GAC volleyball preseason poll tabs UAM eighth

It’s kind of surprising but University of Arkansas at Monticello head volleyball coach Kelly Burdeau is already preparing for her third season at the Cotton Blossom helm. After a 12-17 overall record a year ago, Burdeau is looking for better things this fall.

Apparently, her peers are on the same wavelength. After picking the Blossoms 10th to start 2016, GAC coaches selected UAM eighth in this fall’s preseason poll, released last Thursday.

Harding University, who in 2016 claimed a share of its third GAC regular-season volleyball title, captured seven first-place votes from the league’s head coaches to enter 2017 as the preseason favorite, followed closely by Ouachita Baptist University, which got three first-place votes. Arkansas Tech University, third in this year’s preseason poll, collected the other two first-place votes.    

UAM finished 8-8 in the league a season ago, good enough to finish tied for seventh in the regular season and earn a trip to the GAC Championship Tournament after a year’s absence. The Blossoms fell to Ouachita in the opening round of the GAC Championship Tournament, however.

Burdeau hopes to turn that disappointment around with the likes of senior Aubrey Harrison, who enters her fourth year with UAM’s volleyball program. Harrison finished second in blocks a year ago with 44, recorded 149 kills and had 15 service aces.

Fellow senior Macy Mitchell also returns. Mitchell led the Blossoms in digs with 528, recording 4.80 digs per set. Both ranked sixth in the GAC. 

Senior Vanessa Pawlak and sophomores Elizabeth Harshaw, Katie Kuehl, Lacey Lyons, Maggie Pyles and Kendall Vondra, as well as redshirt freshman Taytumn Schlegel-Ridgway all returning to give Burdeau the stability she has not has in her first two years in Monticello.

Junior transfers Laurene Cushinberry, Shayna Daniels and Kassidy Pomeroy will join true freshmen Toryn Cox, Brittany Hamilton, Regan Skinner and Gracie Taves to round out Burdeau’s 16-person roster.

As a team in 2016, UAM finished second in service aces, fourth in hitting percentage and sixth in digs in the league. 

Harding (113 points) and Ouachita (105) were the lone school to earn more than 100 votes in this fall’s preseason poll, while Tech (95) and fourth-place Oklahoma Baptist University (90) also reached the 90-vote mark. The remainder of the poll was Southern Nazarene University, fifth with 77 points; Southwestern Oklahoma State University (sixth, 74 points); Southeastern Oklahoma State University (seventh, 62); and UAM (eighth, 56).

Henderson State University (ninth, 45); Northwestern Oklahoma State University (10th, 30); Southern Arkansas University (11th, 25) and East Central University (12th, 20) rounded out the 2017 preseason poll. The Blossoms begin the season on the road against non-conference opponent at 7 p.m. on Aug. 31 against Lyon College in Batesville.

Around the GAC, the Lady Bisons posted a 21-8 record—12-4 in GAC play—last year, led by GAC Player and Defensive Player of the Year Zoe Hardin. She ranked third in the nation in blocks per set, 1.59 while also leading the league in attack percentage, .355, and ranking sixth in the GAC in points per set. Harding also brings back Emily Clayton, an honorable mention All-GAC selection, who averaged 2.82 kills per set.

Ouachita, co-champion with Harding, went 23-7 under 2016 GAC Coach of the Year Danny Prescott, bring back five players that started in at least half of their matches. 

Stormi Leonard, the GAC Setter of the Year; Adrianna Nolly, the Freshman of the Year; and Kori Bullard, a first-team All-GAC selection, headline the returning starters. Leonard led the GAC with 10.60 assists per set; Nolly ranked eighth in attack percentage and blocks per set while Bullard placed sixth in blocks per set and eighth in points per set.

Tech’s Golden Suns extended their streak of 20-win seasons to 12 by recording a 21-12 season a year ago. Hunter Eshnaur, a first-team All-GAC outside hitter, and Amanda Milnick, a second-team right side hitter and setter, return for Tech. Eshnaur ranks as the top returning point scorer in the GAC after she averaged 4.01 per set last year. Milnick ranked second in the GAC with 49 service aces.

Oklahoma Baptist gained eligibility for GAC and NCAA postseason play after earning full NCAA membership status in July. They have posted a 25-7 record against GAC foes in their first two years in the league. This year’s squad includes Cadyn Laing, a second-team All-GAC selection who ranked second in the league in blocks per set, and Nicole Fleitman, who ranked in the top 10 in kills and points per set.

The previous two GAC Tournament champions—Southern Nazarene and Southwestern Oklahoma—came next. The Crimson Storm rolled through their tournament opponents with three sweeps to advance to the NCAA Regionals for the first time. 

They must replace Tournament MVP Abbey Bell, the only member of the 2,000-dig club in GAC history, and Courtney Bowie, a second-team All-GAC selection. SNU does return a pair of All-GAC performers for their senior campaigns in setter Elyse Berlin and middle blocker McKayla Benner. SWOSU must also replace a GAC record holder in Carly Zak, the GAC’s all-time leader in kills and points, as well as All-GAC selections Kayla Hebert and Kelsi Schmidtberger.

At the 2016 GAC Championships, Southeastern Oklahoma pulled off upsets of top-seeded Harding and defending champion SWOSU to advance to the title game. Caitlin Cosby, who led in the conference and ranked second among Division II freshmen in digs returns, as does Abby Jameson, who ranked fifth in kills.

Henderson State and Northwestern Oklahoma State both will begin 2017 with new head coaches. The Reddies hired Philip McDaniel and the Rangers brought in Jeremy White.

The 2017 season opens with non-conference tournaments starting on Thursday, Aug. 31. Southeastern Oklahoma State hosts the South Central Classic with Ouachita, Southern Arkansas and Southern Nazarene all visiting Durant, Okla. 

Harding plays in the University of Alabama at Huntsville’s UAH Classic; Arkansas Tech and East Central travel to Washburn; Oklahoma Baptist ventures to Florida for the Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University Tournament; Henderson State and Southwestern Oklahoma sojourn to Texas for the Tarleton State University and West Texas A&M University events; and Northwestern Oklahoma heads west for Oklahoma Panhandle State University’s Aggies Challenge.

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