Preview: Volleyball in position for GSC repeat

Junior outside hitter Lexie Bradley tips a ball over the net during a volleyball game at Flowers Hall during the 2015 season. The GSC coaches picked the Lions to finish second after winning their conference a season ago.

by Managing Editor Mike Ezekiel

Coming off a dramatic Gulf South Conference championship victory last season, the UNA volleyball team seems to have a number of reasons to feel confident heading into 2016.

The defending GSC tournament champions return five of six starters, plus junior libero Ashtyn Kapovich. With 10 total returnees and six newcomers looking to compete right away, head coach Stephanie Radecki said that a conference repeat is possible.

“I think every year the players are becoming more confident and getting that desire to win,” Radecki said. “I think that we have a great team, and I’m excited about what we can achieve.”

The Lions return 2nd-team All-American senior outside hitter Natasha Fomina who led the team in kills last year with 451. Juniors Lexie Bradley and Jessica Austin bolster an attack line, as each contributed over 300 kills each in 2015.

Seniors Peyton Lang and Sarah Ann Tillery also return as starters from last season, as both were second and third on the team in digs with 290 and 236 respectively.

Kapovich led the team with 466 digs and 102 assists. Radecki said she expects the junior libero to be the team’s nucleus.

“Ashtyn is a huge player for us because she’s so consistent,” Radecki said. “I think a lot of people don’t realize how many balls she gets to target.”

Despite establishing herself as a starter last season, Lang said she still feels a sense of competition during the preseason.

“There are going to be battles for every spot,” Lang said. “Out of all of my three years here, this is the biggest amount of people we’ve had at each positions. We have good depth.”

The only hole to fill for UNA is former setter Andrea De Leon, who graduated from the team as an honorable mention for the 2015 All-American team.

“Andrea was such a huge player for us with her passion and her leadership,” Radecki said. “I think we have some great candidates on our roster that will hopefully be able to fill her shoes and help us at setter.”

The three players Radecki expects to compete for the setter role are returning junior Abby Winkler, transfer sophomore Jayden Davila-McCrary and incoming freshman Emma Ellis.

Other key returners include senior right side hitter Victoria Quintanilla and sophomore defensive specialist Ava Carnley.

Despite not being a regular starter, Quintanilla played in 119 sets last season, tied for the most on the roster and finished with 213 kills and 68 team blocks. Carnley added 152 digs in 115 sets last year.

Quintanilla said her goal heading into her senior season is to not only compete for a full-time starting spot, but to compete with her teammates and help them improve.

“I think it makes everybody work even harder knowing that nobody’s spot is safe,” Quintanilla said. “It’s good every year to have people come in and make each other work harder. That makes us even stronger as a team.”

UNA adds junior outside hitter Ana Gabriela Pacheco from Brazil, along with freshmen Genny Cruz (OH), Destiny Harrison (MH) and Libby Jump (DS/S) to round out its 2016 recruiting class.

“I think the players we have coming in are really strong and will push our returners,” Radecki said. “We definitely have the potential to be better. I think our girls have really set a standard.”

The Lions open the season with the “UNA Volleyball Classic” in Flowers Hall Sept. 2-3, as they host Martin Methodist, Northwood, Tiffin and Trevecca Nazarene.