The New Mexico State volleyball team enters the 2011 looking to end a two-year NCAA postseason drought. The Aggies are coming off of an 18-13 season which fell below the lofty expectations that the program's sustained excellence has created. An injury-filled season led to the Aggies failure to eclipse the 20-win mark for the first time since 2001.
Leading the charge will be five seniors including All-American setter Jennah DeVries, All-WAC middle hitter Kelsey Brennan, libero Kelsi Phillips, setter Brynja Rodgers and middle blocker Michelle Kuester.
The group of seniors will be relied heavily upon to provide leadership to a young but talented group of underclassmen including a freshman recruiting class that was rated as one of the Top 55 recruiting classes in the country by PrepVolleyball.com as one of 25 classes receiving Highest Honorable Mention.
"They've all got a lot of potential and we're excited about what they bring to the team. We know that the future is really bright with these guys," said head coach Mike Jordan. "They've also got a lot to learn still and so I don't want to put too much pressure on them too soon. We've got to give them the learning curve and give them time to grow. We're going to do our best to ask them to play to their strengths. We'll work at their weaknesses as the season goes on."
Making sure the freshmen are all in the right spots will fall on the shoulders of senior setters Jennah DeVries and Brynja Rodgers. DeVries, a four year starter and a two-time Honorable Mention All-American is arguably the Aggies' best player. "Jennah's a tremendous setter," said Jordan. DeVries currently sits at sixth on the career assists list and while it's unlikely that she can set over the all-time assists, particularly if the team employs the 6-2 offensive system, she will almost certainly move into fourth on the all-time list and there is an outside shot she could move into the top three.
Brynja Rodgers, named to the WAC's All-Freshman team in 2007, transferred to Florida after the 2008 season where she played for one season but returned home to New Mexico State sitting out the 2010 season. Her return gives the Aggies the flexibility to run the 6-2 offense, a strategy that helped guide the Aggies to a share of the WAC regular season title in 2008. "Brynja having to sit out last year was tough on us at times but we've got her back now. We'll use her and we'll bounce back and forth between the 5-1 and 6-2 depending on who we're playing," said Jordan.
The coaching staff is looking for increased leadership from the duo. "Both have good leadership skills but we're looking for more from them," said Jordan. "They're seniors and they need to play at their highest level yet and they need to do more in terms of leadership than they've done in the past."
It's a task that DeVries has fully embraced. "My leadership skills have definitely progressed. I've always been the one to point out the positives, throughout my career, to be the encourager basically," said DeVries. "Now, my leadership role has developed more into a "tough love", that's the role that I have to take. I have to put the expectations at a high level for the younger girls."
Also figuring into the mix at the setter position will be 5'6" freshman Maggi Jo Keffury (Arroyo Grande, Calif.) "I think she's got a lot of physical ability. She's quick, she delivers a good ball. She could play right away," said Jordan. "She's got to get comfortable in our system and comfortable setting those quick hitters but once she does that she's got a shot at playing a little bit more."
Also at setter is junior Madison Hardy who is redshirting this season due to injury.
Anchoring the libero position is senior Kelsi Phillips whose midseason return to the Aggie roster last season solidified a spot on the floor that had been shaky at best early on in the season. Phillips' presence gives the Aggies not only a solid player anchoring the defense but she also provides the Aggies with an added dose of energy on the court. "She's got a lot of experience, she's a really good passer and defender. " said Jordan. "I think she's our emotional leader which is great."
Joining Phillips are Jené Coppedge and Shelby Tamura, a pair of sophomores who saw limited action on the court in their freshmen seasons but figure to be in the mix for more playing time this season. Shelby and Jené have both improved and I think they can both help us as defensive specialists," said Jordan. "I'm sure we'll call on them at times to go back there and make plays."
At the middle blocker/hitter position are a pair of seniors in preseason All-WAC selection Kelsey Brennan and Michelle Kuester and sophomore preseason All-WAC selection Desiree Scott. "We've got good competition and they all bring different things to the table," said Jordan. "I think Kelsey Brennan is still the best attacker of the group. Desiree has really become a good hitter in her own right. The best blocker is Michelle Kuester and I think because she is the best blocker she's going to find her way onto the floor a fair amount."
Brennan is the Aggies' leading returner in kills after averaging 2.26 kills per set last season. She led the team in hitting percentage at .300 and will be relied upon to provide offense again this season.
Scott improved as the course of her freshman season went along and finished with 106 kills while hitting .274 on the season. Kuester will certainly see more action in her final season after recovering from shoulder surgery throughout the the 2010 season. She averaged .55 blocks per set last season but will be one of the keys to the Aggies' hopes for improved blocking in 2011.
The Aggies also feature a freshman middle in Gwen Murphy who will redshirt this season. "Gwen Murphy is the best athlete of the group, including Desiree and that's saying something," said Jordan.
