By Jordan Rinard, Senior Staff Writer
The Miami University volleyball team is set to make its 2014 season debut as it travels to Milwaukee for showdowns with North Dakota State University, Robert Morris University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the Panther Invitational.
Last season, the RedHawks started off on the right foot as they began the 2013 campaign with a 3-0 mark in the opening tournament and sweeps over Gardner-Webb University and Belmont University.
Miami was selected to finish fourth in the Mid-American Conference East Division, and redshirt junior middle blocker Jenny Ingle was named to the Preseason All-MAC East team.
"This week we've been working on our passing and being efficient with our serves," sophomore outside hitter Maris Below said. "We plan on challenging our opponents … me and [sophomore middle blocker] Paige [Hill] are practicing in boots this week as a preventative measure to get some time off after our three scrimmages this weekend."
North Dakota State, picked to finish in sixth place in the Summit League preseason coaches poll, will be a test as it returns 147 starts and 89 percent of its total kills from a season ago. Junior outside hitter Jenni Fassbender led the team with 3.32 kills per set and was second with 17 service aces and 15 solo blocks, while sophomore middle blocker Emily Miron led the group with 57 total blocks. Sophomore setter Monica Claxton recorded 9.95 assists per set and 224 digs last season in her freshman year for the Bison.
Robert Morris was selected to finish third in the Northeast Conference preseason poll and is returning its entire team from a season ago. Senior setter Hannah Hoffman is third in assists in school history with 3,158 while senior middle blocker Becky Jay is third all-time with 284 block assists. Senior libero Melissa Bograd has recorded 1,075 digs in her career, which is enough for eighth in program history. The Colonials have made their conference tournament each of the last 15 seasons.
Milwaukee, who made the NCAA Tournament out of the Horizon League, is also returning significant pieces from last season. Senior outside hitter Julie Kolinske led the team with 3.24 kills per set and tied for second with 53 total blocks. Sophomore outside hitter Myanna Ruiz recorded 2.25 kills per set, 24 service aces and 2.85 digs per set. Senior libero Taylor Golabowski was a defensive anchor for the Panthers with 4.60 digs per set last season.
"Robert Morris is a good team and will be a test for us, as is North Dakota State, but they showed that they were vulnerable," assistant coach Jesse Ortiz said. "We have to rise to the challenge. There's no easy weekend in the NCAA. Milwaukee is the highest ranked of the three and the host school, so this is a great opportunity for us."
Miami, who had back-to-back sub-.500 seasons the past two years, hope to right the ship with the mix of returners and the influx of new faces. Senior setter/outside hitter Meg Riley and Ingle accounted for 5.12 kills per set of the 13.03 that the team recorded. Senior libero Tori Clifford is set to see extended time in the backcourt, where she tallied 2.73 digs in 2013. Some of the seven freshmen will look to contribute as well by supplying the team with talent and depth.
"We'll use the freshmen as we need them this weekend," head coach Carolyn Condit said. "Some of them have shown their strengths while the others are just not ready yet. (Freshman defensive specialist) Maeve McDonald will see time at libero for her passing and her defense. (Freshman outside hitter) Olivia Rusek has been pounding the ball, been moving around, been serving well, and has gotten better at passing. She has a very strong overall game. (Freshman outside hitter) Katie Tomasic will be a key sub for us. She is smart enough and talented enough to play both left and right, even though it is more natural for her to play left."
The RedHawks take on North Dakota State 11 a.m. Friday and Robert Morris 6 p.m. that night. They wrap up the tournament with Milwaukee 2 p.m. Saturday.