2015 Volleyball Season Preview

Junior captain Hannah Blackburn and the rest of the Panthers have their eyes set on loftier goals in 2015.
Junior captain Hannah Blackburn and the rest of the Panthers have their eyes set on loftier goals in 2015.

The 2015 Middlebury volleyball program has some unfinished business on its hands as it aims for a NESCAC Championship and a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. Despite losing three seniors from last season, the Panthers look primed to contend.

Led by head coach Sarah Raunecker, who enters her 21st campaign at the helm, the Panthers return an experienced squad in 2015. The team will look for players to fill the void left by graduation from a team that finished with a 12-12 record a season ago and a fourth-place finish in the conference.

Graduating from last year's team were right side hitter Olivia Kolodka and middle hitter Piper Underbrink along with libero and captain Lizzy Reed, who each received their respective degrees.

Headed into the 2015 campaign, Raunecker is excited about the season and her returning players. "We're excited about this year as we think we have a very good core of returners in every position, while adding some talented first-year players," said Raunecker. "We had a lot of youth on the bench that were ready to step in and play starting roles last year when needed, and this year we're expecting to pick up where we left off with those players stepping in for the graduated seniors."

Perusing over the 2015 edition of the roster, Raunecker talked about the team being a good mix of experience and youth. "We welcome into the program some talented first-year players, and integrating that young talent quickly into the mix of the team will benefit us during the season, especially in NESCAC play."

Leading this group of veterans will be a class of juniors comprised of setter Hannah Blackburn along with middle hitters Melanie English and Gabi Rosenfeld along with outside hitter Charlotte Devine.

In her first year running the Panther offense, Blackburn finished second in the NESCAC with 9.53 assists per set, dishing out 839 overall on her way to second-team all-conference accolades. She led the squad with 44 services aces, placing her 10th in the league, while also chipping in with 32 kills. Defensively, Blackburn accumulated 244 digs (2.55 per set) and 27 total blocks (2 BS, 25 BA). She handed out a career-best 46 assists on September 16 against Union, nine times dishing out 40 or more in a match. Some first-year players will look to add depth and vie for playing time running the offense.

English finished with 98 kills in 75 sets played, while leading the Panthers and placing fifth in the conference with a .297 hitting percentage. Defensively, her 17 block solos led Middlebury, while her 0.84 blocks per set (17 BS, 46 BA) ranked eighth in the league. Devine played in all but one set last fall, finishing with 48 kills and 148 digs. Rosenfeld will add depth, having seen action in 18 sets with 14 kills and seven block assists in 2014. 

In addition to the offensive quartet listed above, Raunecker welcomes back a sophomore class that burst onto the collegiate scene from the first match. Ready for their second year of collegiate action will be outside hitters Becca Raffel (pictured left), Alice Roberts, Emily Kolodka and right side hitter Eliana Schaefer along with defensive specialist Jen Ayer

Raffel was named the NESCAC Co-Rookie of the Year despite missing the early portion of the due to illness. She finished the season with a team-best 2.78 kills per set, ranking her eighth among her NESCAC peers. Raffel also earned 91 digs in 2014, while picking up 17 total blocks in 67 sets played.

Ranking third on the team with 2.41 kills per set, Roberts made an impact in her first season. She saw action in 21 matches with 71 sets played with 39 digs and 20 total blocks (2 BS, 18 BA). Kolodka produced a solid initial collegiate season both offensively and defensively. She finished with 126 kills in 84 sets played (1.50 kills/set), and she was second on the team with 3.21 digs per set and 270 digs.

Schaefer and Ayer saw limited playing time last fall, as each appeared in six matches and will provide depth on the court in 2015.

"To be successful this year, we will need great team chemistry and mental toughness," said Raunecker. "Those factors are always important for any successful team, and that's what separates the top few teams in the NESCAC. All of the conference teams are tough, and I think we could be one of the top teams athletically, so how well we gel as a team, and our level of mental toughness for working hard day in and day out will help define who we are as a team, and how successful we can be together this year." 

The Panthers will start their quest for a conference title when they take part in the Smith Invitational with three matches over two days on September 11-12. Middlebury will start action on September 11 with an 8:00 p.m. match against Manhattanville. The Panthers will play their first home match inside Pepin Gym on September 18 when they open NESCAC play against Bowdoin at 8:00 p.m. In all, Middlebury will play seven home matches this fall.