UAFS volleyball coach Jane Sargent had another opportunity to watch her Lady Lions compete in a real match situation during Aug. 24’s Blue and White scrimmage at the Stubblefield Center.
It was the first time for the Lady Lions to compete in front of their hometown fans – albeit in a controlled setting – and their second opportunity to compete in a preseason scrimmage in five days.
For the most part, Sargent said she was pleased with the progress the Lady Lions are making in some areas.
"I was pleased with a little bit, but we still have a little bit of work to do," said Sargent, whose Lady Lions competed in a scrimmage with several other teams this past Thursday.
The team’s inconsistent hitting, however, is a bit of a concern for the veteran coach, who begins her 18th season. UAFS hit 0.234 as a team last fall with 14.4 kills per set on its way to winning the Heartland Conference regular season and tournament titles and the South Central Region Tournament title and advancing to the NCAA Division II Final Four.
"We are still making way too many mistakes offensively," Sargent said. "Our defense was really good, and our serve-receive was pretty good in spurts. Our serving was decent. It’s just the hitting that is concerning us a little bit."
While an obvious concern, the team’s inconsistent hitting – at least this early in the preseason – is explainable. The Lady Lions lost their top three hitters from last season’s team – outside hitter Michelle Walker and middle hitter Jessica Anderson (both All-Americans) and outside hitter Katarina Krstonosic.
That trio accounted for 1,146 of the Lady Lions’ 1,708 kills. Only returning junior middle hitter Payton Hamilton (263 kills) and senior right side hitter Abby Phillips (161 kills) had more than 100 kills last season.
"We had some big shoes to fill with Michelle Walker and Jessica Anderson. Jessica hit almost at .350 last year, and Michelle hit in the really high .200s," Sargent said. "Obviously, we are not where we need to be, but we still have some time to work on it. Our hitters are trying to figure out the setters, the tempo, the height and all that."
Still, Sargent has been impressed with the play of newcomers Kennedi Coleman, an outside hitter from Panola College; Merrisa Murphy, a middle hitter Miami Dade College; and Shannon Thompson, a middle hitter from Temple College.
Sargent also noted the play of junior defensive specialist Olivia Navato, senior defensive specialist Macy Ayulo, sophomore setter Bailey Katzfey and senior setter Whitney Mills during Monday’s scrimmage.
"Kennedi is still playing great, and Merrisa is coming along really well. (Merrisa) is just so athletic," Sargent said. "Shannon played pretty well in the scrimmage. Olivia is playing great defensively. Macy is playing unbelievable, and she’s just touching so many balls. Bailey is obviously playing well, and Whitney Mills did a good job."
Now, it’s just a matter of getting everyone playing at their highest level together at the same time.
"At different points, all of them are doing OK," Sargent said. "We have to get our freshmen on the same page as everyone else, but that is going to come with experience."
UAFS, which is ranked No. 21 in the AVCA Preseason Top 25, will open the regular season on Sept. 4-5, when it competes in the Hampton Inn-vitational at Pensacola, Fla. The Lady Lions will play Bridgeport at 9 a.m. and national runner-up and No. 3-ranked Southwest Minnesota State at 2 p.m. on Sept. 4 and will play Saint Leo at 2 p.m. and host West Florida at 7 p.m. on Sept. 5.
The Lady Lions, who are the preseason favorite to win the conference regular season championship, will open conference play at 5 p.m. on Sept. 10, when they host Newman at the Stubblefield Center.