For two of the last three seasons the Lady Bisons have earned a berth in the tournament and lost each time in the first round. To reach that goal the Lady Bisons have to win the Atlantic Sun Tournament, something they have also done two of the last three seasons.
“It is hard for me to sit here and say I would be happy just to get to the NCAA Tournament,” Lady Bisons’ coach Brandon Rosenthal said. “I would be pleased, don’t get me wrong. But the way I am built and the way this team is built we want more.
“I think people coming into this program know that. You always feel like you are pushing, but I think whether it is sports, business or life, you should always set new standards and think outside of the box.”
Last season the Lady Bisons won both the Atlantic Sun Conference regular season championship, with a perfect 22-0 record, and the tournament. It was the first time they had won both titles in the same season.
It was a magical year in many ways for the Lady Bisons. Middle hitter Alex Kelly was named A-Sun Player of the Year. Setter Stefine “Jake” Pease was named A-Sun Tournament Most Valuable Player. Rosenthal was named A-Sun Coach of the Year.
During the preseason Rosenthal has chosen to address last season by not dwelling on it.
His players have followed Rosenthal’s approach. Kelly, Pease and defensive specialist Tory Ashcraft, team captains this season, have set the tone for looking forward as opposed to thinking about the past.
“Our girls have addressed this among themselves, and we have addressed it with them,” Rosenthal said. “Last year was just that. It was last year.”
The Lady Bisons open the regular season, the eighth under the direction of Rosenthal, Friday at 4:30 p.m. when they play Kansas in the first round of the Bluejay Invitational at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.
The 2010 team will be without opposite Erin Pierce, the only starter lost from last season. Also expected to be missed will be middle hitter Amy Trykowski.
Rosenthal will be working in a couple of new faces, but he doesn’t plan to change the Lady Bisons’ approach to the game.
“Our pace of play will be relatively the same,” Rosenthal said. “It is a faster paced offense. We will have a tenacious defense. We will probably be more aggressive on the serve trying to find a couple of extra points when we can.
“All in all with the crew we have, and what we have returning, it becomes one of those things where you don’t want to tinker too much. Ultimately I have to trust the players that we have and I do trust them.”
Pierce was known as the “X-factor” on the team last season. Her stats weren’t always near the top, but she was always around the ball. Rosenthal plans to use Charlyn Ursell, a transfer from Arkansas State, to replace Pierce.
“Losing Erin opened up a hole and I think we have a pretty good person to fill in there with Charlyn,” Rosenthal said. “She is a little more offensive-minded. That adds another element.”
Also making a transition will be junior Katie Rose. As a freshman she played middle hitter. Last season she moved to libero. She will be returning this season to the middle hitter position filling the void left by Trykowski.
“I thought Amy did a fantastic job for us last year in the spot we needed her to have,” Rosenthal said. “We were looking for Amy to get six-to-10 kills.
“I think we have some more options there now with Katie and Alex. We can open it up a little more. Our outsides will see that benefit. When both middles are as good offensively, and work as hard as Alex and Katie do, it opens things up on the outside.”
Rosenthal wasn’t sure at the end of spring workouts if Rose could make the transition back to the middle.
“I was a little concerned, but Katie came back this fall with a great mindset,” Rosenthal said. “We had a lot of conversations. She had a great, great preseason.”
Freshman Stephanie Rex will get the starting nod at libero, replacing Rose. Rex’s adjustment to the game on the college level has taken some time.
“She had a somewhat shaky first week,” Rosenthal said. “It is a tough position because of the speed of the game. That is one position where everything you do is affected by the speed of the game from the way they hit to the way they move.
“I was really impressed with her work the second week of preseason. She has solidified the spot.”
Senior Meghan Hinemeyer, a preseason All-Conference selection, will start at one outside hitter position. Sophomore Kaycee Green and redshirt freshman Amanda Rhein are in a battle for the other outside hitter position.
This season Rosenthal has more options and more depth than last season. That has both its advantages and disadvantages from a coaching perspective.
“It is fun to have more options, but it is a little bit more of a headache,” Rosenthal said. “Every day you are constantly wondering should we do this or should we do that? Ultimately, you have to find six to nine girls that you can trust and really start getting into a rhythm on the court.”
Rosenthal likes to keep substitutions to a minimum. But he admits he will probably look at making more situational changes this season because of the depth of the team.
“I think it is better for the game, especially the style of game that we play to not do a lot of substitutions,” Rosenthal said. “Our players need to know who is around them at all times.
“We talk a lot about movement. If you were to step back behind the court and focus on the group it should be moving as one unit instead of six individuals.”
Some of the players Rosenthal will be counting on heavily in a reserve role are junior opposite/middle hitter Kelsey Neumann, freshman setter Caitlin Dotson, freshman middle hitter Sarah Ulinski, sophomore outside hitter Kory Honel, senior defensive specialist Elly Kaiser and freshman middle hitter/opposite Claire Peterson.
“Claire is going to be that really solid player over the next four years that does a lot of the little things just like Erin Pierce did,” Rosenthal said. “Without knowing it she is going to make everyone better.
“Sarah has done a nice job. Hers is probably the hardest position to understand. And every day she is going up against Alex and Jake. She has to figure out where Jake is setting the ball, and that is tough to do in the middle position. And everywhere Jake sets the ball there are some pretty good hitters.
“You have a lot on your mind in that position. You really have to simplify things. It typically takes a full year of work.”
Ashcraft is the only player not expected to play in the opening weekend as she deals with an injury.
“Tory brings so much to the team,” Rosenthal said. “She will do her job whether she is playing or not.”
This season has a different look for the Lady Bisons in terms of scheduling. They will play in four weekend tournaments, facing some of the top teams in the country. The A-Sun portion of the season will only be one round.
The toughest thing for the team, however, will be to manage expectations.
“That is one of the most difficult tasks we will have this year, not only among our players, but among our fans,” Rosenthal said. “I like the idea that we have a lot of people coming back and that we should run over everybody. I understand that idea. But the truth of the matter is, it still might take a little bit of time.
“We are ready to go. There is no doubt about it. The players are a little chippy. They are tired of playing each other. We don’t have to be perfect. We have to go and play the best we can and kind of let things happen.”
By Mark McGee, Senior Publisher/Director of Media Relations.