WINONA LAKE – The Grace College volleyball team brings an experienced, talented roster into the 2016 season.
Head coach Katie Van Hofwegen enjoyed a strong first season with the Lady Lancers last year, producing 19 wins and a spot in the Crossroads League semifinals.
Now, after installing her system and style of play in 2015, Van Hofwegen assessed the team is ready to focus on improving the details this fall.
“We are looking to fine-tune our system this year. We focused on execution this spring and preseason,” Van Hofwegen said. “The fact that we return a core group of players sets us up well. Preseason has been much smoother this year since the players know me. We’ve been able to pick up our momentum from the spring and move forward with it.”
Offensively, Grace returns almost all of its firepower. The Lady Lancers bring back 93 percent of the team’s kills last season.
Kaitlin Kerrigan has been a steady offensive presence for Grace during her career. She has over 750 kills over her first three years and averaged 2.0 kills per set in 2015. Just as importantly, Kerrigan has stepped into a prominent leadership position on the team as captain this year alongside Megan Johnson.
“Kait [Kerrigan] has stepped up this year. She’s made a huge difference in our team dynamic as a captain. She is really calm under pressure,” Van Hofwegen said. “The team chemistry has really grown under Kait and Megan. They both have tremendous leadership abilities, and they balance each other well. Their leadership will be a big part of our team’s success.”
Overall, six players topped 100 kills for Grace — all of whom are returning this fall. Kelsee Zuidema led Grace’s offense as a freshman last year, totaling 296 kills on a .192 percentage, and Sierra Smith was not far behind with 262 kills.
Tori Bontrager had 216 kills on a team-high .200 percentage, and Kari Feddema (155 kills) and Naarah Foster (107) also topped triple-digit kills. Sophomore Marta Bleed and freshman Deborah Michalski also give Grace a pair of talented, athletic arms at outside hitter.
Van Hofwegen maintained that the team’s heavy hitters will be a strength of the Lady Lancers, especially with an added emphasis for the team on mobility at the net.
On the defensive side of the net, Grace’s focus will be on the block. The Lady Lancers want to utilize their blocking efforts better this year to dictate where opponents can attack.
Bontrager led Grace’s blocking last year with seven solos and 95 block assists, Feddema added 65 block points, and Savannah Hart has been one of the most improved players on Grace’s roster during the offseason.
“We’ve been talking a lot about being on the same page. Our block is the first step to our defense,” Van Hofwegen said. “We need our block to take away an area of the court, to funnel balls to where we want them. Our middles have to do a good job of sealing the net to help our back row players.”
The back row of Grace’s defense will be anchored by Caylie Teel and Sara Miller. Miller was Grace’s libero throughout last season and ended the year with 645 digs. Teel, who produced 2.1 digs per set last year, has taken major strides in the offseason. Her potential is “exciting. Having her back there with Sara [Miller] will give us two defensive staples,” Van Hofwegen said. Angie Mack, a junior, will also provide depth at the position.
The setting position will feature Taylor Baird and Alexa Hill. Baird is a four-year setter, giving Grace experience and poise, and Hill is an athletic, hard-working freshman. Baird’s volleyball knowledge balances with Hill’s athleticism at the position, providing Grace with a strong 1-2 at setter.
Baird, Kerrigan, Johnson and Grace Woolsey complete a veteran senior class who is looking to make their second trip to the NCCAA National Championships.
“This team is working really hard. They have good chemistry, and the new players are fitting in seamlessly,” Van Hofwegen concluded. “It will be an exciting year to see how this group continues to grow together on and off the court.”
The Lady Lancers will start the season on Friday and Saturday at the Concordia Tournament in Ann Arbor, Mich.