After putting together one of the most memorable seasons in school history in 2012, the Tarleton State TexAnns set their sights on new heights in 2013.
The TexAnns are fresh off a 23-9 campaign, their third consecutive Lone Star Conference Championship Tournament semifinal appearance and their first ever regional ranking - debuting at No. 9 and finishing the season at No. 10.
"Every year presents new challenges, different players and improved competition," said Tarleton head coach Mary Schindler. "I am excited about having the opportunity to build on last year as well as the opportunity to establish ourselves as a quality program."
Tarleton is returning 13 letterwinners from last season's squad, with the only significant loss coming in the middle - All-American and LSC Defensive Player of the Year Nikki McNorton.
Stepping into leadership roles will be Tarleton's trio of fourth-year seniors - Stacie Murrah, Danielle Barker and Emily Klein.
"All three of these seniors are capable of earning all-conference honors and are proven leaders on the floor," Schindler said.
Murrah is coming back from a 2012 season in which she recorded 311 kills and a hitting percentage of .256 en route to being named first-team all-conference. Barker and Klein each jumped into the top five all-time in assists and digs, respectively. Barker earned honorable mention all-conference accolades.
Tarleton also returns redshirt junior Katie Covell, a second-team All-LSC pick, and Kelsey Raglin, an honorable-mention selection in her first college season.
Tarleton returns six outside hitters from last year's squad - Murrah, Covell, Raglin, Ashley Rine, Jazmine Green and Kaylea Beck - who will be joined by high school standout Lillian Carroll and Arkansas Tech transfer Kaitlyn White.
"The outside hitter position will be phenomenal this year," said Schindler. "I thought we were deep over the past several years, but nothing compares to the athleticism, competitive spirit and work ethic this group has."
The six returning TexAnns accounted for 61-percent of Tarleton's total kills last season, connecting on 966 kills with 630 of them coming from Covell (319) and Murrah (311).
White joins Tarleton after playing two seasons for Arkansas Tech, where she averaged 1.88 kills and 1.37 digs per set for her career. The junior from Hideaway, Texas set a career-high 19 kills two times for the Golden Suns. Carroll comes to Tarleton after starring on the court for Ross S. Sterling High School in Baytown.
"There are several potential starters in this group," said Schindler. "Katie (Covell) and Kelsey (Raglin) each saw quite a bit of time last year while Jazmine (Green) was one of, if not, the strongest player in the spring. Kaitlyn (White) is an incredible athlete, Kaylea (Beck) has great ball control and Lilly (Carroll) can play all six rotations."
After losing McNorton, Tarleton will lean on sophomore Meg Umbel to lead a young group of middle blockers.
"We won't be able to replace Nikki, but we will have a talented group of middles working hard to earn playing time," said Schindler. "Meg played in almost every match last season. She played at a high level and learned from Nikki.
"The other two middles - Cassandra (Cutbirth) and JB (Jasmyne Brown) - are both amazing athletes," she continued. "For us, it's going to be about defense. The ones who can be disciplined and focused on closing the block will earn court time."
Joining Umbel in the middle is junior Jasmyne Brown, who has played in just 17 sets over the past two seasons.
Schylar Lands from Kaufman High School also plays middle.
Tarleton returns all three setters from last year's squad, including honorable mention all-conference selection Danielle Barker, who is coming off one of the best setting seasons in school history.
"We have been running a 6-2 offense for the past several seasons - providing us with six attackers - and because we're such an explosive offensive team, it had worked well for us," said Schindler. "With the injuries and the dynamic of our team, we ran a successful 5-1 in several key matches last season. It gave us a new level of consistency by having Danielle touch every ball."
Barker recorded 1,099 assists en route to all-conference honors last fall. She became just the fifth TexAnn all-time to record over 1,000 assists in a single season, passing Cassie Underwood (1,048) for fourth place on the single-season record list.
Barker enters her senior season with 2,126 assists for her career, making her one of just four TexAnns ever with 2,000 career assists. She is currently fourth all-time and five assists shy of Didi Ebert for third.
Also coming back and looking to improve on injury-plagued freshman seasons are Marissa Banda and Macie Walker.
Banda played in just nine games last season, while Walker saw action in 11 games.
Tarleton's back row is solidified with senior libero Emily Klein and junior defensive specialist Lacy Hodges.
"Emily is a glue for our team," said Schindler. "She is able to connect with players and bring out their best. She has proven she can pass and play defense with the best in the conference."
Klein recorded a Tarleton single-season record 599 digs last season, passing former teammate and coach Shea McBrearty. Kleinalso set the single-season record for digs per set with .491, passing the old record of 4.83 set by Kim Franklin in 1991.
Hodges enters her third season with the TexAnns and played in 81 sets for Tarleton last season in which she recorded 151 digs.