Tarleton State has emerged as one of the top volleyball programs in the Lone Star Conference and the TexAnns look to continue their recent run of success in 2012.
Despite having just one senior on the roster, the TexAnns return nine letterwinners from last year including a first-team all-conference selection and two honorable mention outside hitters.
After losing five letterwinners from last year’s squad, including seniors Jessie Hartman, Breawn Waynes and second-team all-conference selection Flynn Harrell, Tarleton will boast a roster of 17 players - seven of which are freshman.
Nikki McNorton (358 kills, 196 blocks), Stacie Murrah (234 kills, 1.73 kills per set), Katie Covell (212 kills, 251 digs), and Emily Klein (421 digs, 18 service aces) highlight the returners for Tarleton while Danielle Barker looks to step into a new role in her third season as a TexAnn.
Also returning for their second seasons at Tarleton are Lacy Hodges, Ashley Rine, Audra Vaello, and Jasmyne Brown.
This group of TexAnns, who fought through a difficult LSC schedule last year to pull off a fourth-place finish, look to improve on a 20-win campaign a year ago during which they advanced to their second-straight LSC Tournament semifinals and pulled off the upset-special of the season by ending West Texas A&M’s 87-game conference winning streak.
Of the new faces, Tarleton welcomes transfer Jazmine Green as well as freshmen Cassandra Cutbirth, Megan Rodriguez, Macie Walker, Kaylea Beck, Marissa Banda, Kelsey Raglin, and Meg Umbel.
Tarleton was picked to finish fourth in the LSC for the upcoming season. West Texas A&M was picked to repeat as regular season champions while Angelo State and Abilene Christian are picked second and third.
“We are excited about the upcoming season and we know that regardless of where we are picked, it is going to be a battle every night,” said Tarleton head coach Mary Schindler. “The LSC is a tough conference and we are hoping to put together some solid matches and compete with each team we face.”
The TexAnns will use a deep rotation of outside hitters that consist of three returning players and a pair of new faces.
Murrah, who started all 34 matches for Tarleton a year ago, returns to her position on the outside while fellow honorable mention hitter Covell will resume her place in the lineup. The redshirt sophomore from Lytle started 25 matches in 2011.
Rine, who saw action in 118 sets as a true freshman in 2011, returns off the bench for the TexAnns. The right-handed swinger from Brandeis High School landed 155 kills and a .186 hitting percentage off the TexAnn bench last season.
“Our right side might be one of the strongest positions on our team,” said Schindler. “Stacie (Murrah) and Ashley (Rine) are both lefties, but very different attackers. Stacie gives us a quick and springy attacker while Ashley is a great blocker who hits a heavy ball. They should give us quality depth on the right side.”
Green, Beck and Raglin are the two new faces on the outside of the net for the TexAnns.
Green, a 5-10 hitter from San Jacinto College, was named first-team All-American and Region XIV Player of the Year as a sophomore for SanJac. She also helped lead her team to back-to-back national championship tournaments.
She averaged 3.46 kills, 2.91 digs and 0.62 blocks per set while posting a two-year career hitting percentage of .296 and 749 total kills.
Beck, a 5-10 freshman from Hays High School in Buda, comes to Tarleton after serving as a captain for four years.
She also starred on a club team, as well as a high-in caliber high school district.
Raglin is a 5-10 freshman from Churchill High School in San Antonio. She was named first-team all-district as a senior while also earning recognition on the All-Texas honorable mention team and the all-area 5A Super Team.
“I am looking forward to a good combination of ball control and power,” said Schindler. “Katie (Covell) is a strong outside who has really focused on her passing and defense, making her a tremendous six-rotation attacker. Jazmine (Green) has great size and jumps well, and can also attack with variety of shots at great velocity.”
The middle may arguably be the TexAnns’ deepest position on the floor with three returners, two freshmen and a transfer with LSC experience.
“This is another very strong group, led by senior Nikki McNorton” said Schindler.
Returning as the only senior on the Tarleton roster, McNorton was among the finalists for the LSC Defensive Player of the Year honor and is looking to build on her junior season in which she set Tarleton’s single-season record in assisted blocks (142) and became second on the list for total blocks in a season (196).
