With a record-tying five conference wins last season in the Big South and 10 wins overall, Coach Sayles and his team will look to continue to add to their win total this season, as well as to their consistency of play, as the Runnin' Bulldogs were streaky in their play throughout the 2011 season.
"We had a very productive spring season, with all of our returners seeing significant time on the floor. On the court, we were able to improve weak areas, and we saw significant gains in the weight room," stated Coach Sayles. "Our confidence level this season will be much higher with a season under our belts together. Our players have taken ownership of the program and have set a high standard for success."
With the departure of four-year starter, three-time Big South All-Conference Second-Team selection and the 2008 Big South Freshman of the Year in Laura Wilcox, Gardner-Webb will hand over the middle to junior Tyler Cockrell. Cockrell, who was named to the Big South All-Freshman Team in 2010, came on strong in her starting role last season, as she led the team and the Big South with an average of 1.35 blocks per set, which was also a GWU Division I single-season record. Cockrell was second in the Big South with 150 total blocks and 108 block assists, which were also both GWU DI single-season records. Cockrell was strong offensively as well, as she led the team with 367 total points on the year, recording 250 kills and 21 service aces last season.
Despite having played only two seasons for GWU, Cockrell holds the GWU Division I career record in total blocks with 255 entering the 2012 season.
"Tyler had a record-setting season defensively, but I believe her best days are ahead of her. Offensively, we hope she will step into the shoes of Wilcox," commented Coach Sayles. "I believe she is primed for a breakout year."
Depth at the middle blocker will come by way of junior Amanda Murphy and freshman newcomer Tyra Montour. Murphy, who has waited patiently for her time behind both Wilcox and Cockrell over the last two seasons, is looking to compete for significant playing time in the middle for Gardner-Webb this season. The 6-0 junior has showed glimpses of strong play at the net over the last two years, recording four kills and three blocks assists in limited action against Western Carolina last season and a career-high nine kills and five total blocks in a home match against Radford back in 2010.
"Amanda is a very hard worker and brings out the best in those around her. She made significant strides on the court and in the weight room and will contribute much more this fall," said Coach Sayles.
Montour brings a lot of athleticism and versatility to the middle blocker position, as the freshman was a two-time All-State selection, a three-time All-Area honoree and the 2010 Area Player of the Year at Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Ga. Montour, who was named to the 2011 Senior All-Star Team, led her team to two regional championships and to the State Finals last year as a senior.
"Tyra's athleticism and court awareness will put her in the mix for playing time," continued Coach Sayles. "Once she acclimates herself to our game speed and intensity, I believe she is going to blossom into a player to be reckoned with."
Three-year starter Molly Rhyne will headline a group of outside hitters that will have big shoes to fill, as former 2011 starters Lauren Evans and Melissa Richie are gone from this year's roster. Rhyne, who was named to the Big South All-Freshman Team in 2009, will look to carry more of a scoring load in 2012. Having taken a back seat last season to Wilcox, Evans and Cockrell, this season Rhyne will be a feature point in GWU's offensive attack. Last season, Rhyne tallied 156.5 points overall, recording 137 kills, 88 digs and 24 total blocks. Rhyne posted six matches with double-digit kills in 2011 and has totaled double digit kills in 40 different matches over her three years in the Runnin' Bulldogs' lineup.
"Molly is a solid attacker, and will step firmly into the slot played by Evans," Coach Sayles said. "Her competitiveness and creativity is a big asset. Last season, it took her a little while to adjust to our new system, but as she adjusted, I believe she found that this system is perfect for her."
The lone other returner at the outside hitter position in 2012 is junior Erin Anderson who made the best of her playing time last season off the bench for GWU. Anderson, who played in 67 sets last season, totaled 68 points overall on 52 kills and 13 service aces last season. While making a number of spot starts last season, Anderson tallied a career-high 13 digs in back-to-back matches at the Spartan Classic and posted a career-high 11 kills against UNC Asheville.
"Erin gained valuable experience last year and during the spring, and her confidence level is very high," stated Sayles. "She can be a solid defender and has the capability to take over offensively when called upon."
Callie was a three-time District MVP and a four-time All-District Team selection at Signal Mountain High School in Signal Mountain, Tennessee. The two-time All-State and three-time All-Region honoree, who was also twice named to the Chattanooga Best of Preps Team, guided her team to three-straight District Championships, two straight Regional Championships and the Sectional Finals last season as a senior.
