The Valparaiso volleyball program’s tradition of excellence rolled on in 2010, as the Crusaders won 27 matches and advanced to the Horizon League Championship match for the second time in four years. It marked Valpo’s ninth consecutive 20-win season, making the Crusaders one of just 12 teams nationwide to have won 20 or more matches nine straight years. With 11 letterwinners, including four starters, returning in 2011, hopes are high for Valpo to capture a Horizon League title and extend its stretch of 20-win campaigns.
Head coach Carin Avery has experienced nothing but success at the helm of the Crusader volleyball program. Her first season as head coach coincided with the first year of Valpo’s current run of excellence, as she has guided the Crusaders to 20 or more victories in each of her nine seasons. Last year, Avery led Valpo to 27 wins, tied for the second-most in a single year in program history, and a spot in the Horizon League championship match for the second time in four seasons.
Entering her 13th season overall as a member of the Crusader coaching staff, Avery owns a 221-81 (.732) record at Valpo and a 276-105 (.724) record overall as a head coach. She currently ranks 18th nationally among winningest active Division I head coaches by winning percentage, and is also one of the youngest Division I head coaches with at least 200 career victories. During her nine years, she has led Valpo to six league championship match appearances, three regular season titles, three league tournament titles and three NCAA Tournament appearances.
Assistant coach Craig Cromwell returns for his third season on the Crusader bench in 2011, having helped guide Valpo to 49 victories over his first two seasons on the staff. Meanwhile, Kim Bukowski returns to Valpo as a graduate assistant. Bukowski played for the Crusaders from 2006 through 2009 and ranks third in program history in career assists.
Coming off a season in which it was named the CVU Deep Digging Team of the Year and led all of NCAA Division I volleyball with 2,447, Valpo returns nearly 75% of its dig total from a season ago, led by one of the nation’s best liberos.
“I think our ability to pass and dig balls this year is going to be a key to our success, because we have a lot of options this year on the attack,” said Avery. “With a lot of different things we can do offensively, we have to be able to take care of the ball.”
Junior Taylor Root has anchored the Crusader back line in each of her first two seasons and enters the 2011 campaign as the incumbent libero. Root, who led all NCAA Division I players last season with 5.94 digs/set and set new school and Horizon League single-season records with 754 total digs, was honored as Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year, selected to the AVCA All-Midwest Region team and named an AVCA Honorable Mention All-American. She also was one of just 18 players nationwide to earn a spot on CVU’s Stellar Spikers First Team.
“Obviously we’re feeling pretty good that we have Taylor anchoring our serve receive and defense for a third year,” said Avery. “She had a tremendous season last year, and I think what you’re going to see this year from Taylor is her stepping up into more of a leadership role on the court as an upperclassman. She’s a phenomenal player and we’re excited to see her play another year.”
A pair of sophomores will also vie for time as defensive specialists in 2011. Ariel Cudney made an instant impact as a rookie with her serving, tallying 54 total aces and leading the Horizon League with an average of 0.54 aces/set while also posting 1.63 digs/set. Sarah Chrabaszcz also returns on the back line after appearing in eight matches for the Crusaders as a freshman.
“You’re also going to see a lot of depth in the DS spots this year as well,” said Avery. “Ariel was a game-changer for us last season when she was on the back line serving, and her competiveness and scrappiness makes us better in the back. Sarah is probably one of our most improved players entering this year, and she’s fighting hard for some significant playing time.”
Valpo’s offense will be quarterbacked yet again in 2011 by senior setter Jenny Pokorny. Pokorny stepped into the full-time setter’s role last year and enjoyed a standout season, earning a spot on the All-Horizon League team, as well as Honorable Mention All-Midwest Region accolades. She paced the league in assists both overall (10.48/set) and in league-only action (10.78), while also serving as a formidable offensive threat, ranking sixth in the Horizon League with a .278 hitting percentage. Pokorny’s 1,363 total assists in 2010 also ranked sixth in a single season in Valpo history.