“Nikki would be a force for any team, whether its offensively or defensively,” said Schindler. She’s a great blocker and a strong hitter. She’s a great asset and I’m looking forward to a great senior year from Nikki.”
Also returning in the middle are Vaello and Brown.
Vaello, in her second year with Tarleton, saw action in 46 sets and earned nine starts. She recorded 59 kills and 23 total blocks. Brown, a sophomore, played in six sets and earned her first collegiate start Oct. 6 against Texas A&M-Kingsville.
“Each of these two middles have different strengths,” continued Schindler. “Jasmyne (Brown) has great size and competitive spirit while Audra (Vaello) is quick, knowledgeable and brings passion for the game.”
Umbel and Cutbirth will provide depth at the position in their first collegiate seasons.
Umbel was a part of three district championships at O’Connor High School in San Antonio while Cutbirth joins the TexAnns from Monahans and is the younger sister of former TexAnn Catherine Cutbirth.
“I’m also excited for our freshmen middles,” said Schindler. “Meg (Umbel) has an incredibly quick arm and is smart. I believe she’ll play quality points for us. Cassandra is so athletic and will bring a great work ethic and expectation to win.”
Third-year TexAnn Barker will take over a position that has not seen a new face since 2008 - the starting setter position.
Hartman maintained a strong hold on the starting setter position and for the past two seasons Barker has learned under the best setter in school history.
Now it’s Barker’s time to take the reigns.
“While I’m sure Danielle and Jessie learned a lot from each other, they are two very different setters,” said Schindler. “Danielle will bring a cool, calm, ‘I expect to win because that’s what I do,’ presence to the court. I am looking forward to her ability to read opponents and deliver the right ball.”
The Amarillo native recorded 573 assists as a sophomore while posting 4.18 assists per set. She also led the team with 33 service aces and added 227 digs.
The TexAnns welcome a pair of freshmen setters to serve in the backup role - Walker and Banda.
Walker, a 5-11 setter from Hutto, was named all-state as a senior and earned District MVP-Setter and academic all-district honors. She was also a captain of her team and was a finalist for the Texas Christian Athlete of the Year.
Banda, a 5-6 setter from Brandeis High School in San Antonio, played alongside current TexAnn Rine. Banda was a first-team all-district selection and a Class 5A Player to Watch. She also joined Raglin on the all-Texas honorable mention team.
“I will also have two amazing setters who will compete and make us better each day,” said Schindler. “Macie (Walker) has some of the best hands, delivers a hittable ball every time and is working hard to return from a knee injury. Marissa (Banda) is incredibly athletic and will put her hands on everything . She’ll be dynamic and bring a good energy.”
Rounding out the TexAnn rotation are the defensive specialists, beginning with second-year starting libero Klein.
Klein took over the libero position for the TexAnns last year and recorded 421 digs and 4.21 digs per set in addition to her 18 service aces.
“Emily is one of the most solid, consistent players I’ve ever seen,” said Schindler. “I love her work ethic and I’m looking forward to her growing into a leadership role. I know she will continue to improve her service receptions and defense.”
Also returning to the TexAnns is sophomore defensive specialist Hodges. The back-row defender from Gilmer saw action in 56 sets as a true freshman last season and recorded 139 digs for 2.48 digs per set.
Rodriguez also joins the TexAnns for the 2012 campaign as a true freshman from O’Connor High School.
This group of TexAnns will fight through a schedule which begins with four games in the 2012 Courtyard by Marriott / Residence Inn Oredigger Volleyball Classic before returning home for the Tarleton Invitational - a two-day, four-game, eight-team tournament on Sept. 7-8.
After the first eight games of tournament action, the TexAnns will jump into Lone Star Conference play with home matches against Midwestern State and Cameron.
Conference play will dominate the TexAnns’ schedule through Oct. 13 before a two-game hiatus when Tarleton travels to Texas Wesleyan and hosts St. Edward’s.
The TexAnns host Abilene Christian on Oct. 20 for the first of the final eight games of the regular season leading up to the LSC Championship Tournament.
“We will have to play a quality match each and every night to compete in the LSC, but I am confident this team is capable of doing just that,” said Schindler.