COLLEGE STATION, Texas – The Texas A&M volleyball team officially reported to campus today to begin preparation for the 2014 season. The players will attend meetings Friday afternoon and have a team meal in the evening before beginning two-a-day practices Saturday morning.
Aggie head coach Laurie Corbelli is excited to get underway as she returns 10 letterwinners ‑‑ including four starters -- from last year’s team that went 19-12 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. She also is elated to welcome seven newcomers, including a six-person freshman recruiting class that was recognized by both Volleyball Magazine and PrepVolleyball.com.
“I’m eager to get started just because of the amount of talent that we have to work with and the obvious excitement of the players,” said Corbelli, who is entering her 22nd season at the helm of the Aggies. “They have been here a few weeks working our camps, playing open gym and stopping by occasionally and telling us how much fun they are having and how the vibe in the gym is awesome. The excitement is coming from them. Their level of excitement for the season to get started is really evident, and it just makes me really excited to get in the gym.”
Junior Shelby Sullivan and sophomore Jazzmin Babers, 6-2 middle blockers who both started every match and played in every set last season, highlight the list of returners. Sullivan earned All-SEC Team and All-South Region honorable mention last year after hitting .386. Her hitting percentage ranks second in the A&M all-time season records and is the highest by an A&M player since former All-American Sherri Brinkman hit a school record .400 in 1984.
Babers also received All-South Region honorable mention from the American Volleyball Coaches Association and was a member of the SEC All-Freshman Team last year. A redshirt freshman in 2013, Babers posted 128 block assists, ranking sixth in the A&M all-time season records. She led A&M and ranked second in the SEC and 40th in the nation with 1.31 blocks per set for the full season.
Corbelli also welcomes back outside hitter and kill leader Angela Lowak, who started 24 matches and appeared in every contest as a sophomore, as well as outside hitter Emily Hardesty, who drew 14 starts and appeared in 27 matches as a freshman.
NCAA discus champion Shelby Vaughan is the only other experienced outside hitter returning, yet the left-side corps has greater depth this season with the addition of freshmen Kiara McGee and Olivia Thorpe, as well as senior newcomer Sydney Wilhelm.
Vaughan is a multi-position player who also provides depth at the middle blocker position, as does Darby Graff, who saw limited action as a redshirt freshman last year at both the middle blocker and opposite hitter positions. Freshman Uche Ukadike also is listed as a middle blocker and will join the team when classes begin.
Much focus will be on sophomore Kaysie Shebeneck and freshman Stephanie Aiple, who are looking to fill the setter position previously held by four-year starter and All-American honorable mention Allie Sawatzky. Shebeneck and Aiple, a high school All-American who graduated early and joined the team in January, are both capable of also playing the opposite hitter position, where freshman lefty and high school All-American Ashlie Reasor is expected to contend for a starting role.
Sophomore Victoria Arenas is projected to head up the back row passing and defense, where the Aggies took a hit with the graduation of Heather Reynolds, Kelsey Kinley and Mariah Agre. Senior Hannah Hood and sophomore Katelyn Labhart also will compete for a libero/defensive specialist role, with freshman Amy Nettles also pushing for significant playing time.
With plenty of options, Corbelli thrives on the challenge of putting all the pieces together.
“As coaches, we’ve really got our work cut out for us in a very positive way,” she said. “With so many players -- especially a lot of outside hitters -- it is really fun to have that competition. It’s just really fun to be challenged with this kind of talent and to build a new team.
“The seniors are great leaders and are really excited to take over and lead this group to a championship. With only two seniors, it means the rest of the players have so many hours of volleyball ahead of them, and all of them are eager. Our freshman class is the biggest class we have, and I have to remember that they are very, very new to this at this level, but they also are going to be learning every single day, and that is very exciting.
“We also are excited that we are a healthy group for the most part. Our strength coach, Raychelle Ellsworth, had a chance to get her hands on these guys and get them going. With three weeks until we compete, I’m confident and encouraged that this group has given and will continue to give their very best to be as ready as possible.”
The Aggies make their season debut in front of the 12th Man Friday-Saturday, August 29-30 as they host the Texas A&M Invitational at Reed Arena.
“I always think of the 12th Man when I’m training the team,” Corbelli said. “I take a lot of pride in what my players are doing on the court, and the 12th Man has made this the most fun place to coach. I don’t know they realize how much they help our Aggie teams win. I can’t even express how much the 12th Man means to our success.”
Season tickets are available for purchase at 12thManFoundation.com.
Aggie fans can keep up to date on the A&M volleyball team on Facebook or on Twitter by following @AggieVolleyball.