“Jenny’s back for her senior season after a breakout year as a junior,” said Avery. “She’s got a lot of great attackers to work with this year, and she’s really excited with all the options available to her. The greatest thing about Jenny is that she’s not just a setter, but she’s a good all-around player. She is a threat offensively on the attack, and then also plays outstanding defense for us in the back. We’re fortunate to have an all-around great player like Jenny as our setter.”
There will be new faces and names for Crusader fans to get to know at middle hitter this year, as Valpo enters the 2011 campaign having graduated both starters at the position from a season ago.
“For one of the first times since I’ve been at Valpo, we have depth at the middle hitting position,” said Avery. “The best part is that it’s not just a lot of players, but it is talented depth. Overall, our middles are a tall, athletic group who all have a chance to earn significant playing time this year with the graduation of last year’s starters.”
The youthful group of Crusader middles entering 2011 consists of a trio of sophomores, as well as a redshirt freshman. Janelle Hobbs saw action in 11 matches during her freshman year, averaging 1.20 kills and 0.73 blocks per set while hitting .239. Hobbs stood out in a start at Chicago State late in the year, posting seven kills on .385 hitting, as well as five blocks. Ellen Vanden Berg appeared in 12 contests for the Crusaders as a rookie, registering 0.79 kills and 0.79 blocks per set. Vanden Berg stepped up late in the season to help Valpo secure a key league win at Youngstown State, recording seven kills on .300 hitting and three blocks.
“Janelle is a great overall player who is very skilled in all areas,” said Avery. “She has a great volleyball IQ, and when you combine all that together, you have a player who you know you can count on to produce on the court. Ellen had a really great spring season for us. She has the ability to be a game changer with her blocking, because of her athleticism, her height and her long arms. She definitely has the potential to be an impact player for us in the Horizon League.”
Kelsey Victor shifts to the middle this year after appearing at outside hitter for Valpo during her freshman campaign. Victor played in 14 matches as a freshman, contributing better than two kills per set, including a pair of 11-kill efforts. Lindsey Hauch is also a member of the sophomore class, but redshirted in 2010 to maintain freshman eligibility. Hauch was a two-time Second Team All-State honoree at Coloma [Mich.] H.S. and was named her team’s Top Offensive Player in each of her four seasons.
“Kelsey is simply a dominant athlete,” said Avery. “Her athleticism is top-tier in the Horizon League and gives both our offense and our defense another dimension. She has the ability to dominate points with her athleticism. Lindsey is ready for her first year after redshirting last season. She is a tremendously hard-working player who has the ability to play a lot of different positions for us. You might not only see her in the middle, but could also see her on the right side, and she’s also been working hard to make herself a talented back-row player as well.”
Four outside hitters and right side hitters who averaged better than a kill per set a season ago for the Crusaders return in 2011, while a pair of talented freshmen also joins the corps of attackers.
Senior Katie Britton returns to lead the Valpo outside hitters. Britton is entering her third year as a starter on the outside for the Crusaders, posting a team-high 2.94 kills/set in 2010, including 17 double-figure efforts in the category. She also finished the year ranked sixth in the Horizon League in kills/set. Sophomore Sarah Dooms is also back in 2011 after starting for Valpo as a freshman and earning Horizon League All-Newcomer Team accolades. Dooms ranked among the Crusaders’ top-three players last year in kills/set (2.40, third), digs/set (2.91, second) and aces/set (0.21, third).
“Katie is an outstanding leader for our program, both on and off the court,” said Avery. “She ended last year at the top of her game on the attack, and we’re looking for her to pick right back up and be one of our go-to players offensively. She’s also made great strides in her blocking during her time at Valpo and should be a key part of our defense at the net this year. Sarah’s all-around ability makes her a important six-rotation player for our team. She is a primary passer on our back line and was among the best on the team in a number of categories last season. Sarah does all the little things that make a team great.”
Junior Mary Dent made an impact at outside hitter as well last year for the Crusaders, taking part in 27 matches in 2010 and averaging 1.26 kills/set. Dent stood out in Valpo’s home win over Youngstown State, stepping into the starting lineup for that match and recording 15 kills on .282 hitting. Joining the squad of outsides this year is freshman Tricia Prince, who was an Honorable Mention All-State honoree at Davison [Mich.] H.S. as a senior and twice earned First Team All-Conference accolades.