"She's going to be special. It's just a matter of time. She's got to learn how to play. She's way behind skill-wise but she does things athletically that are very impressive."
Transitioning to the outside hitters it will be the first time since 2007 that the Aggies lack an experienced "go-to" attacker. The Aggies graduated Kayleigh Giddens who set the single season record for kills (542) on the left and Whitney Woods (269 kills) on the right. The Aggies will turn to a sophomore and a pair of freshmen to man the outside hitter positions. Redshirt sophomore Stephanie Ziegler returns to the Aggies fully recovered after suffering a broken leg in the Aggies' opening weekend tournament in 2010. "I think she's our best passer and that in and of itself is going to get her on the floor a lot."
Leading the group of freshmen are outside hitters Bradley Nash (Kayenta, Ariz.) and Meredith Hays (Hereford, Tex.) At 5'11" Hays has impressed early on. "Meredith Hays has really stood out in the preseason. She's got a rocket for an arm," said Jordan. "She's a good all around player, plays hard and is fun to watch. I think she's going to do really well. She'll start for us."
Nash could see time on the right side, a spot vacated by Woods. "Bradley has a lot of physical ability as well," said Jordan. "She's been slowed a little bit by an abdominal strain but she's making good progress and she'll see a lot of time as well."
Joining the freshman duo is 6'2" freshman Kiley Mansfield (Chico, Calif.). "Kiley is a freshman that we've seen good things from. She needs to get stronger but she passes pretty good serve receive for a 6'2" outside hitter and once she gets stronger she's going to start putting the ball away a little bit more," said Jordan.
Another member of the 2011 recruiting class in the mix for playing time is 6'0" freshman Jocelyn Leichner. "Jocelyn is another kid with a great arm. She's just got to learn a cleaner game," said Jordan. "She's got to pass better, defend a little bit better, make better attacking decisions and once she minimizes her errors we think down the road she's going to be a pretty good player."
Rounding out the group of outside hitters is sophomore Deirdre Pajares. "Deirdre played sparingly last year, she was coming off ACL surgery and wasn't physically ready to go but she had a pretty good spring," said Jordan. "She's more of a right than she is a left but she's got a good arm, hits a heavy ball. I think D will fit somewhere in the equation, especially in the 6-2."
"The good thing about our outside hitter group is that they all have the ability, some more than others, but we're trying to get them to the point where they can play on either antenna, where they can play the left or the right," said Jordan. "They're all working at that and they have good versatility for us. Some of them have a ways to go in terms of their skills but they're all good athletes and they all bring something to the table. We're excited about the future."
In 2011 the Aggies will look to improve on their blocking numbers after averaging 2.08 blocks per set last season, their lowest blocks per set average in the previous eight seasons. "We spent a lot of time on the blocking. Every day we've worked on the blocking stuff," said Jordan. "We're going to be a bigger more physical team. Last year with our outside hitters getting hurt and having to play in the 5-1 all the time, we just weren't very big at a couple spots, a couple rotations and so it was hard."
"We dedicated the spring and fall so far to being a better blocking and defending team and along with that goes serving tougher. We served it way too easy last year and didn't put enough pressure on some of our opponents. We tried to improve in all those things and hopefully as the season progresses we'll see better results."
One other area the Aggies focused on in the offseason was passing something the Aggies struggled with early in the season but steadily improved with particularly after the addition of Phillips to the team. "Serve receive that's something traditionally we've been pretty good at," said Jordan "We were solid last year as the season wore on, we got better. I wouldn't expect this year to be much different, I think we'll continue to improve. I certainly don't think it's a weakness but it's definitely something we're spending a lot of time on as well."
The Aggies open the 2011 season on Friday and will immediately be tested as they take on No. 5 Nebraska at the MCM Elegante Lobo Classic in Albuquerque. "What we want to do is compete really hard regardless of who we're playing. When we make mistakes we need to bounce back from it. That's part of growth as a player and these guys need to understand it," said Jordan. "Everyone's going to make a mistake but we're not going to make them in bunches. Having the right attitude and staying competitive are really important to us and hopefully we'll do that."
The Aggies also host LSU in a home tournament and will travel to Big Ten country to take on Northwestern in their tournament. The Aggies also face rivals UTEP and New Mexico prior to opening up conference play in the final season of the current configuration of the WAC. The Aggies will also face conference foes Nevada, Fresno State and national power Hawai'i for the final time as conference mates as well as defending WAC tournament champion Utah State.
The Aggies have a tremendous amount of potential with a mix of veteran experience and young talented freshmen as well as several underclassmen returning from injury. There is a high amount of excitement surrounding this group and expectations are once again high. If the Aggies can avoid the injury bug that plagued them in 2010 and the talented group of youngsters can adapt quickly to the Division I level, their reward could be a return trip to the NCAAs for the first time since 2008.