FLORENCE, S.C. – The Francis Marion University volleyball team will open its 2009 season on Friday (Aug. 28) when the Patriots take part in the Carson-Newman College Tournament in Jefferson City, Tenn.
FMU will open with Lincoln Memorial University on Friday at 3 p.m. and will meet the host school at 7 p.m. On Saturday, the Patriots will play Lees-McRae College at noon and Davis & Elkins College at 4 p.m.
Francis Marion will play its home opener the following weekend as it hosts the annual FMU Invitational on Sept. 4-5 in the Smith University Center.
Fourth-year head coach Paul MacDonald welcomes back nine of 12 letterwinners from last year’s 23-9 squad that tied for second during the Peach Belt Conference regular season, reached the final of the PBC Tournament, and advanced to the NCAA Division II Tournament.
The Patriots were picked to finish third in this year’s PBC race according to the recent preseason coach poll. “The ladies are ready to play,” said MacDonald. “I say this not because they are tired of practicing, but because they feel they are properly prepared for the season to start. The opening weekend will be a good early barometer for how our season will go. We meet two NCAA Tournament teams (LMU and CNC) on the first day, and will get to see where we stand in the region almost immediately.”
Entering 2009, the Patriots will have to make up for the loss of All-Region and All-Conference performers Jessica Lombardi and Jenna Kaiser. “I think the fact that we were picked third in the preseason poll, given that we lost two key starters, shows that the other coaches respect our returnees and feel as though we have the type of balanced team that can recover from those losses.”
The Patriots return two seniors, two juniors, and five sophomores. MacDonald has also added three freshmen: 6-2 middle blocker Casey Whitehead, 5-10 outside hitter Liz Drewry, and 5-9 setter Katie O’Connors.
Senior Jess O’Leary and sophomore Hallie Legg will be asked to replace Kaiser at the setter’s position. Kaiser ended her career ninth on the PBC list for assists with 3,972, and ranked 42nd nationally in assists per game in 2008. O’Leary set part-time in 2007 as a sophomore and averaged 8.8 assists per game, and spelled Kaiser a few times last year. “Jess continues to add fire and competitiveness to the squad, as well as setting an example in the classroom.” She was named to last season’s PBC All-Academic Team with a 3.88 grade point average as a psychology major. On the court in 2008, O’Leary was one of only three Patriots to appear in all 115 individual games, while ranking second on the Patriot squad in assists, service aces, and digs.
Legg, a player MacDonald calls “energetic and hard to keep off the floor,” led FMU in service aces last year and ranked 11th in the PBC.
O’Connors will be another option at the setter spot, as MacDonald wants to allow for her “adjust and learn the college game.”
“We are asking our returning sophomores, four of whom were regular contributors last year, to take on more responsibility for our success on the floor. Although we can’t replace Lombardi, who ended her career 13th in PBC history with 1,267 career kills, we do have returning offensive weapons to cover for her loss. Second-year players Ashlyn Underhill, Amanda Mitchell, and Ashlee Crook all recorded over 200 kills last season as freshmen, with Mitchell ranking ninth in the Peach Belt with a .240 hitting percentage.
MacDonald also points to Drewry as one “who will see playing time on the right side. In the preseason, she has been steady with her blocking, and gelled well with our setters in the attack. Whitehead will vie for starting time in the middle as she has picked up the offense quickly, and the coaching staff has been very pleased with her progress.”
Middle blocker Mallory Eggert, who ranked 69th in Division II and third in the Peach Belt in blocks per game during 2008, is back for her junior season.
Sophomore hitter Ardelia Morris, who also saw time along the frontline in 2008, returns as does 6-1 senior middle blocker Caitlin Simpson. “Both of these players have improved and adjusted to our style. As a senior, Caitlin will also be counted on for leadership both on and off the floor.”
“All of these players give us depth and added offensive flexibility. If the need arises for a different kind of hitter, we can make that change in the middle of a match.”
Junior Kelsie Deaton returns at the libero position. She was seventh in the PBC in digs per game last season, and in just two years has tallied 887 digs. MacDonald added, “Kelsie has become a mainstay in our passing pattern, and is among the top liberos in the conference.”
Francis Marion’s 2009 slate include 30 regular-season matches, highlighted by 13 home contests. The 2009 Peach Belt Tournament will be hosted by USC Aiken, Nov. 14-15.