Aug. 26, 2009

Courtesy of Wayne State Athletics

The Wayne State University volleyball team was predicted to finish in a tie with Hillsdale College for first place in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference South Division, according to the 2009 GLIAC preseason coaches' poll released Tuesday afternoon by the league office.

The Warriors and Chargers accumulated 22 points each in the poll. Wayne State also received two first-place votes to Hillsdale's three. Ashland University, which totaled 17 points to place third, received the other first-place vote.

Wayne State returns nine letterwinners from last year's squad which qualified for the GLIAC Tournament for the first time since 2005 and advanced past the opening round for the first time since 1997. The Warriors finished with a 17-12 record, their best in a decade, and went 9-7 in conference matches to place second in the GLIAC South Division.

"We were very happy with our season in 2008, but not satisfied," said head coach Phil Nickel, entering his second season at the helm. "We did a lot of nice things, and obviously had more success than what the program had in a few years, so we were really happy with that."

Some of the "nice things" included the individual accomplishments of Sarha Gosselin, who became the third All-American in WSU volleyball history, Lauren Mallast, who led all of NCAA Division II in blocking, and Mayssa Bazzi, the 2008 GLIAC Libero of the Year.

Looking ahead with the lofty goals Nickel has for the 2009 Warriors, however, would indicate why satisfaction has yet to be reached. Nickel is hoping his team can compete for a South Division championship, a GLIAC Championship, and a trip to the NCAA Tournament this season.

To attain these objectives, he will have to balance a talented roster which, besides the nine returners, also has five incoming freshmen to fill the gaps left by players such as Bazzi and two-time All-GLIAC Honorable Mention middle blocker Kim Gear.

"We want to improve and be better than last year, and that's not always about wins and losses. We want to be a more cohesive group," said Nickel. "There's going to be a lot of competition this year across the board too because we've improved our talent level. We'll be deeper."

At the top of the depth chart is Gosselin, one of five seniors on the 2009 squad.

"By most people's standards Sarha had a really good year, but she wasn't really satisfied," said Nickel. "She thinks she can be a lot better, and I think she'll be better just because she'll be more comfortable in our system."

Selected to the Honorable Mention All-America Team by the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA), Gosselin was also named to the All-GLIAC First Team and both the AVCA and Daktronics All-Region Teams. She led the conference and ranked 28th in the nation with a 3.68 kills/set average, paced WSU with 35 service aces, and finished only behind Bazzi with 259 digs.

"She's taken the leadership role pretty seriously, so she's looking forward to being a leader on this team, and I think you'll see bigger and better things from Sarha this year," said Nickel.

Fellow senior Mallast will provide stability in the middle for the Warriors, not only from a blocking standpoint but, according to Nickel, offensively as well.

"Lauren had a great year last year, to lead the country in blocking, and she was hitting over .300 for a large part of the year until towards the end. Early in the season she was our best offensive player," said Nickel.

"We're looking for her to improve her blocking - we worked a lot in the spring on improving some things she can do to be an even better blocker - and then to improve her offense to make it more consistent. She should be one of the top not only blockers, but offensive players in the GLIAC."

Mallast was an All-GLIAC Second Team and two-time All-Region selection who totaled 163 blocks for an average of 1.51 per set. She also finished with 304 kills and a .268 hitting percentage.

Outside hitters Candis Jenich, Meg Leone, and Jessica Condeni round out the senior class.

"Candis kind of came on towards the end of the year and played really well. She's steady, consistent, and a smart player, and fills a very important role."

Jenich posted double-digit kill totals five times last year, all within her last 10 matches. She finished fifth on the team in kills (138) and contributed 85 digs, 23 blocks and 10 aces.

Leone, the only four-year senior on the squad, can play effectively on either side of the court. She totaled 149 kills, 116 digs and 37 blocks a year ago.

"Being a senior, I think she's fired up to help lead this team," said Nickel. "She's seen all aspects of the program and been through a lot here, so I think she's excited about taking the program to the next step."

Condeni saw limited action in eight matches in 2008, but Nickel likes her work ethic and attitude.

"She didn't get a lot of playing time last year, but had a great spring. She's a great teammate, and everybody loves her," said Nickel. "We hope that she can be a little more consistent this year and contribute to the team as well."

Facilitating the offense will be junior setter Katy Westenberg, who enters the 2009 season ranked sixth all-time at WSU in career assists (1,875) and assists per set (9.52). She collected 1,072 assists last season, the first Warrior to reach 1,000 assists in nine years.

