(Posted September 1, 2005)

Huntingdon, PA - Since it arrived on the national scene with a runner-up finish in the first NCAA Division III women's volleyball tournament, the Juniata College volleyball team has entered the season with the same goalâ??to compete for a national championship. Now, after claiming the program's first national championship a season ago, and losing four valuable players from that team to graduation, Juniata enters the 2005 season with those same goalsâ??to battle for a national title.

Juniata's first national championship came as the team won its final 18 matches of the season, culminating with a 3-0 victory over long-time rival Washington (Mo.) in the finals which put Juniata's final record at 38-3. Now, while the team will need to cope with the loss of four veteran starters, including the reigning Division III Player of the Year, there is still plenty of talent on hand to keep Juniata near the top of the national rankings.

"This team has a lot of talent and depth," explained Associate Head Coach Heather Pavlik. "There are talented, experienced players at several positions, and a lot more depth at some of the hitting positions than we have had in some of our recent teams."

The most talent and experience for the Eagles lies at the middle hitter position, where All-American's Katie Laucks (West York/York) and Stephanie Kines (Towson/Towson, Md.) will both return to their starting roles. Laucks is a two-time All-American, while Kines claimed first-team honors last season as she ranked among the national leaders in hitting percentage. The pair will be a focus of Juniata's offensive and defensive game plans in 2005. Also back in the mix and figuring to play a big role is junior outside hitter Rachael Schatz (West Perry/Elliotsburg). After moving into the lineup consistently as a sophomore, she finished fifth on the team in kills and third on the team in blocks. Sophomore opposite Aly Pompeani (Hopewell/Aliquippa) rounds out the group of returning attacking players.

Another area where the Eagles will not have to worry about inexperience is at the libero and defensive specialist spots. Senior Abby Leonard (Shade/Johnstown) brings a steady presence and solid all-around skills to Juniata's defensive group. Sophomore Tara McMinn (Huntingdon/Huntingdon) garnered NCAA All-Tournament Team honors as a freshman and along with fellow sophomore Kelly Popernik (Bartlett/Bartlett, Ill.) provides proven ability at the libero position. Some combination of these three players should see a great deal of floor time in 2005.

"All of our returning players have played in big-time matches, and are all mentally tough," Pavlik stated. "Katie and Stephanie together give us arguably the best pair of middle hitters in the country, and Rachael and Aly have both shown great improvement. All three of our defensive players can do a lot of things well, and they don't get rattled easily. This group is going to have to step up and provide a lot of leadership this season."

The leadership will be necessary because while in recent years Juniata has been blessed with a largely veteran roster, the 2005 edition of the Eagles will be a much younger squad. Juniata will start the campaign with 11 freshmen on the roster, many of whom could see court time early in the season. While this could lead to some early-season struggles for the Blue and Gold, the overall talent of the group should have the team back where it expects to be at the end of the season.

"It's very possible that there won't be a set starting lineup with this team for the first month of the season," Pavlik explained. "There are definitely going to be some growing pains, but that's to be expected. The key will be whether our veterans can help bring the younger group along."

Among the tasks that will need to fall to the freshmen, are taking over the starting setter position, and fighting for starting and back-up roles at the hitting positions. Though they may not have the experience, the large group of newcomers are long on talent, and will provide the coaches with a lot of options. Along with three first-year athletes who will be in the running for the setter spot, several of the freshmen could play a variety of positions.

"This is team is has more depth in several position than we've had in a long time," noted Pavlik. "With the players we lost from last year, I think some people might underestimate this team a little bit. If they can come together, this group has the talent to do some great things."

The Eagles will once again enter the season with lofty goals. After finally claiming the coveted championship a season ago, the 2005 edition of the women's volleyball team knows that anything is possible.


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Contact April Feagley at feaglea@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.