2006 looked on the surface like it would be a rebuilding year for the Valparaiso volleyball program. But the Crusaders showed that they have expunged the word “rebuild” from their vocabulary in favor of “reload,” winning 23 matches and setting school records for kills, assists and hitting percentage. Now, with most of the vital parts back from last year’s squad, Valpo looks to capture Horizon League gold in its first season as a league member.
The Crusader program has reached unprecedented heights under current head coach Carin Avery, who returns for her sixth season at the helm of the program. In each of her first five seasons, Avery’s squads have won at least 20 matches, making Valpo one of just 25 Division I programs to win 20 matches each of the past five years. She has led the Crusaders to three NCAA Tournament appearances, as well as three conference regular season championships and three conference tournament championships. Her career winning percentage of .730 ranks her among the top-20 Division I head coaches.
Avery owns 126 wins in her five seasons at the helm, 34 more victories than any other coach in Crusader history. She is also Valpo’s all-time leader in winning percentage (.746) and will become the record holder in matches coached after the third match of the season.
Joining Avery on the sidelines for a second season is assistant coach Keith Schunzel. Schunzel helped guide Valpo to 23 victories in his first year as an assistant, and serves as the program’s recruiting coordinator and travel coordinator.
The Crusader back row loses two of its three mainstays from last season’s squad, but return the one who put together one of the most impressive seasons in Valpo history last year in junior Brittany Malicoat. Malicoat, who changed her last name from Marks after getting married during the offseason, demolished the school record for digs in a season, posting 675 total digs. The second team All Mid-Con selection paced the Crusaders in digs in each of the season’s 35 matches and has now led Valpo in the category in 42 consecutive matches. Also a threat from the service line, Malicoat registered 47 service aces last year, ninth-best in a single season in Crusader history.
Also returning in the back row for Valpo is sophomore Haley Wise. Wise looks to secure a larger role for the Crusaders this year after seeing limited action during her freshman campaign due to injury. She registered 40 digs over 16 matches, setting a season-high with a 10-dig effort against Missouri.
“Brittany is the type of player who wins you games,” said Avery. “She controls every aspect of our game. We want her to touch the ball every play. Haley has played outstanding. If she can stay healthy, she will definitely help our serve receive and ball control.”
Joining the back row contingent is newcomer Lindsey Gilman. Gilman, a sophomore academically at Valpo, did not play volleyball last season. Gilman did compete as a member of the Crusader indoor and outdoor track and field teams last year, earning All-Conference honors during the indoor campaign. At Marian H.S. in South Bend, Gilman was a four-year volleyball letterwinner, twice earning All-Conference accolades.
Valpo returns both setters from its 2006 team that helped quarterback the Crusaders to single-season team records in kills, assists and hitting percentage.
Coming back for her second season as a starter is senior Sara Hughes. Stepping into the full-time starter role last year, Hughes proved worthy of the job, dishing out 1,388 assists on the season, fifth-most in Crusader history. Over the course of the season, she registered three of the top-four single-match assist totals all-time at Valpo, including a record-breaking mark of 82 in the Mid-Con Tournament against Western Illinois. She also showcased her versatility, registering 238 digs, 76 kills and 29 blocks for the season.
Sophomore Kim Bukowski did a solid job as a backup during her first season with the Crusaders. Bukowski appeared in 44 games over 24 matches, dishing out 312 assists and recording 53 digs. She tallied 54 assists and four kills in Valpo’s win at Centenary, and had a 44-assist, 12-dig night in a win at Chicago State. Bukowski’s 312 career assists are good for tenth all-time at Valpo.
“Sara came in and had a great year for us last year,” said Avery. “Kim played a lot during the spring and we hope for both of them to get involved in the offense this season. Both have come into this pre-season better players than last year thanks to their work with Keith (Schunzel).”
The Crusaders return their entire contingent of outside hitters for the 2007 season and also add two newcomers to the fold.
Sophomore Angie Porché came roaring out of the gate as a freshman, putting up double-digit kill totals in nine of her first ten matches. She didn’t slow down the rest of the way, earning Freshman of the Year accolades and first team All-Conference honors after registering 480 kills on the season, third-most in a single year in Crusader history. Porché also became the first freshman in 14 seasons to pace Valpo in kills. She especially stood out at the Mid-Con Tournament, tallying 56 kills over the two matches, second-most in a single tournament in league history.
“It’s hard to believe that Angie is only a sophomore,” said Avery. “We expect her to be a force in the new league, and we will count on her to put up more great numbers for us this season.”
Senior Tiffany Meikle started 19 of the 33 matches she appeared in last year for Valpo. The 2005 Mid-Con All-Tournament team selection recorded 265 digs and 136 kills in 2006 for the Crusaders. Meikle excelled in the latter stages of the season, putting together six straight matches with double-digit digs in November, including a career-best 22 against Western Illinois in the Mid-Con Tournament.