"We've really tried to push Katy to the next level," said Nickel. "She's a good all-around player - a good blocker, good setter, good athlete - so we expect her to continue to improve and get better."

Nickel also likes the versatility of junior Maureen MacDonald, who has seen action at various positions on the floor. Her role on the team will continue to evolve this season.

"Maureen is a great kid and fun to coach. She's one of our hardest workers. She shows up every day ready to go with a lot of enthusiasm," said Nickel. "We just have to find the right spot for her.

"She's played some left, she's played some right, she's played some middle, and in the spring she played some libero. She'll challenge and be one of the front-runners to play libero this fall."

Junior middle blocker Mariel VanOverbeke and redshirt sophomore defensive specialist Kristen Miles, who played in a combined 16 matches in 2008, will provide depth and add to the veteran presence of the team, which will be a key considering the youth coming in behind them.

"It's a good thing to have a large senior class when you have a fairly large freshman class, because you hope that those seniors are able to mentor and provide leadership for the freshmen," said Nickel. "We're really excited about this freshman class. On paper and from what we've seen, it's a pretty talented group and we expect all five of them to compete for playing time this year."

Cydney Biessel was an all-region setter who led Yale High School to three league titles and consistently led the Bulldogs in sets, assists, aces, and service points.

"Cydney is a very talented setter who I think will push Katy and compete for playing time."

Karlene Foisy, who Nickel described as a "big, strong kid," battled through injuries at Rochester High School but totaled 111 kills and averaged 1.1 blocks/set as a junior for the Falcons.

All-State defensive specialist Lindsey Graciak led Livonia Churchill to a 49-4 record in 2008 and a berth in the Class A Final Four. Her 749 digs as a senior set a school record and followed a 579-dig campaign in 2007. Nickel expects her to compete with MacDonald for the libero spot.

Madie Kent, an all-state volleyball player and three-sport athlete at Grosse Pointe North, set school records for kills in a match (37), season (636) and career (1,115). She guided the Lady Norsemen to 40 wins and the semifinals of the Class A state tournament in 2008.

"Madie is a very skilled and intelligent player who is going to help us out," said Nickel.

Warren Cousino alum and three-time all-county selection Kate Sak led the Patriots with 352 kills, 176 blocks and a .323 hitting percentage as a senior.

"You can't teach some of the things Kate does," said Nickel. "She's a very dynamic, fast, athletic kid."

This group of 14 Warriors will begin the 2009 season at home, as WSU hosts the Warrior Invitational, a two-day event beginning August 28 at the Matthaei Athletic Complex. Wayne State has not hosted a volleyball invitational since the 1997 Tartar Classic.

It was important for Nickel to put this event together considering the Warriors will subsequently play nine straight road matches.

"Last year, basically our first month of GLIAC competition was at home. Obviously this year it flips so our first month is on the road," said Nickel. "So we were excited about being able to host a home tournament because if we didn't we wouldn't have been at home until the end of September, which wasn't exciting to me, especially having a young team."

Wayne State will welcome Slippery Rock, Aquinas, Urbana, and West Liberty State to the Matthaei Athletic Complex for the Warrior Invitational, which will consist of five matches per day. WSU will face Urbana and West Liberty State on August 28.

Aquinas, which went 22-13 last season after posting a 5-30 mark in 2007, and Slippery Rock, coming off a 26-12 year and its fourth consecutive NCAA regional appearance, will meet the Warriors on the second day of competition.

For the third time in four years, Wayne State will play in the TownePlace Suites Classic at the University of Findlay. Southern Indiana, which advanced to the Great Lakes Valley Conference title game in 2008 and finished eighth in the nation in blocking average (2.43 B/S), and Minnesota Crookston are lined up to be WSU's opponents on Friday, Sept. 4.

On Sept. 5, Wayne State will battle Saint Joseph's (Ind.) and Missouri-St. Louis. In 2008, UMSL claimed the GLVC West Division title and had a 23-8 record, its first 20-plus win season since 1996.

A stretch of five straight GLIAC road dates will include matches at Grand Valley State (Sept. 12) and Northwood (Sept. 15), two of the five GLIAC teams to qualify for the 2008 NCAA Midwest Regional. The Lakers, who won both the conference and regional tournaments, advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight a year ago.

Wayne State will play four of its next six at home before heading to Lansing for the second annual GLIAC/GLVC Crossover. The regular season concludes three weeks later as WSU hosts Hillsdale and Findlay (Nov. 6-7). "It's a dogfight every weekend once you get into conference play," said Nickel. However, as Wayne State emerges from an underdog to a contender, it's a fight for which he and the Warriors should be prepared.