The Wittenberg volleyball team reached the top of the mountain in 2011, winning the first NCAA Division III title in program history in convincing fashion as the Tigers won 18 of 19 sets in its six-match run to the championship. A new season begins, however, with a tremendous amount of uncertainty.

That's because every player who recorded a kill – except for the Tigers' setters – in the NCAA Division III tournament has graduated from Wittenberg, including two-time All-American middle hitter Katie Sumner and 2011 NCAA Division III tournament Most Outstanding Player Kimmie Dyer. Just three individuals from the nine-player rotation employed by head coach Paco Labrador last November will suit up for the Tigers in 2012.

A total of six letterwinners are back in the fold, however, starting with the talented setting duo of senior Hallie Donathan and sophomore Meghan Vodopich, the 2011 North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC) Newcomer of the Year. They will be joined in the rotation again in 2012 by the NCAC Libero of the Year, senior Christina Gilene.

That trio forms the core of what still figures to be an elite team in 2012. Gilene enjoyed a breakout year to earn All-Great Lakes Region honors, and she figures to play an even more pivotal role for the Tigers in 2012 after recording a team-high 603 digs (4.90 per set) a year ago. She enters her final collegiate campaign ranked eighth on the Tigers' career digs list with 1,584.

The rest of the offense is a question mark as the season opens. The time is right for senior outside hitter Jessica Batanian, who recorded 143 kills and 157 digs in 2011, to step into the limelight. The same can be said for junior middle hitter Andrea Behling, who contributed 82 kills and 38 blocks off the bench a year ago.

Labrador has proven before that he can mold a young team into a winner quickly, as evidenced by his astounding 296-41 record since taking the program's reins in 2003. He welcomes an eight-player recruiting class, with the smallest player being 5-9, that he hopes will make an immediate impact.

Despite the fact that Wittenberg will field a youthful squad for its title defense, the schedule is as challenging as ever. The 2012 season opens with the Wittenberg National Invitational on Friday, Aug. 31, and Saturday, Sept. 1, when the Tigers take on Wartburg, Whitworth and Trinity, all of which were ranked in at least two national polls in 2011. The Tigers, who are shooting for their 17th NCAC regular season and 17th NCAC Tournament titles in the last 18 years, will play 10 teams in 2012 that were ranked at some point during the 2011 season.