FLORENCE, SC – The Francis Marion University volleyball team opens its 2005 season with a challenging schedule and roster that includes all six starters back from last year’s 21-14 squad that placed third during the Peach Belt Conference regular season.
“I am excited about the upcoming season,” said sixth-year head coach Sonny Kirkpatrick. “We return the nucleus of last year’s squad, and our three freshmen have come to preseason practice and accomplished everything we expected of them. We won 21 matches last year, and with our 2005 squad, I expect us to improve on that victory total.”
Leading the returnees are All-Region middle hitter Lezlie Logan, All-Region libero Jessica Strader, and 2004 PBC Freshman of the Year Michelle Settergren. As a sophomore in 2004, the 5-10 Logan set a school season record for kills with 546, while registering double-figure kills in 31 of 35 matches. In only two seasons, she has already amassed 909 kills. “Lezlie only needs to improve her hitting percentage,” Kirkpatrick commented. “She improved her overall game between her freshman and sophomore years, and I am looking forward to where her game will go over the next two years. Her potential is unlimited.
“Jessica Strader does what a libero is supposed to do. With her on the floor, if the ball is hit in the air anywhere near her area, I am confident she will keep the ball in play. She reads hitters very well.” After serving as part-time setter during her freshman season in 2003, Strader switched to the libero position last year and set school and conference records for digs in a season (663) and matches with 20 or more digs (17).
Settergren led FMU in hitting percentage (.296) and ranked ninth in the conference. “She had a very solid freshman campaign, and I have high expectations for her in 2005,” Kirkpatrick added.
Other returning starters include senior outside hitter Kelly Feber (last year’s team most valuable player), junior setter Melissa Hennessy, sophomore outside hitter Jackie Phiel, and senior defensive specialist Rachael Matthews. Senior outside hitter Jessica Bartlett and sophomore setter Brittany Helgeson round out the returnees.
Feber ranked fourth in the PBC in digs last year and has a career total of 1,025 digs. If she matches her 2004 numbers, she would also surpass 1,000 career kills. Hennessy ranked third in the conference in assists per game and second in total assists in 2004. She also recorded 20 double-doubles with assists and digs. Phiel had a solid all-around freshman campaign, playing in every game and ranking in the top five on the squad for kills, digs, service aces, and total blocks. Matthews has averaged 2.04 digs per game for her career, while Bartlett should reach 1,000 kills for her career during the 2005 season.
“Kelly has always been solid on defense and in the area of ball control,” said Kirkpatrick. “Now, she is hitting the ball well. Melissa picked up a lot of experience last season, and knows what it takes to win in the Peach Belt. Phiel is an extremely hard worker who is good in all facets of the game, as evidenced by her 2004 stats. Rachael is another hard worker who has filled various roles on our squad over her three years. As with all three seniors, she will be looked to for team leadership. Jessica Bartlett will be looked to for production on both offense (kills) and defense (blocks). Brittany gained valuable experience in 2004, adds depth at the setter position, and possesses good defensive skills and a wonderful serve.”
Kirkpatrick’s three newcomers are 5-10 setter Jenna Kaiser (Broomfield, Colo.), 5-11 hitter Jessica Lombardi (Massillon, Ohio), and 5-8 outside hitter and defensive specialist Amy Witko (Toledo, Ohio).
“These three freshmen have raised our level of play, and pushed the returning players. Jenna is a tall setter with a big serve. She could have an immediate impact, and strengthens our squad in many areas. Jessica Lombardi is quick, blocks well, and terminates the ball in the middle, exactly what you want from a middle hitter. Amy plays bigger then her 5-8 frame. She is a solid defensive player, has a good serve, and is capable of adding offense if we need her to.”
The 2005 season will feature a new-look Peach Belt as the conference adjusts to the loss of perennial power University of North Florida to the Division I ranks, shrinking the number of PBC volleyball teams to seven. Owing to the returnees and newcomers, the Patriots were picked to finish second in the 2005 PBC preseason coaches’ poll, FMU’s highest forecast since 1999.
“The conference lost some prestige with the departure of North Florida, but now we want to be the squad that steps up and fills that empty spot on the national level,” Kirkpatrick added. “My philosophy includes three stages to building a successful program. We moved from the building stage to the competing stage last year, and look to move to the winning stage this year. We were regionally ranked most of 2004, and our 2005 schedule features nine matches against teams that played in the 2004 NCAA Division II national tournament. Using this slate as a springboard, we want to take that final move and become an elite team.”
FMU opens its 2005 campaign, Friday and Saturday (Aug. 26-27), when the Patriots host the 10-team Joseph B. DuRant Memorial Invitational Tournament. Francis Marion’s slate includes five in-season tournaments, 13 home matches, and 12 PBC matches. The 2005 Peach Belt Tournament will be held Nov. 11-12 at Augusta (Ga.) State University.