The Lady Lancers, under fifth-year head coach Andria Harshman, have established high goals for themselves in both the Crossroads League and in the national scene for 2012.
Harshman wants the Lady Lancers to contend for both the regular season and tournament titles for the Crossroads League, saying “the goal is to be in the mix for both. We believe we should be there this year.”
On top of that, Grace is aiming to earn a spot in the NAIA National Championships for the first time since 2001.
“We want to set our goals high, and we feel like we have the team to accomplish those goals,” Harshman said. “This is going to be a great year. We have an exciting group of players to watch play volleyball.”
In addition to the always competitive league schedule, Harshman has arranged a rigorous non-conference schedule for the Lady Lancers to prepare for a potential NAIA tournament appearance.
Grace will play seven non-conference opponents that are ranked or receiving votes in the NAIA Preseason Top 25 Poll, including matches against No. 3 Columbia (Mo.), No. 20 Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) and No. 22 Cornerstone (Mich.).
“Our biggest weakness this year is the schedule we have to play. They will have to rise to the occasion daily,” Harshman explained. “The goal is to grow through a difficult stretch of games, but we will see exactly where we need to be.”
Grace plans to lean on their two strongest offensive forces this year in junior middle hitter Dana Johnston and sophomore outside hitter Alicia Gosney. Johnston earned NCCAA First Team All-American honors in 2011 after leading the team and the conference with a .351 hitting percentage (387 kills).
Gosney was named the Freshman of the Year in the Crossroads League last season after racking up 296 kills, 22 solo blocks and 22 block assists.
“[Johnston and Gosney] look really strong and dominant right now,” Harshman continued. “Dana is leading well and playing smart. She looks for the right shot to win the point. Gosney will have an increased role this year so her numbers are going to be that much better.”
Although Grace’s top two hitters last year in terms of kills have graduated (Stephanie Lawson, Enrica Verrett), Harshman is confident those numbers will be replaced in 2012.
Sophomore outside hitters Calah Kruse and Hannah Clemmons bring tremendous athleticism and versatility to Grace’s lineup. Seniors Stefanie Bolt and Arielle Walters provide leadership and a significant source of blocking ability to the front line. Freshman Alix Underwood, according to Harshman, will be the “first off the bench” for her ability to excel in any position on the front row.
In the setter role, sophomore Christina LeBlanc hopes to fill the void left by graduated senior Rachel Bult. And although Bult graduated second for Grace all-time in career assists, Harshman firmly believes in LeBlanc’s ability: “Christina knows the game well. She’s young and has more to learn, but she’s a great coach on the court.”
Grace’s depth in the back line will be anchored by senior libero/defensive specialist Bethany Whitcraft, who led the team with 566 digs in 2011. A pair of freshmen in Annie Salazar and Jessica Scherb will also vie for time in the back row.
Despite the goals for wins and national tournaments, the Lady Lancers’ higher mission of glorifying God still remains. Harshman described the squad as one driven by community and service, and the team has already put on three service projects before the start of the season.
“This is a competitive group of women who love the Lord. They are competing daily for positions and are constantly pushing each other and holding each other accountable,” Harshman said. “Our enthusiasm is contagious, so they’ll be a great group to watch.”
The Lady Lancers will begin their 2012 campaign in Orange City, Iowa, for the Red Raider Classic. Grace will play Baker (Kan.) and Doane (Neb.) on Aug. 24 before facing Dordt (Iowa) and Northwestern (Iowa) on Aug. 25.