Raising the bar

FSU volleyball looks to build off successful 2011 with high expectations

BIG RAPIDS — A GLIAC North title and co-championship shared with Hillsdale has done little to satisfy the Ferris State volleyball team’s hunger to reach even higher this season.

The Bulldogs, who finished last season with a 27-4 record, including an 18-1 mark in the conference, are expected to be one of the nation’s elite once again. FSU received a No. 14 ranking in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Division II poll.

CONCENTRATION: Ferris State senior outside hitter Aly Brecht passes the ball during drills Wednesday. (Pioneer photo/Martin Slagter)

The Bulldogs, who concluded the 2011 season ranked No. 12 nationally in the final poll, compiled 358 total points and are one of two Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) schools listed in the top 25 along with Hillsdale, which came in tied for No. 10 nationally. Concordia-St. Paul was tabbed as the preseason national favorite followed by Tampa, Cal-State San Bernardino, Nebraska-Kearney and Central Missouri in the top five overall.

FSU head coach Tia Brandel-Wilhelm said she feels the team hasn’t let the high expectations for the season get in the way of the high standards they already have for themselves.

“Every team is it’s own unique team and has high standards,” she said. “If you’re a Ferris State volleyball player, the expectations are there. We certainly have a lot of talent on this team. We’re looking to get a little better ever day.”

Ferris State is only a few spots shy of cracking the national top 10, which it hasn’t done as a program since 1991.

Being able to compete for the GLIAC title and making the NCAA tournament should prove to be beneficial for the Bulldogs because of the experience they’ve gained against the top competition in the nation, senior setter and All-GLIAC performer Samantha Fordyce said.

“I think last year was really good, because it showed us our potential and what we’re capable of,” she said. “It also showed us that we can push ourselves even more in some areas. We’re confident that we have that ability and potential, and with the freshman class coming in, we’ve got a group that can push us even more to reach that potential.”

There has been plenty of pushing already since the Bulldogs opened practices on Friday, senior middle hitter Anne Sutton said. The outside expectations paired with the high standard the senior class has for itself will make for a very competitive Bulldog team this fall.

“I think it’s raised the level of play on our practices and in what we expect from ourselves,” she said. “Now we expect to get a championship, where we maybe hoped to get one last year.

“Last year was very collaborative,” she added. “We had a lot of different players contribute, which is a great way to make our team feel that everyone is involved. I think that’s helped us come out a lot stronger this preseason.”

Senior setter Paige Wyers said it has made the Bulldogs more confident, but not in a way that could be considered detrimental.

“This year the bar is raised because we had such a good team last year,” she said. “I think it made us more confident, but not in a bad way. I don’t think we took it as we’ve reached where we want to go. I think that will help us and motivate us to go even higher.”

While the Bulldogs graduated a pair of All-Americans in outside hitter Ashley Huntey and libero Lisa Tobiczyk, the team may even take a step forward offensively this season. Sutton’s return in the middle, paired with senior outside hitter Aly Brecht and GLIAC Freshman of the Year Courtney Rehm gives the Bulldogs plenty of depth up front. Fordyce will set the tone for the offense after earning all-region honorable mention status last season.

“Right now our greatest strength returning is our offense,” Sutton said. “If we can get our passing and defense to support that, then we’ll be good.”

Brandel-Wilhelm said she expects the team’s depth to be an asset this year and admits it won’t be easy to be without the services of Huntey and Tobiczyk.

“When you graduate two All-Americans, I don’t think you ever can replace them,” she said. “We’re not trying to replace them, as much as we’re trying to utilize the personnel we have, the best that we can.

“I think we’re pretty deep in a couple spots, which should be a strength to our team,” she added. “We have strong leadership out of our seniors and our younger players are working hard to be contributors to the team right off the bat. I just think that teamwork is there and that they’re close as a team.”

Ferris State officially opens its 2012 season on Aug. 31, with a pair of non-conference matches at the Ferris State Invitational in Big Rapids. The Bulldogs host Alderson-Broaddus (W.Va.) and Mercyhurst in their first two matches of the tournament. FSU then concludes tourney play on Sept. 1, with contests against West Virginia State and Clarion (Pa.).

Visit the photo gallery to see more photos from Wednesday’s practice.

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