NEW FACES: Jade Boone (5-7 Fr., MB/RS), T’keyah Davis (5-4 Fr., OH/RS), Liz Martino (5-7 Fr., S), Jillian Nobles (6-0 Fr., MB).
THEY’RE BACK: Tatianna Cooper (5-9 Sr., OH…did not compete in 2012), Chelsea Fox (5-10 Sr., OH/S), Te’Borah Hawkins-Hollingsworth (6-0 So., OH/MB), Ashley Johnson (5-6 So., LIB), Jasmine Jones (5-5 So., DS), Maris Kellar (5-8 So., RS), Aleena McDaniel (5-10 So., RS/MB), Brooke Stamnes (5-9 So., OH).
KEY LOSSES: Jeana Daniels (5-10 MB), Andrea Evans (6-0 MB), Destinee Locklear (5-8 DS), Aprill McRae (6-3 MB/RS), Devonte’ Reese (5-8 OH), Ian Thompson (5-11 RS), Ail Way (6-0 S/RS), Murphye Williams (5-8 DS).
STRENGTH: All six of the Aggies sophomores played a lot as freshmen last season. They’re already battle tested in only their second season.
WEAKNESS: The Aggies have to figure out a way to improve on their .121 hitting percentage from 2012.
EXPECTATIONS: The Aggies are picked to finish fifth in the MEAC Southern Division, which means most expect them to miss out on the MEAC tournament for the sixth straight season. But the Aggies lost six five-set matches last season, three of those came in conference play. In addition, they won their final two conference matches of the season. An optimist has to believe those five setters will turn into wins and ending on such a high note will propel the Aggies into the MEAC tourney.
PREVIEW: The North Carolina A&T volleyball team looks to build off of a strong finish from last season in 2013. The Aggies put together a two-game winning streak to cap the 2012 year—sweeping S.C. State in the season finale, marking the first time since 2009 that they defeated a team other than Savannah State.
The Aggies just missed out on qualifying for the MEAC tournament for the first time since 2007 last fall, but are eager to find themselves in the 2013 tournament. Head coach Hal Clifton expects to see continued improvement as the Aggies rebuild the program around a talented young corps.
“We’ve got to attack the ball better,” said Clifton on what it will take to get the Aggies into conference tournament. “We have to have better efficiency to where we don’t have a high amount of errors with a few amount of kills.”
A&T (3-29 overall, 3-7 MEAC) attacked the ball 3,638 times, but only 1,108 landed on the opponent’s side of the court in 2012. A lot of that improvement will fall on the shoulders of sophomores Te’Borah Hawkins-Hollingsworth and Brooke Stamnes. Hawkins-Hollingsworth’s long arms make her an awesome presence at the net, while Stamnes’ high-velocity attacks will be key to the Aggies success this season.
Hawkins-Hollingsworth came on late last season to record four double-figure kill matches over the Aggies final 10 contests. Stamnes had almost a third of the Aggies total attacks, while leading the team in services aces per set (0.54) last season. When Stamnes wasn’t being set last season, the ball was going to sophomore Aleena McDaniel. She will attack offensively from the right side in 2013. She was also one of the Aggies’ best servers last season, making only 18 service errors in 353 attempts.
Despite the Aggies talented offensive weapons, it was their defense that allowed them to close out 2012 on such a high note. Over the final three matches of the season, the Aggies held opponents to a combined .094 hitting percentage, winning two of those matches and losing the other in five sets.
“I really feel good about our defense,” said Clifton, who is entering his third season. “AJ has become our defensive coordinator so to speak. She takes control of our back row and understands where to put people. But our outside hitters have also made a commitment to make our defense much better. They’re committed to not letting offenses have free reign.”
Sophomore Ashley Johnson, the Aggies first first-team All-MEAC selection in five years, will anchor the Aggies defense from her libero position. She ranked fifth in the conference in digs per game at 3.91 per set. The one thing Johnson, McDaniel, Stamnes and Hawkins-Hollingsworth have in common is their sophomore classification. There are two more sophomores who are going to figure into the mix. Maris Kellar will play on the right side this season, while Jasmine Jones will assists Johnson in the back row as a defensive specialist.
“They’re re going to be extremely important,” Clifton said about his sophomores. “They’re the bulk of our team and received a lot of playing time and gave us a lot of production last year. Things are no longer new to them. They’re routine, so we’re going to draw strength from what they do. They will be instrumental to our success.”
Defensively on the front row, starting middle blockers Andrea Evans and Aprill McRae accounted for 83 percent of the Aggies blocks last season. Evans graduated and McRae will focus solely on basketball this season, leaving the Aggies with some gaps in the middle. They will look to freshmen Jillian Nobles and Jade Boone to provide depth at that position along with Hawkins-Hollingsworth.
Another gap the Aggies filled was at the setter position. Freshman Liz Martino will take over at setter. Although she is a first-year player, she provides the Aggies with someone who has played the position a number of years on the high school and club levels. Senior Chelsea Fox, who has played the position for A&T the past two seasons, will still play there some. But Fox, who had to be converted into a setter two years ago, will also play on the outside.
“Chelsea has done a fantastic job (at setter),” said Clifton. “But there are some nuances that come to someone who has been trained over the years to play the position. The decision making is the key to the whole situation. So when you’re talking two years versus eight years, it makes a difference.”
Clifton also added walk-on T’keyah Davis to the roster. She will help out on the right side and at outside hitter. The Aggies will play four regular-season tournaments, including an invitational that the Aggies will co-host with cross-town rival UNC Greensboro. A&T will host top schools from around the state such as UNC Charlotte (Sept. 17), Campbell (Sept. 24), Elon (Oct. 8) and Gardner-Webb (Oct. 15). The Aggies will open MEAC competition on Sept. 27 at N.C. Central, and then will hopefully make plans to be in Baltimore Nov. 14-16.
“I think making it to the MEAC is one of those things that we have set as a goal of ours,” said Clifton. “It proves we are turning the program around, and the things we put in place two years ago, are paying off. The first step is getting back and knowing we can compete for a MEAC championship. The next step is proving we can produce the caliber volleyball program that can win a MEAC championship.”