The Pitt-Bradford volleyball team will lean on its experience when it opens the 2013 season Friday at the Cortland State Red Dragon Classic.
Last year, the Panthers featured just three upperclassmen, including one senior. This year, while the team once again has just one senior on the roster, the junior class features five players who all saw significant playing time the last two seasons. Their performance will be critical early in the year as a talented freshmen class enters the mix and acclimates to the pace of the collegiate game.
Pitt-Bradford meets No. 24 Cortland State in its season-opener, a match that will give head coach Tina Phillips a barometer of where her team is at.
"We will be tested right out of the gate at the SUNY Cortland tournament where we will see nationally and regionally ranked competition," said Phillips, who enters her 11th season as head of the volleyball program. "It will give us a quick indicator of how we are going to compete and move forward."
She has been pleased with the team chemistry and attitudes during the preseason grind.
"So far this group has shown us a lot of effort, hustle and great attitudes," Phillips said. "The team chemistry seems to be there with this group already.
"Having each other's backs and trusting each other will help us through the grinds of the season. I am really liking and enjoying this team."
Defensive specialist Kelcey Schaum is the lone senior and will provide experience on the back line. She is also the only holdover from the 2010 AMCC winning team. Junior Michelle Ratzel emerged as one of the team's top servers in 2012 and will be expected to do the same this year.
Junior setters Brittany Cumberland and Peyton Kauffman will engineer the Panthers' attack. Last year, Cumberland ranked in the top 10 in the AMCC in assists per set.
Up front, Pitt-Bradford will rely heavily on second-team all-AMCC performer Taylor McMillen. An opposite hitter, McMillen ranked among the conference leaders in kills and blocks per set last year. Junior Tori Lark returns after missing all of last season to injury, and sophomore Jenessa Ceprish ranked second on the team in digs a year ago.
Phillips will look to her upperclassmen to bring along the freshmen.
"That experience will pay dividends for us, it has too," Phillips said. "My returnees won't be phased by our schedule and need to show the freshmen class the way."
The freshmen class can expect to play early and often. Bradford native Kaitlin McCann and Kimberly Daughtery will take over the starting middle blocker spot left empty by Maggie Johnson, a first-team all-AMCC selection in 2012. Jennifer Johnson, Kelsey Repke and Hannah Bressler will improve the defense, Brittany Watts adds athleticism to the outside hitter position and Megan Geary is another option at setter.
For Phillips, player development throughout the season will be a focus of the coaching staff.
"If we can continue to improve and work hard, we can do some good things," Phillips said. "We just have to stay the course until November and just keep getting better."
The non-conference schedule is difficult as always, but the method works. The program is one year removed from playing for an AMCC championship, and despite last season's struggles, Pitt-Bradford still advanced to the semifinals of the league tourney.
The Panthers are currently a work in progress. This group will be defined by its success in late October and early November. It's all part of the process.