"Callie brings valuable experience, guiding her 2010 team to a state championship as a junior," commented Sayles. "She is a solid 6-rotation player and will give us much-needed depth at the outside hitter position."
Hallman comes to GWU after a strong senior season at Wando High School in Mount Pleasant, S.C. in which she led her team to a 33-6-1 overall record and a top-10 ranking in the state of South Carolina. Hallman was twice named to the CAWS All-State Team, twice named to the VII-AAAA All-Region Team and also earned a spot on both the CAWS 2011 All-Star Team and the Post and Courier Low Country Team.
"Tinsley is a hard worker with a great attitude. We expect to redshirt her this season and hope to develop her throughout the year," commented Coach Sayles.
Depth at the outside hitter spot will come from Montour, whose versatility and strength at the net allows her to play in both the middle as well as on the outside, and senior utility player Chelsea Hearne who played three seasons on the Gardner-Webb women's soccer team where she was a Big South All-Conference Second-Team selection in goal in 2010.
"Chelsea walked on this spring and quickly earned respect as a player. She played club for a good program in high school. Her goal-keeping in soccer has actually helped her tremendously in adjusting back to the court," said Sayles. "She reads very well and has solid passing form. She will likely contribute as a passer/defender, but because of her size can also contribute up front in a pinch."
RIGHT SIDE HITTERS
Three-year starter Carolina Solano will once again enter the season as the favorite at the right side spot for the Runnin' Bulldogs, as she has played in over 100 sets in each of the last three years. Solano was second on the team with 77 total blocks last season, while her 68 solo blocks ranked third overall in GWU's Division I single-season history. Solano, who is fifth in GWU's Division I career record books with 214 total blocks, posted 193 kills last season and 250 total points. The lefty had a career-high 14 kills at home against Radford and recorded 13 kills in home wins over both High Point and Liberty last season.
"Carol began to emerge as a court-leader as last season drew to an end. Her confidence, leadership, and experience will be important to us in tight games," continued Sayles. "She sets a very strong block for us, but is also very productive offensively."
Holte, who made the transition from middle blocker to right side midway through the 2011 season, worked there all spring and has become much more familiar with the position. Last season, Holte recorded 55 kills, 19 digs, 11 blocks and five service aces in only 42 sets of play. Holte posted a career-high 10 kills and a career-best .474 attack percentage against Western Carolina at the Spartan Classic, one of her first matches lining up on the right side.
"Emily was a solid role-player for us last year, and contributed in several key games last year. Her slide has proven to be a very effective attack, and she has a very tough serve," Sayles stated. "She is a competitor and will again prove to be an important component of our success throughout the season."
Quinn, a scholarship student-athlete on the women's basketball team will look to also make an impact on the volleyball court as well in her first year at Gardner-Webb. The 6-2 athletic and long student-athlete will look to provide depth for the Runnin' Bulldogs at both the right side and middle blocker positions this season, while learning the offense and style of play that Coach Sayles instills in his team.
"Alicia is expected to contribute to the women's basketball program, but loves our game. She is a solid athlete," continued Sayles. "We will work with her this year to develop her skills and determine how best to utilize her abilities."
Having played in all 115 sets for Gardner-Webb last season as a true freshman, the setter spot once more will be manned by sophomore Heather Feldman.
Feldman, who was named to the 2011 Big South All-Freshman Team and the 2011 NCCSIA University Division All-State Team, led the Runnin' Bulldogs and was second in the Big South Conference with 1,103 assists last season. Feldman, whose 9.59 assists per set was also second in the Big South and fifth in GWU's Division I single-season record books, was also second on the team with 28 service aces and 272 digs on the year in 2011. The lone freshman from last year's roster, Feldman posted 13 double-doubles on the year and recorded 30 set assists or more in 20 different contests.
"Heather stepped in last season and played like a veteran almost the entire season," Sayles proclaimed. "As she acclimated herself to our offense, we began to see the results in conference play. This past spring, she began to assert herself as a leader, and is primed to lead our offense to new heights this season."
