POTSDAM -- Hosting perhaps the most competitive tournament in the country on the opening weekend, the Clarkson University Volleyball team will begin the season at Alumni Gymnasium showcasing a new Elite 8 banner and a new volleyball-only floor while welcoming numerous alumni for the beginning of the program's 40th season.
The Golden Knights, ranked 20th in the country in the AVCA Pre-Season Poll, will be one of several teams in Alumni Gymnasium with high aspirations for 2014. The defending national champion and top-ranked team in the country Calvin College is looking to earn their third championship in five seasons, while SUNY New Paltz is looking to take a leap past Clarkson in the New York Region after coming up short in the NCAA Regional Final the last two seasons.
Roger Williams University was upset in the New England Regional Semifinals after an outstanding season and looks to take the next step forward while fellow New England region member Simmons College hopes to get back on track with a new coach in 2014.
The Golden Knights will open the tournament at 2:00 pm on Friday afternoon when they host Simmons College and Clarkson will then take on top-ranked Calvin College at 6:00 pm that evening. On Saturday, the Knights will face SUNY New Paltz in a rematch of last year's New York Regional Final at 1:00 pm and Clarkson will close out the tournament against Roger Williams at 5:00 pm that same day.
"Our opening weekend is probably the strongest tournament in the country that weekend," head coach Johan Dulfer said. "Our new court, our alumni and parents in attendance, and the fact that we play such great opponents should create a phenomenal atmosphere in which to play. Our schedule (this weekend and this season) presents some outstanding opportunities to measure ourselves against the best in the Northeast and in the country. If your goal is to be the very best, then you have to play the very best."
While Clarkson lost three All-Americans (Xiao Liang, Lani Durio, and Erika Chin) from the team that last year reached the NCAA Quarterfinals for the second straight season, the Golden Knights are far from barren of talent. Three conference all-stars return, including senior Adrienne Walker (Centennial, CO) and juniors Aishvina Arasu (Brea, CA) and Victoria Kirkemo (Englewood, CO). With 11 players returning from the 2013 squad, Clarkson is still a veteran team despite having only three seniors.
The same can't be said for Simmons College, as the Sharks are without a senior on its 14-player team. Two juniors come back in Chanel Thomas and Nicole Alberghini and five sophomores return as well.
The sophomore class is loaded with talent, as several players earned plenty of playing time as first-year members of the Sharks. Alex Itasaka led the team with 445 digs (3.59 dps) and Andalyn Duke was the team's starting setter (4.71 aps, 537 assists total). Abby Hart led the team with 45 total blocks and Duke and Kat Guillotte each had 32 aces.
After a 35-1 season that ended in a five-set thriller for the program's second national championship in four seasons, Calvin College is looking to replace the AVCA National Player of the Year and three-time First-Team All-American Megan Rietema, the team's starting setter. However, the team returns two other All-Americans in Maggie Kamp and Emily Crowe. A First-Team All-American, Kamp, still only a junior, blasted 524 kills (4.26 kps) in 2013 at an impressive rate of .320 on the outside.
She also chipped in 299 digs, 67 blocks and 29 aces. A Third-Team All-American, Crowe was dominant in the middle with 121 blocks (0.99 per set) and 236 total kills. The Knights are loaded with 11 players returning, including four that averaged better than two kills per set.
Against a bigger Clarkson team in 2013, SUNY New Paltz played a scrappy style to keep the Knights guessing in the New York Regional Final, but to call the team "scrappy" is a disservice to the quality of the program overall.
While the team loses a couple of key members including the team's starting setter (Marissa King) and libero (Carrie Hack), the Hawks have plenty of firepower all over the court. Junior Becca Borquist nearly posted a 500-kill, 500-dig season as a sophomore and had 65 aces as well. Alex Bizub was another solid outside, and sophomore Megan Roessler, the SUNYAC's Rookie of the Year, was a force at middle hitter with 297 kills (2.23 kps) and a .317 hitting percentage, as well as nearly a block per set (0.96 bps, 128 total blocks).
Like the other juggernauts in the tournament, Roger Williams will also be dealing with a significant loss in the graduation of Kyrstie Luczynski, an AVCA Third-Team All-American. However, the squad that went 31-4 in 2013 was certainly not the product of one player, as Elizabeth Flaherty was also an AVCA All-American Honorable Mention and Brittany McMullen was the CCC Rookie of the Year.
Flaherty had 345 kills and 365 digs as a sophomore and also produced 52 blocks and 41 aces. McMullen was another quality middle hitter, making 98 total blocks and striking for 248 kills. Darian Tredennick returns after averaging 3.69 digs per set last year, as do Kristen Boyer (2.20 kps, 2.41 dps) and Sarah McAniff (team-best 48 aces).