Aug. 30, 2009

By Douglas Kroll

For six seasons during the 1990’s, Washington-St. Louis was the toast of Division III women’s Volleyball, taking home six straight national championships.

But the sport has seen some parity, so to speak, over the last few years. Yes, the Bears have captured a couple more titles this decade, but the likes of Juniata and Emory have landed in the national spotlight.

Emory will look to defend its first national championship in 2009, while Washington-St. Louis hopes to win yet another title.

Here’s a look at 10 of the national championship contenders.

The 2008 season saw the Lady Reds fall just short of the national quarterfinals for the second straight season, but there’s plenty to be excited about as 2009 draws near. Carthage returns 14-of-16 letterwinners and six-of-seven starters including AVCA first-team All-American Rachel Swoboda, AVCA second-team All-American libero Katie Lundgren, and AVCA honorable mention All-American setter Drewann Pancratz. With those pieces in place, a first NCAA Division III title should certainly be in reach.

Emory will do something it has never done when it opens the 2009 season, a season after winning its first national championship: begin the year as the No. 1 team in the nation. Head Coach Jenny McDowell enters her 14th season at the helm and will see four starters returning from last year’s team that won the title with a 35-6 record. Among the returnees are senior outside hitter Alysse Meyer, a first team All-American from 2008, and sophomore setter Natalie Schonefeld, who garnered second team All-America acclaim last year. Schonfeld finished 2008 ranked ninth in Division III with 10.6 assists per set.

Even though Juniata lost two-time Division III Player of the Year Amber Thomas to graduation, expectations are still high as the Eagles look to win the Landmark Conference yet again and make it back to the national semifinals as they did in 2008. Juniata will have a pair of All-Americans return in senior libero Megan Sollenberger and junior setter Steph Strauss. En route to a 35-5 season a year ago, the Eagles finished fifth in the nation in kills per set (13.3) and hitting percentage (0.272).

La Verne
La Verne fell just short of a national championship in 2008, losing in the national title match to Emory, 3-1. New head coach Marlon Sano hopes to reel in the Leopards first championship since 2001 and will have five returning starters plus the libero in the lineup. Among that group is senior middle blocker Crista Jones, who earned AVCA First Team All-America honors a year ago. It won’t be easy for Sano, as La Verne will battle seven teams ranked among the Top 15 in the preseason poll, including matches against No. 2 Juniata and No. 5 Washington-St. Louis at the annual Teri Clemens Invitational in St. Louis, Mo.

Ohio Northern
The Polar Bears’ run to the semifinals in the NCAA tournament was an impressive one for Ohio Northern in 2008. Falling to the eventual national champions in a hard-fought 3-2 loss has them looking for more in 2009. ONU finished ranked first in the nation in kills per set, thanks in large part to OAC Co-Player of the Year and AVCA First Team All-American Liz Schnelle, as she averaged an impressive 4.55. The Polar Bears also ranked first in the country with 12.93 assists per game, something that 2008 OAC Coach of the Year Kate Witte will look to duplicate once again in her 19th season.

St. Benedict
The Blazers set school records in 2008, and made it all the way to the quarterfinals in the NCAA tournament. They are excited to get things started in 2009 because they’ll return nearly everyone that played a large part in that run. Seniors Emma Jaynes and Beth Hanson will lead the way, as Hanson finished ranked 25th in the nation with just over 10 assists per set in 2008 and broke her own single-season record with 1,445 total. A first national championship is definitely not out of the question for this year’s squad.

Southwestern (Texas)
Depth was a key for Southwestern in 2008, and it will be again in 2009 as the Pirates fell a match short of the NCAA tournament’s quarterfinal around. Five seniors will lead the way including 2008 SCAC Player of the Year Audra Gentry and 2008 SCAC Backrow Player of the Year Samantha Lingamfelter. The Pirates will also feature the SCAC Freshman of the Year from 2008 as Lindsay Thompson will hope to build upon her impressive first collegiate campaign.

Washington (St. Louis)
There was a time when no team could top the Bears when it came to winning Division III national championships. Washington won six straight in the early ‘90’s, which set the bar high in the sport. Titles in 2003 and 2007 put them back on the map, but 2008 ended in disappointment, as the Bears didn’t reach the quarterfinal round of the NCAA tournament. Only three starters and the libero return for the 2009 squad, a year after capturing another UAA championship, but they’ll face one of the toughest schedules in the country as nine teams on the docket are in the preseason Top 25. Look out for senior Erin Albers, who was a third-team AVCA All-America selection last season as well as senior libero Laura Brazeal who led the team in digs a year ago.

A 40-3 record was one of the best in the nation in 2008, but Oshkosh’s season ended in disappointed in the NCAA tournament’s quarterfinals against Juniata. But the best part for head coach Brian Schaefer is that the 2008 squad only had one senior, Valerie Yost. That means the top eight performers off last year’s team are back, and ready to play for the school’s first national championship. Seniors Megan Fischer and Jacque Ray lead the way, each averaging over two kills per set. Also look for senior Katelyn Vara, a year after averaging 9.65 assists per game.

Wittenberg has made the NCAA tournament in 14 straight years, and the Tigers are coming off a 2008 season that included NCAC regular season and tournament championships. Without dropping a set in conference play, the Tigers extended their NCAC regular season domination to 112 wins in its last 113 matches, stretching back to the 1997 season. Three starters will lead the Tigers in the quest for more domination with all-conference setter Erin Slattery, middle hitter Kate Snead and outside hitter Leslie Clark.