Freshman Devin Judge will provide depth at the setter position this season, as her versatility will allow the Runnin' Bulldogs to do a number of different things on the court this season. Judge, who played three different positions over her four years at Sprayberry High School in Marietta, Ga., finished her senior season last year ranked among the top-10 statistical leaders for the state of Georgia Class AAAA and ranked as high as No. 5 overall in 2011 among the national leaders in hitting percentage by MaxPreps. The two-time State of Georgia First-Team 7-AAAA All-Area Team selection led her team to four consecutive State Tournaments, reaching the Final Four once and the Elite Eight once. Judge finished her career with 856 kills, 324 blocks, 232 aces, 493 digs and 301 assists at Sprayberry High.
"Devin's versatility make her available in several capacities. She can play any position in the front, and has a tough serve. However, we discovered early that she has great setting hands, and is developing into a key back-up for Heather," stated Coach Sayles. "We will be able to add a few wrinkles to our offense with Devin on the roster."
With the graduation of 2011 defensive specialist Evan Moffitt, the libero position is up for grabs in 2012 as four players - Dominique Bray, Anna Pashkova, Katie Loftin and Katie Peck - will all compete for court time throughout the season.
Bray, the lone returner on the GWU roster who has suited up at the libero spot for the Runnin' Bulldogs, has seen time at the defensive specialist spot in each of the last two seasons. Last year, Bray was a vital player off the bench for GWU all season long, as she played in 99 sets on the year, recording 121 digs overall. The senior tallied 11 digs in GWU's home win over High Point, nine digs in a loss to Western Carolina and eight digs in wins over Montreat, Winthrop and Wofford.
"Dominique was a critical part of our improvement offensively last year. Her game experience will be important as she leads a pack of new defenders," stated Sayles. "She has also emerged as a key leader both on and off the floor, and will be counted on when the going gets tough."
A trio of freshmen will compete for playing time at the libero spot in Pashkova, Loftin and Peck.
Pashkova, who was named to the First-Team All-District Team and the First-Team All-Conference Team last year as a senior, guided her team to their second straight State Championship and a No. 1 overall ranking in the state of Iowa by MaxPreps. Pashkova, who was also a key member of the 2010 State Championship Team and the 2009 State Runner-Up Team, was selected to the Tri-State All-Star Game for the Iowa Team last season.
Loftin, who led her East Hamilton High School team in Ooltewah, Tennessee to a sixth-place finish at the TSSAA State Championship Tournament last year as a senior, was named the Region 3AA Championship Most Valuable Player. Loftin, who also earned a spot on the 2011 All-District 6AA Team and the Tennessee All-State First -Team last year as a senior, was a key contributor to her team's Region 3AA Championship, Sectional Championship and District 6AA Runner-Up.
Peck was an All-Conference and an All-WNC selection as a senior, leading her Franklin High School team out of Franklin, N.C. to the WNCAC Championship. Peck helped guide her team to a 24-4 overall mark last season as well as a No. 23 overall ranking in the state of North Carolina.
"Our three freshmen defenders will redefine Gardner-Webb defense. All three bring a tremendous level of skill, passion, and tenacity, and will compete immediately for time on the floor," commented Coach Sayles. "Each of them is capable of earning the libero jersey, and this core will give us a depth we have not seen in our program before."
The 2012 season features four tournaments, including the return of the Runnin' Bulldog Classic, as well as matches against Southeastern Conference member Alabama and 2011 top-110 RPI teams in Ball State (36), Samford (61) and Illinois State (107). The Runnin' Bulldogs will also face off with regional rival foes in Davidson, Elon, North Carolina Central, North Carolina A&T, Charlotte, Western Carolina, East Tennessee State and USC Upstate on top of a very challenging Big Conference slate.
"The 2012 schedule will be a balance of top volleyball programs such as Ball State and Samford with solid competition from comparable schools. We'll have extremely tough competition against five programs ranked around the top-150 in Division I volleyball," stated Coach Sayles. "We will have the opportunity to challenge our regional competition (Charlotte, WCU, Wofford, USC Upstate, Davidson, Elon, and ETSU), while also squaring off against Alabama from the SEC. We will have a good opportunity for some quality wins, but will be pushed and tested on all levels. Our home tournament should challenge us and help us elevate our play at home in preparation for the pressures of the 2012 Big South Championship Tournament, which we will host in November."