Sophomore Val Bollenbacher started 16 matches as a freshman for the Crusaders, posting 133 kills and 117 digs on the season. She tallied four matches with double-digit kills on the season, including a high of 16 against Chicago State on .481 hitting. Bollenbacher also registered ten or more digs on four occasions, setting a season-high with 18 against Illinois State.
Junior Jill Meyer will look to contribute more after seeing limited action last season. Meyer appeared in 36 games over 23 matches, tallying 38 kills and 16 blocks. Her most productive outing came at UMKC, where she recorded seven kills and four blocks in a win over the Kangaroos.
Two freshmen also join the cast of outsides for the Crusaders. Andrea Balsis comes to Valpo from Coloma H.S. in Coloma, Mich. Balsis tallied a school-record 2,090 kills over her career, seventh-most in MHSAA history, and was a two-time All-District and All-Region honoree. Ali Schultz was a three-year letterwinner at Newark H.S. in Newark, Ill., where she helped lead the Lady Norsemen to three straight conference titles, earning All-Conference honors her final two seasons.
Valpo returns two stellar middle blockers and also adds two freshmen to the mix at the position.
After putting together an incredible breakout season in 2006, senior Nicole Schulz will be Valpo’s go-to player in the middle this year. The second team All-Conference selection smashed the Crusader single-season hitting percentage record last year by 23 points, hitting at a .334 clip for the season. She also moved in Valpo’s single-season top-ten in kills (443, 7th) and blocks (126, t-8th). Schulz also broke the Crusader single-match kills record by registering 32 against Western Illinois at the Mid-Con Tournament, and followed two days later with 30 markers at Oral Roberts in the championship match, earning All-Tournament accolades. Schulz paced the Crusaders in kills on 12 occasions in 2006, including six of the last eight matches, and in blocks 15 times.
Junior Allison Sears took full advantage of her opportunity to join the Crusader rotation last season after spending most of her freshman campaign rehabbing from injury, recording 373 kills and 112 blocks in 2006. Sears hit double digits in kills 22 times and registered at least five blocks in eight matches. She earned All-Tournament honors at the Miami Invitational, closing out the season with 15 kills on .583 hitting against the host RedHawks, the third-best hitting percentage in a four-game match in Valpo history.
“Nicole was amazing for us last season,” said Avery. “We are hoping that she picks up where she left off last year and hoping for great numbers from her again. Allison is a scary attacker. She hits such a heavy ball and she is very athletic. If she can keep her errors down this year, she could be an All-Conference performer for us.”
Katie Layman and Tara Newton both come to Valpo with impressive résumés. Layman guided New Prairie H.S. in New Carlisle, Ind. to conference championships in each of her three years on the squad and was a first team All-Area honoree as a senior. Newton was a three-year letterwinner at Franklin Central H.S. in Indianapolis, Ind., where she was a two-time All-Conference recipient.
On the freshman class, Avery said, “This class is one of the most athletic we’ve brought in at one time. We look for each of them to help out this season and some of them to play key roles for us as we enter the Horizon League. We will need our middles to adapt to the college game quickly as we will rely on them this year.”
Avery has put together a 30-match schedule for the 2007 season that aims to have the Crusaders peaking for the Horizon League Championships and a possible NCAA Tournament match. Included on the schedule are 12 home matches at the Athletics-Recreation Center, where Valpo is 51-7 during Avery’s tenure.
The season kicks off August 24 when the Crusaders take on Miami [Ohio] at the Redbird Classic. Valpo will face the hosts from Illinois State the next night. The next weekend, the Crusaders will hit the road for their longest trip of the season, traveling to the Western New York Invitational. Valpo will face Buffalo, Binghamton and Saint Francis [N.Y.] over a two-day stretch.
After a one-year hiatus, the Popcorn Classic returns to the ARC September 6-8. The Crusaders host Marshall on the 6th, Indiana on the 7th and Western Michigan on the 8th, with all three matches to be played at 7 p.m. Matches will also be contested during the day on the 7th and the 8th between the other three participating schools.
Valpo’s pre-conference slate ends the next weekend at the Bowling Green Invitational, as the Crusaders take on Duquesne September 14 before facing DePaul and the host Falcons September 15.
The Crusaders’ first Horizon League match will take place on September 21 when Valpo hosts UIC. The Brown and Gold will face off against each of the other eight league schools twice in the double round-robin format, while also taking on Bradley and IUPUI in non-conference action. Senior Night will be October 27 when the Crusaders host Green Bay in the home finale, and the final league game will be November 10 at UIC.
The Horizon League Championships will be hosted by Milwaukee November 15-18. All nine league schools qualify for the Championship, with the eight and nine seeds playing a first round match on the 15th for the right to face the top seed in the quarterfinals. The Championship winner will earn an automatic bid to the 2007 NCAA Volleyball Tournament.
“It is so much fun to come into the pre-season with the excitement of playing in the Horizon League,” said Avery. “Everything is new for us. We are looking forward to playing different teams and we are looking forward to the easier travel."