“Mary is one of our team’s vocal leaders and really makes the players around her better,” said Avery. “Her overall game really improved this spring. She is super-gifted athletically, and when she is on she has the potential to dominate points offensively. We see Tricia as another six-rotation player. She passes really well, has a great serve, and has the ability to make an impact with her skills in all facets of the game. She could be a valuable asset to us not only in the front row, but also in the back helping to anchor our passing and defense.”
Hauch is one option on the right side for the Crusaders in 2011, while senior Amy Groesbeck and freshman Morgan Beil also will battle for playing time on the right. Groesbeck tallied 1.76 kills/set a season ago, including four straight matches in a mid-season stretch with at least 10 kills, while she also picked up nearly a half a block per set as well. Beil was an All-Region, All-District and All-Conference selection during her time at Marquette [Mo.] H.S., where she helped lead the Mustangs to a state quarterfinal berth as a senior.
“Amy has a heavy arm that really gives us another dimension in the offensive attack,” said Avery. “She can become a real force for us at the night, because her blocking has improved so much over the last few years. Morgan has a wicked arm swing, and with her being left-handed, I think teams might have trouble stopping her, even as a freshman. She can swing from a lot of different areas on the court, and we’re hoping that can cause trouble for our opponents.”
Valpo’s slate for the 2011 season is a challenging one, testing the Crusaders as they take aim at a tenth consecutive 20-win campaign. The schedule includes 10 matches against teams which won 20 or more contests a season ago, as well as Valpo’s first in-season tournament at the ARC in four years.
“We have one of the toughest early-season schedules that we have ever had here this coming season,” said Avery. “It should be to our advantage to play such great competition so early, which will hopefully prepare us for the highly competitive Horizon League season.”
The season begins with perhaps the Crusaders’ toughest test on the schedule, as Valpo opens Aug. 26 against Ohio State, which won 24 matches last year and was ranked #19 in the final AVCA poll of the 2010 season. The Crusaders will face the Buckeyes as part of the WVU Mountaineer Invitational Aug. 26-27, while Valpo will also take on Robert Morris and New Hampshire in addition to host West Virginia.
The next weekend brings the Crusaders home to the Athletics-Recreation Center for the Marriott Volley Brawl Sept. 2-3. Valpo welcomes Ball State, which won 24 matches a season ago, Murray State, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Evansville to the ARC for the five-team round-robin event, which will consist of 10 total matches over the two days. The Crusaders will play at 11:30 a.m. both days, at 7 p.m. against Ball State on Friday evening and then close their action against Evansville at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, prior to the Valpo football night game.
Valpo’s slate of early-season tournaments concludes with a pair of short trips, as the Crusaders play at Notre Dame’s Golden Dome Invitational Sept. 9-11 and at the DePaul Invitational Sept. 16-17. The Crusaders will face off against Portland and Lipscomb in addition to the host Irish at the first tournament, while they will take on Kansas and San Diego State as well as DePaul at the latter event.
The Horizon League double round-robin schedule gets off to an early start in 2011, as Valpo will host UIC on Sept. 14, mid-week in between the final two tournaments. The Crusaders will face off against each of the league’s other eight teams twice, once at the ARC and once on the road, including fellow 20-win squads from a season ago in Butler, Cleveland State and Milwaukee. The league schedule wraps up with a home match against Milwaukee on Nov. 11.
The Horizon League Championship will be contested among the league’s top-six teams starting on Nov. 18 on the campus of the regular-season champion, with the winner of the tournament earning the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Valpo’s regular season comes to an end the weekend following the league tournament, as the Crusaders travel to Kalamazoo for a match Nov. 26 against Western Michigan.
Valparaiso enters the 2011 season with plenty of experience in the back row, at setter and at the outside positions. With young, but talented, athletes waiting to step into the middle positions, the Crusaders have all the pieces for a run at the Horizon League championship and their tenth consecutive 20-win season.