Volleyball Begins 2015 Season This Weekend in Toledo

Nikki Thompson (Photo by Ron Stevens)
Nikki Thompson (Photo by Ron Stevens)

The Youngstown State volleyball team will begin its 41st season and its fourth under head coach Mark Hardaway on Friday at the Toledo Rocket Invitational. The Penguins will play Bradley to start 2015 on Friday at 5 p.m., and they'll play Portland at noon and Toledo at 5 p.m. on Saturday. Live stats for all three matches will be available through utrockets.com.

YSU returns four starters and its libero from last season's squad that won 17 matches – a program high since 1999 – and advanced to the semifinals of the Horizon League Tournament for the second straight season. Val Jeffery, a junior and one of three team captains, is the returning Horizon League Setter of the Year, and senior captain Aly Ryan will start at middle blocker for the fourth straight year. Ryan is one of four seniors on the squad, joining fellow captain Jessie Gerig, libero Nikki Thompson and outside hitter Lauren Thompson. Sophomore Sam Brown, a Horizon League All-Freshman Team selection in 2014, begins her first season as YSU's primary left-side hitter.

While YSU returns eight players who appeared in at least 89 percent of its sets in 2014, youth will be a factor in 2015. The Penguins have a junior college transfer, three redshirt freshmen and three true freshmen on the roster, and they are the only team in the Horizon League that lost its top two attackers in terms of total kills.

Youngstown State will play its home opener on Sept. 1 against Saint Francis U. The Penguins will then head back on the road over the weekend and travel to Pittsburgh for their second of four non-conference tournaments.

Scouting Report

  • YSU has posted winning records in three straight seasons for the first time in school history. All three have been under Mark Hardaway.
  • YSU returns four starters and its libero from last year's team that went 17-14 and advanced to the Horizon League Tournament semifinals.
  • Val Jeffery is the reigning Horizon League Setter of the Year, and Sam Brown was an All-Freshman Team selection last year.
  • Senior Aly Ryan enters this season with 322 total blocks in her career. Her 104 last year are the most among returning players in the HL.
  • Senior Nikki Thompson set the school record for digs in a season with 495 last year, which was her first as YSU's starting libero.
  • YSU will have its earliest home opener in school history on Sept. 1 against Saint Francis U.

Program Continues to Trend Upward

Youngstown State enters 2014 on one of its best three-year runs in program history. The Penguins are 48-43 since Mark Hardaway took over prior to the 2012 season, and they have recorded three straight winning seasons for the first time in program history. Prior to going 15-14 in 2012, YSU had not posted a winning record since 1999. The Penguins were 7-51 combined in the two years prior to his arrival. YSU has won 19 Horizon League matches over the last three years after having won 20 in its first 11 years combined in the conference. YSU has also advanced to the semifinals of the league tournament in back-to-back years after not making it past the opening round in its first 12 tries.

Gerig, Ryan and Jeffery Serving as Team Captains

Seniors Jessie Gerig and Aly Ryan are serving as team captains for the second straight year, and they are joined by first-time team captain Val Jeffery. Gerig and Ryan are two of four seniors on the team, and Jeffery is one of two juniors. All three players appeared in at least 105 sets in 2014.

Challenge of Replacing Two Four-Year Starters

Youngstown State's biggest challenge in 2015 will be replacing the offensive contributions of Lexi Egler and Shannon Watson, who graduated after starting for four years. Egler was a two-time all-conference selection at outside hitter and posted 358 kills last year. Watson had 301 kills and a team-high 129 blocks in 2014. The Penguins are the only team in the Horizon League who lost their top two attackers, and the 56.5 percent of returning kills from last year is the lowest in the league.

Percentage of statistics returning and Horizon League ranking (out of 9):

  • Kills — 56.5 percent (855 of 1,1514) — 9th
  • Assists — 96.0 percent (1,370 of 1,427) — 6th
  • Digs — 79.2 percent (1,434 of 1,810) — 6th
  • Blocks — 61.8 percent (307 of 497) — 8th

Introducing Seven New Players

Youngstown State has seven student-athletes on its 16-member roster who have not played in a Division I match. Lori Vanbeek, a transfer from Parkland College, will likely begin the season as a starter at middle blocker. There are also three redshirt freshmen – setter Heather Splinter and outside hitters Paige Saunders and Morgan Tippie – and three true freshmen – middle blocker Cassady Jarvis and outside hitters Aleah Hughes and Sarah Varcolla. YSU is one of four Horizon League schools (also Cleveland State, Green Bay and UIC) with seven players on its roster that did not appear in a match in 2014.

YSU Earns AVCA Team Academic Award

Youngstown State earned the American Volleyball Coaches Association Team Academic Award for the 2014-15 season. It was the second straight season and just the second time overall that YSU was honored. The Penguins were one of 146 Division I teams to earn the award, which recognizes teams that maintain at least a 3.30 grade-point average. YSU had 12 of its 15 players earn at least a 3.0 GPA in both the spring and fall semesters. Lauren Blanco and Nikki Thompson posted a 4.0 GPA in the spring, and Aly Ryan had a 4.0 in the fall.

Jeffery Competes in China as Part of B.I.P. Tour

YSU junior setter Val Jeffery played six games with a group of star-studded Americans in Beijing in June with Bring It Promotions, a company that specializes in international volleyball tours. Jeffery was asked to be part of the group because she was chosen as an alternate for the U.S. Collegiate National Team during a tryout in February. Among the talented players on Jeffery's team were five-time Olympian Danielle Scott and former AVCA National Player of the Year Alaina Bergsma Coble. Even though Jeffery wasn't on the national squad, her jerseys were navy blue and white and featured the American flag.

Brown Flashed Potential as a Freshman

Sam Brown showed her potential to be a star last year when she was named to the Horizon League All-Freshman Team. She led the Horizon League with 42 aces last year, and her 293 kills were the most by any freshman in the conference. She finished the year with 293 kills and 251 digs, making her one of only two YSU freshmen in the last 10 seasons to reach 200 of each. She ranked fifth on YSU's all-time freshman chart in kills, and she was 10th in digs.

Thompson Sets Season Digs Record

Nikki Thompson set a school record for digs in a season last year with 495. She passed Heather Luben's mark of 448 in 1996, and Thompson's 4.46 digs per set average was second in school history behind Jill Raslevich's NCAA-leading 4.95 mark in 1995. Thompson had 310 digs combined in her first two years when she came in as a back-row substitute. Last year was her first as YSU's libero.

Solid Results in 2014 Non-Conference Schedule

Youngstown State ended its 2014 non-conference schedule with a 9-6 record, which was the second-best mark in the Horizon League. Among the victories were three wins over Missouri Valley Conference teams and a win over Virginia for the program's first defeat of an ACC school in 12 years. YSU was 6-0 for the first time in program history and had its best record through 12 matches since 1995 at 9-3.