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Volleyball team serves up winning formula

Instead of practicing last week, players on the volleyball team climbed a 13-foot wall at an off-campus venue.

The exercise was part of a team-building retreat held at the Warren Conference Center & Inn in Ashland, Mass., a preseason drill devoid of spikes, digs, and service aces. Nonetheless, each setter, hitter, and defensive specialist was “tested under pressure,” according to team leader Kelly Bacon, the Colonial Athletic Association’s reigning player of the year.

“It was fun,” she said, “and everyone brought something to the table.”

The red and black will find out whether the bonding experience pays dividends on the score sheet beginning with the season opener on Aug. 30 at the Dayton Invitational.

The Huskies have lofty expectations following a season in which they won 20 matches but lost in the first round of the conference tournament.

“We want to be competitive in every match and vie for a conference championship,” said head coach Ken Nichols, who has led the Huskies to 295 wins in 13 seasons. His expectations align with those of the conference’s other coaches, who picked the Huskies to finish second in the CAA.

Depth, he said, is the team’s biggest strength, and having a balanced attack will be key to winning matches against a slate of difficult opponents. Starting with the season opener against Missouri State, the Huskies will square off against six programs that ranked in the top 100 in 2012, including four in the top 50.

Two freshmen outside hitters—the 5-foot-10 Jamie Brendahl and the 6-foot-3 Hannah Fry—will be counted on to contribute from the very first match. “Jamie is a remarkable athlete,” Nichols said, noting her 10-foot-2 vertical reach. “Her defense is so spectacular, and she can orchestrate the offense.” Fry, he said, is a “quick learner and can hit from incredible angles.”

Kelly Bacon led last season's team with 346 kills.

Kelly Bacon led last season’s team with 346 kills.

As a result of their preseason play, Nichols is not concerned with the loss of two of last season’s top three players: Middle hitter Nicole Bishop set career highs in kills (201) and solo blocks (22), but has concluded her collegiate eligibility. Setter Jillian Briner racked up 218 kills and 204 digs, but transferred to Eastern Michigan University.

“I’m less concerned with making up their numbers,” Nichols explained, “and more concerned with team chemistry.”

Bacon, the de-facto captain who led last season’s team with 346 kills, will be charged with perfecting the on-court equation. “She recognizes the importance of being able to carry us under pressure,” Nichols said of his star player, “and she accepts that role with a smile on her face.”

“I have the confidence to direct my team, but having support behind me makes my life easier,” Bacon added. “We’re all really determined and refuse to give up in any situation.”