Volleyball prepares for start of season

Dennis Marshall

Misfortune is something the USI volleyball team knows all too well, but the lessons learned through adversity builds success.

USI played its first preseason scrimmage at Columbia College on Aug. 24, in Columbia, Mo., while competing against Central Missouri, Washburn, Lindenwood and Southwest Baptist.

“We didn’t drop a set all day,” said Head Coach Leah Mercer said. “The girls were ready to play against someone else. They were fighters all day.”

Mercer, who enters her ninth season as head coach at USI, was a two-time All-GLVC volleyball player for the Eagles where she also played basketball for two seasons.

“She’s a great coach. She works us hard and knows her stuff,” said sophomore middle blocker Abbey Winter. “If we are doing something wrong, she will fix it right then and there.”

Winter had a team high 114 blocks last season. Mercer said Winter is more confident going into this season.

“She is a weapon on both sides, offensive and defensive,” Mercer said. “Blocking was her initial strength coming in and her offense caught right up.”

USI will start the regular season with a Sep. 6 contest against Albany State. The Eagles will play four matches in two days during the University of West Florida Hemingway’s Invitational in Pensacola, Fla. USI will also compete against Northern Michigan, Minnesota Duluth and Wheeling Jesuit in the two-day invitational.

“This is another opportunity to prove ourselves,” Winter said. “People are already jumping higher, everyone is looking really strong.”

Four freshmen come to USI after excellent high school careers. The new recruits are Amy Zwissler, a middle blocker from Bloomington, Ind., Paige Newvine, a setter from Elkhart, Ind., Gretchen Burdo, an outside hitter from Ohio and Alaina Page, a right-side hitter and settler from Logansport, Ind.

Page will redshirt this season.

Zwissler is expected to make an instant impact being as she is one of only two middle blockers on the team.

“Amy will be right out on the court from the get go,” Mercer said.

Winter said all of the freshmen are great players.

“Whoever shows up that day and plays, they all are going to do really well,” Winter said.

Not only is this team full of gifted athletes, all of players treat academics with the up-most importance. In fact, the volleyball was one of seven USI athletic programs awarded Team Academic All-GLVC last season.

“It’s pretty awesome that we can all do well on the court and in the classroom considering we travel all the time,” said senior defensive specialist Kayla Heldman. “We’re a very close team. The bond we have off the court is the same as the bond we have on the court.”

Last season the team had to battle a plethora of injuries. Many of the players had to play out of position, but after a 1-7 start, the Eagles battled back to a 16-16 record.

“I think we played really well together considering the circumstances we had last year,” Heldman said.

Last season Heldman (485) broke the Amanda Probst’s USI record (475) for digs in a single season. She is on pace to break Probst’s (2003-06) career record (1,490) for digs this season. Another player on the roster who is shaking up the record book is senior setter Jorae Bradbury.

Bradbury is third all-time in assists at USI behind Kim Boehmer’s (2000-03) record (5,344). Heldman said the team hopes to have a better record than last season and win to the conference championship on its way to regionals.

USI also returns junior Lauren Deshaney (322 kills), Fawn Ryan (251 kills) and sophomore Erica Oberbroeckling (134 kills). All starters return with the exception of Emily Diedrich, who left the team for undisclosed reasons. Playing at home is a big advantage for the Eagles. Since 2000, the volleyball team is 98-31 at home.

“With all of our fans always cheering us on, it helps,” Heldman said. “It keeps us going and allows us to push through all the tiredness and pain and get our wins.”