The 2012 season bears great potential for head coach Jeff Meeker's Cornell volleyball team. And well it should, with his senior-less Rams returning several headliners from last year's 28-6 national tournament run.
The Rams opened practice Monday as the preseason favorite to win the Midwest Conference. The team received national votes in last week's AVCA Division III Preseason Coaches' Top 25 Poll. That's another first for Cornell's volleyball program.
"Expectations are high and that is a good thing. It signifies the progress we have made," said Meeker, whose squad has averaged 21 wins over the past four seasons. "We are very excited about our program and the potential we have to take another step forward. With no seniors, this is still in many respects a growing group."
The 2011 club reeled off 15 consecutive victories late in the season and captured the Iowa Conference Tournament title in its final season in the league. The streak ended with a five-set loss to Elmhurst in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
"The players were excited to make the NCAA Tournament (for the first time)," Meeker said. "They certainly were not happy about the tough loss at nationals."
The Rams look to get back to that point, led by dynamic junior outside hitter Kathleen O'Connor and three other all-conference players. The 6-foot O'Connor was named IIAC Player of the Year, first team all-region and honorable mention all-American in 2011. She ranked second on Cornell's single-season list with 452 kills (3.67 kps) and needs just 115 more to become the fourth Ram to join the 1,000-kill club.
O'Connor led the Rams with 54 service aces and 15 double-doubles (kills-digs). She hit .230 and averaged 2.76 digs.
"Katie has worked very hard this offseason and is extremely motivated to help our team be successful," said Meeker, who owns a 178-153 record in 10 seasons at the helm. "Her game continues to develop diversity. She has become an excellent leader and we are excited about what she can do for us."
Sophomore middle blocker Taylor Dicus is a presence on the front line, last season claiming IIAC Freshman of the Year and first team all-conference honors. The 6-2 Dicus ranked 11th in Division III with 1.29 blocks per set. She set school marks for total blocks (159) and block assists (126) in a season. Dicus hit a team-high .318 and averaged 2.99 kills.
"We expect Taylor to be our anchor at the net," Meeker said. "Her blocking instincts and size give her the ability to be a dominant player."
Sophomore libero Kylea Weber earned second team all-conference honors last fall when she averaged a team-best 4.72 digs. Sophomore Sabrina Hargis, an honorable mention pick at setter, became the third Ram in school history to tally 1,000 assists in a season with 1,021 (8.4 aps).
Middle blocker Katie Sickelka (1.74 kps) and setter/defensive specialist Kelsey Gaillot (1.77 dps) are both sophomores who figured into last year's starting rotation. Juniors Jordan Weitzell (DS) and Veronica Desangles (RS/MB) join sophomore Rachel Henning (OH/RS) as returning letterwinners.
The Rams welcome a promising class of six freshmen that will add depth, athleticism and competition.
"We really like our group of newcomers as they are great players, great people and fit very well into the fabric of our squad," Meeker said. "Our 2012 motto is "We before Me" and will be our key to capitalizing on the depth and talent that we possess. Our team will be extremely athletic and will play a fast-paced and exciting brand of volleyball."
Cornell will get tested early and often, facing seven September opponents that are nationally-ranked or received votes. The team will play nine of its 10 conference matches in October.
The season starts Sept. 1-2 at the Labor Day Classic in St. Louis, Mo. The opening weekend features matches against No. 2 Washington-St. Louis and Dominican, which received national votes.
"I like the way our schedule sets up. Challenges early are going to be there," Meeker said. "We will be well prepared for Midwest Conference play."
The Rams open the home portion of their schedule Sept. 4 against St. Ambrose, followed by a home match with rival Coe Sept. 6. The team starts MWC play Sept. 11 at home against Monmouth. The Rams play four home matches in the Cornell Classic Sept. 14-15.
Cornell returns to the MWC for the first time since the 1996 season. The Rams are seeking their first MWC crown since 1988. Cornell also won the 1eague title in 1983.