BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - The Union College volleyball program enters the 2014 season this week full of optimism and hope, as they try to climb to the top of the Appalachian Athletic Conference for the first time in the regular season since 2011.
On paper, the team has every right to be optimistic. In all, the Bulldogs return 11 student-athletes who saw significant playing time throughout the 2013 season. Add into that a deep and talented incoming class of freshman, which looks to make an impact on the court right from the first serve of the season this Friday afternoon.
Leading the way will be second year head coach Jeremy Wise, who led the Bulldogs to a bounce back season in 2013, going 26-9 (over 17-17 in 2012), as Union made it all the way to the finals of the AAC Tournament. However, the team fell short of their ultimate goal of capturing the AAC title, something they hope reach in 2014.
"Last year we transformed the culture of the team and the dynamics, installing a family friendly environment and new way of doing things," said Wise. "The team embraced my philosophies and really bought into the team first mentality and hard work mantra. This year our returners have stepped up to lead our new players on that same path we started. We have accomplished so much more much more quickly this year as our freshmen have fallen right in line with our new way of doing things."
Leading the cast of 2014 returners for the Bulldogs is senior Paige Moore (SR/Louisville, Ky.), a decorated student-athlete who has earned a spot at outside hitter on the All-AAC First Team for the last two seasons. Union's leader in kills a season ago with 453 (which ended the year as the second highest mark in the AAC), Moore looks to anchor the Bulldogs on the attack once again this season.
Moore is joined in the senior class by Heather Fields (SR/Louisville, Ky.) and Kassie Bruner (SR/Shelbyville, Ky.). Fields, a setter, posted 8.3 assists per match in 2013, while recording 47 aces, both of which were team-highs at the end of the year. Bruner saw action in 23 matches a season ago as a defensive specialist and libero, recording 141 digs on the year.
Pacing the junior class with be reigning AAC Libero of the Year Ana Calaza (JR/Rio de Janerio, Brazil), who had a huge first season in the program in 2013, notching a conference-best 5.7 digs per set (743 total digs for the season). Joining Calaza in the junior class is fellow libero Summer Manning (JR/Taylor Mill, Ky.) (who made 20 starts in 2013), setter Chandler Gray (JR/Alexandria, Ky.), and defensive specialist Courtney Heaton (JR/Louisville, Ky.).
Leading the returning sophomore's is middle blocker Julia Edmonds (SO/Burlington, Ky.), an All-AAC Freshman Team selection a season ago, who ended the year leading the team in total blocks with 102. The only other member of the class to see significant playing time a season ago was fellow middle blocker Vanessa Wiseman (SO/Corbin, Ky.), who saw playing time in 23 matches a season ago.
Wise's second recruiting class is diverse, and the Bulldogs' head coach expects this talented group of newcomers to adjust to the college game quickly and contribute from the start.
To read more about Union's 2014 freshman class, click here (http://www.ucbulldogs.com/article/4784.php).
A challenging slate awaits the 2014 Bulldogs, a schedule that will see the team play 35 total matches, the majority of which will be away from the friendly confines of Robsion Arena (the Bulldogs will only play 10 matches at home on the year).
Things get underway for Union this weekend, as the squad will play five matches in two days at the Aces in August Tournament in Rio Grande, Ohio on Friday and Saturday afternoon. Union's 2014 home opener is set for Tuesday, Aug. 26 against Dalton State (Ga.) beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Following a string of six straight road matches to start September, Union returns home on Sept. 19 to open AAC play for the season against Truett-McConnell (Ga.). Following another conference match-up with Point (Ga.) on Sept. 20, the Bulldogs host the first of two games against defending AAC Regular Season and Tournament Champion Bryan (Tenn.) on Sept. 23. The second match-up between the squads is set for Oct. 28 at Bryan.
After navigating through an October schedule that features four home matches, the Bulldogs end the regular season with their third match with Cumberlands (Ky.) on the 2014 season on Nov. 5, then their 2014 regular season finale on Nov. 7 against AAC-foe Reinhardt (Ga.) in the program's annual Senior Night.
The 2014 AAC Tournament will once again be played at the Marriott MeadowView Convention Center in Kingsport, Tenn. from Nov. 12-14.
To view the full 2014 Union College volleyball schedule, click here (http://www.ucbulldogs.com/schedule/0/3.php).
Overall, the expectations are high for the Bulldogs after a turnaround season of 2013. Slated to finish second in the AAC's Preseason Coaches' Poll, Union has set their sights on finishing first in the AAC Standings at the end of the season, and maybe just a little bit more.
"Our team looks much more versatile and deeper at all our positions, so I am excited to play around with all the puzzle pieces," said Wise. "I am excited to start trying some options out this weekend, while trying to come up with the right winning formula. We will be a bit faster on offense and even scrappier on defense while bettering the ball much more this year.
"Look for the usual well played exciting matches with a better brand of volleyball this year, as we try to take our program from good to great."