Last season was the banner year for the University of Northwestern Ohio volleyball team. In four short years, the Lady Racers had climbed from being a brand-new program to playing for the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference Tournament title.
And with that rise brings ever increasing expectations. Despite losing most of the 2011 roster, including a two-time NAIA All-American, the sights for the 2012 season are even higher than where 2011 left off.
The Lady Racers are starting over without six seniors - outside hitter Heather Garmire, setter Debbie Brubaker, libero Kelly Oldiges, defensive specialist Jessica Prince and All-American middle blocker Meagan EnYart. But according to UNOH coach Kevin Kitchen, the players he's brought in are championship caliber and expect nothing less.
"We have a whole lot of new kids, so I think we're still in a position where we're trying to learn everybody," Kitchen said. "But I think we put together a group of girls that don't want to just get to the conference championship game. They came here to win, and they came here to win a national title."
Already with a 4-1 record after the first week of play, the Lady Racers head into Wednesday's home matchups with Huntington University and University of Rio Grande with a head full of steam. They'll leave from there for an extended road trip, including stops at the Embry-Riddle Labor Day Classic in Daytona Beach, Florida, and the Point Park Invitational in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Later in the season, UNOH will play a match against NCAA Division III power Otterbein University, and then the Crimson Wave Invitational in Whiting, Indiana.
"In preseason we were rated a little lower than we hoped," Kitchen said. "The girls wanted to prove to all these teams that you don't overlook us just because we don't have Meagan EnYart or Kelly Oldiges or whoever. We're new girls, but we're not slouches.
"If we're going to go to the level we want to go to, you have to play those teams, get used to that competition and beat those teams."
The Racers lost a former WHAC Libero of the Year in Oldiges, but they gained Ellie Comes, a transfer from Owens Community College who was an honorable mention AJCAA All-American and set the school record with 1,882 career digs.
"Ellie Comes comes off a pretty good career at Owens and has stepped up. More likely, she's going to be the libero the majority of the time," Kitchen said.
"I have three defensive specialists who in all honesty, any of them could be the libero," Kitchen said.
It's odd to say after losing Kelly Brubaker to graduation, but this might be the Lady Racers strongest position. Brubaker owns the Lady Racers record books with 5,590 assists, but junior transfer Lauren Maxwell has been a huge addition to the UNOH roster. Maxwell is a two-time NJCAA All-American and was named to the National Tournament team after leading Oakland Community College to a national runners-up finish. She is already a member of the halls of fame at Oakland and Lakeland High School.
Already in five games, Maxwell has 183 assists (10.17 per set) and 60 digs.
"She's just a stud, I don't know how else to put that. She is the floor captain, she's the one who has to touch the ball every time it comes over," Kitchen said. "She's very capable of doing things many female athletes can't do.
"She's very dynamic in every aspect of the game."
Hailey Rosinski was a red-shirt for UNOH last year, but Kitchen said she is pushing for playing time behind Maxwell.
If Maxwell isn't the most exciting player on the UNOH team, that honor could go to junior transfer Casey Gates. She already leads the Lady Racers with 76 kills (4.00 per set) and 68 digs (3.58 per set) after a standout career at Wheeling Jesuit University. She was named the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament MVP and twice to the All-Tournament team.
Gates was named to the All-Tournament team at the UM-Dearborn Earlybird Invitational, where UNOH went 3-1 and beat Georgetown College, which finished just outside the preseason NAIA Top 25 poll.
"We are only going to be as good as Casey's going to let us be," Kitchen said. "She's probably my best defensive player and by my best offensive player. She's an outstanding all-around player. She wants to put the team on her back and she wants to take them to the promised land."
This could be the position with the most depth for UNOH. Playing opposite from Gates will normally be Emily Crowell, who had a strong freshman season at Owens Community College. The left-hander already has 46 kills (second on the team), 13 digs and nine total blocks.
"She's a lefty, so she does things a little different than everyone else, hits from a different angle," Kitchen said. "She's an extremely talented athlete. The sky is the limit for her. The two outsides, Casey and Emily, you're going to see a lot out of. They're going to be the backbone to our team."
This is the position which concerns Kitchen most, and it has nothing to the players on his roster, but the one he lost in EnYart; she's the UNOH career leader in kills, attack percentage, total blocks and sets played. Kitchen is counting on junior Brittany Egbert, another Owens transfer, returning sophomore Megan Fullenkamp and true freshman Calley Hawkins.
"(Egbert) has also played at a high level," Kitchen said. "She's steady. She's going to bring a steady factor to the team in the middle. She's going to be there every time, she's going to hit smart shots. She's a very good blocker."