berth came down to the Skyhawks’ final match of the season – a heartbreaking five-set loss to Tennessee Tech. Last season, UT Martin was in the OVC Tournament picture going into the final week before coming up one match short again. Each season ended with identical 5-11 conference records.
For third-year Skyhawk head coach Jaclynn Yocum-Wilson, the message is clear heading into the 2017 season: every rep counts.
“The team has definitely seemed more engaged this preseason,” Yocum-Wilson said. “I think the way our season has ended the last two seasons has created a hunger in our team and given them a chip on their shoulders. Every point, every set and every match matters for us to reach our ultimate team goals. Even though our nonconference matches do not count in the league standings, those situations can help us learn lessons that we can apply during the OVC Tournament race.”
UT Martin, who started practice on Aug. 7, will heavily rely on five seniors this fall. The trio of Jemima Idemudia, Macy Reigelsperger and Kelly Lean were the only three players to start in all 31 matches last season while Hayley Gray (13 starts) and Rachel Noffsinger (12) were also regulars in the Skyhawk rotation in 2016.
Idemudia was quite simply one of the best players in the OVC last season, garnering all-league first team accolades while ranking amongst the league leaders in blocks (126), kills (310) and points (387.0). The 6-2 middle blocker was chosen by the league’s head coaches and sports information directors as one of 14 members of the 2017 Preseason All-OVC squad.
“It’s no secret that we are banking on another big season from Jemima this fall,” Yocum-Wilson said. “As good as she was last year, I still believe that her best volleyball is ahead of her. Defensively, her wingspan really allows her to be a gamechanger at the net.”
At outside hitter, Reigelsperger led UT Martin in attempts (844) while also ranking second on the team in kills (256), service aces (19) and blocks (49) in 2016. She also added four double-doubles while ranking third on the team with 197 digs.
“Macy quietly had a really good all-around junior campaign last year,” Yocum-Wilson said. “She is one of our smartest players on the court and has an enormous clutch gene – she loves the big moment.”
Lean has been absent from the Skyhawks’ preseason activities, as she earned a spot on the Australian national team in the FIVB World Grand Prix this summer. She handed out 9.78 assists per set in 2016, which was the second-best single-season mark in school history.
“Kelly has gained invaluable experience on the international level over the last two months,” Yocum-Wilson said. “We expect her to return to fall camp without missing a beat, as she developed a solid repertoire with our returners throughout last season.”
Gray displayed flashes of immense potential in spurts in 2016, including 18 kills on a .448 attack percentage (both career-highs) in an OVC win against Tennessee State. Noffsinger began last season as a starter at middle blocker and hit .278 against conference foes.
“Hayley came into camp this summer in the best shape of her life,” Yocum-Wilson said. “She is a step quicker and that improved agility is something that should play to her advantage this year. Rachel is the only player on our roster who has more than one year of Division-I experience. I’m looking for Rachel to settle in and have a bigger role this season.”
A pair of sophomores also return for UT Martin in 2017 in Macy Catlett and Hannah Phillips. Catlett saw time in all 31 matches as a defensive specialist last year, scooping up 150 digs (1.63 per set) while Phillips cracked the starting lineup twice as she had at least five kills in four different OVC matches in 2016.
“Macy played her way into the starting lineup during conference play last season,” Yocum-Wilson said. “She is a sparkplug out there and her speed is a huge asset for our defense. Hannah showed significant progress this spring and will push for more playing time at multiple positions.”
Yocum-Wilson wasted little time identifying libero/defensive specialist Brooke Gyori as one of the best players in the preseason. Last season at Owens Community College, she won the Ohio Community College Athletic Association Player of the Year award – becoming the first non-offensive player since 2009 to bring home that honor.
“Brooke has performed at an extremely high level since Day One of fall camp,” Yocum-Wilson said. “She has the ability to become an All-OVC player for us this year – the sky is the limit for her.”
Megan Fair projects to be a dynamic ingredient to the Skyhawk offense this season, as the outside hitter is coming off a NJCAA All-American season where she slammed down 507 kills on a .290 attack percentage at Catawba Valley Community College.
“We knew early that Megan would come in and have a chance to contribute right away,” Yocum-Wilson said. “She has picked up our offense quickly. She brings an impressive junior college pedigree with over 1,000 kills while her team did not lose a conference match in two years.”
UT Martin suffered a blow when middle blocker McKala Bozman, who played alongside Fair at Catawba Valley last season, injured her shoulder and will miss the 2017 campaign.
“Despite McKala being sidelined, she is still focused and learning every day in practice,” Yocum-Wilson said. “She will use this season to heal up and we expect her back at full strength as a redshirt junior in 2018.”
A total of four freshmen grace the Skyhawk roster in 2017, including the setter duo of Kenzie Hinshaw and Maddi Noble. Hinshaw was spotlighted as one of the top 150 players in the nation by PrepVolleyball.com coming out of Hamilton Southeastern High School in Indiana. Noble is a product of Sandra Day O’Connor High School and was a second team all-state honoree in Arizona.
“We were extremely fortunate to attract two high caliber setters in this freshman class,” Yocum-Wilson said. “With Kelly overseas this preseason, Kenzie has seized the offense and has shown the ability to make the right plays at the right time. We are pondering going with a 6-2 system because it will be so hard to keep Kenzie off the court. Maddi is a proven winner and she has brought that mentality since the first day of practice. She’s played well enough this preseason but our plan is to redshirt Maddi this season to allow her to hone her craft.”
Jamie Rys (defensive specialist/outside hitter) and Justine Walker (middle blocker/opposite hitter) are also ready to chip in contributions as freshmen. Rys joins UT Martin out of Normal West High School in Illinois while Walker was a spring signee out of Campo Verde High School in Arizona.
“Jamie has competed hard all preseason,” Yocum-Wilson said. “She has played her way up the depth chart this fall and we feel if she works to find her voice on the court, she will be ready when her number is called on gameday. Standing at 6-2, Justine brings us great size at multiple positions. She is one of our most versatile players and has really taken to coaching throughout the fall.”
Yocum-Wilson is in the third year of a rebuilding era of Skyhawk volleyball and knows her program is close to breaking through.
“We have made significant strides on many levels over the last two years,” Yocum-Wilson said. “Just making the OVC Tournament is not where we want to be every season but when you qualify for the tournament, anything can happen. We’ve shown that we can play at a high level – we just haven’t displayed that ability on a consistent basis. If we can put it all together, we have serious potential to be a dangerous squad.”