Volleyball Begins 2017 Campaign This Weekend at Eagle Challenge

2017 Youngstown State Volleyball Senior Class
2017 Youngstown State Volleyball Senior Class

The Youngstown State volleyball team will begin the 2017 season this Friday when it plays a pair of matches at the Eagle Challenge in Morehead, Ky. The Penguins will open the campaign against Winthrop at 1 p.m., and they'll take on tournament host Morehead State at 7 p.m. YSU will conclude the weekend against Delaware State at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday. Live stats will be available throughout the weekend through msueagles.com and linked on YSUsports.com, and Friday evening's match against Morehead State will be streamed on the OVC Digital Network.

Coaching Staff: The 2017 season marks the sixth for Youngstown State under the direction of head coach Mark Hardaway. Hardaway possesses a record of 66-86 with the Penguins, and he began his tenure by leading the program to three consecutive winning seasons for the first time in school history. Sarah Smith is in her fourth season as an assistant coach, and former Penguin Jessie Gerig is in her second season as a graduate assistant.

Scanning the Roster: Youngstown State's 2017 roster features five seniors, two juniors, two sophomores and six freshmen. Two of those freshmen, Carla Relitz and Reis Zandier, return after redshirt campaigns, giving the Penguins four newcomers in their group of 15. Fifth-year senior defensive specialist Dana Borsz has been with the team the longest, and her fellow seniors include defensive specialist Lauren Blanco, outside hitter Sam Brown, opposite hitter Paige Saunders and setter Heather Splinter. The Penguins have three starters – Brown, Blanco and Varcolla – and nine letterwinners back from last year's squad.

Scouting Winthrop: Winthrop returns four starters and has added nine newcomers on its 2017 squad. The Eagles, who finished 15-17 overall a year ago, were tabbed to place sixth in the Big South Conference Preseason Poll. Junior defensive specialist Carlie Skelton averaged 4.15 digs per set last season, and junior outside hitter Lourdes Rosario returns after averaging 3.81 kills per set over seven matches last season.

Scouting Morehead State: Following an 11-20 season last year, Morehead State was picked to finish seventh in the 12-team Ohio Valley Conference in 2017. Junior Jordan Jones, a 6-foot-3 setter, returns after being named second-team all-conference last year. Sophomore middle blocker Karlee Reynolds ranked second in the OVC last year with 135 blocks, and she ranked fourth on the team with 157 kills. Jaime Gordon enters his 15th year as head coach of the Eagles.

Scouting Delaware State: Delaware State has nine returning players, including four starters, from last year's squad that posted a 1-28 record. The Hornets were picked to finish seventh in the MEAC Northern Division. Senior Alliyah McBean is the top returner, coming off a season in which she ranked third in the MEAC with 4.09 digs per set. DSU also returns its setter and top attacker in Sabina Szmajduch.

Brown's Career Rankings: Sam Brown enters her senior year with a chance to join some of Youngstown State's elite players by the time her career is over. Brown has 826 kills and 708 digs through her first three seasons. If she can register at least 174 kills and 292 digs in 2017, she will become the sixth YSU player to reach 1,000 of each. Heading into the season, Brown ranks 18th in program history in career kills, 15th in attempts, 13th in aces and 20th in points.

A Pair of Senior Liberos: The Penguins have two seniors who compete throughout the season to be the team's libero. Lauren Blanco started 19 matches at libero in 2016 and led the Penguins with 353 total digs and 3.21 digs per set overall, and she upped her average to 3.93 digs per set in conference play. Borsz was the libero in the other 11 matches last season and finished the year with 239 digs and 2.32 digs per set.

Varcolla's Breakout Season: Junior Sarah Varcolla is coming off a breakout season in which she became one of the Horizon League's top middles. She averaged career highs of 2.25 kills and 1.06 blocks per set in 2016, and her workload will likely increase in 2017. Varcolla ranked eighth in the conference in blocks per set last year, and she was ninth in aces per set.

A New Face Running the Offense: Youngstown State will have a new setter for the first time in three years as senior Heather Splinter and freshman Libbie Darling look to step in for all-conference performer Val Jeffery. Splinter was the starter for one match last season when Jeffery went down with an injury, and the senior played in 19 other matches as a defensive specialist. Darling ranked fourth in Division 5A in Utah with 737 assists last year as a senior at Davis High School.

Potential of Two Freshman Outside Hitters: Freshman outside hitters Marketa Plesingrova and Margaux Thompson have both been solid in preseason practices are could hold a significant role with the Penguins during the regular season. Plesingrova came to Youngstown from the Czech Republic, and Thompson is from the Cleveland, Ohio, area. Thompson was a second-team all-state honoree as a senior and set school records for career kills, aces and points.

Preseason Poll: The Youngstown State volleyball team has been picked to finish ninth in the Horizon League this season in a preseason poll of the conference's head coaches. Cleveland State was selected as the preseason favorite with four first-place votes and 81 total points. The Vikings edged Green Bay, which had three first-place votes and 79 total points. Those teams were followed by Oakland (63), Milwaukee (60), Northern Kentucky (52), IUPUI (41), UIC (31), Wright State (30) and YSU (12).

Next Week: Youngstown State will play its 2017 home opener on Tuesday against Robert Morris at 6 p.m. before heading south to senior Lauren Blanco's hometown of El Paso, Texas, for the Glory Road Invitational. The Penguins will play New Mexico and North Dakota on Sept. 1 and host UTEP on Sept. 2.