POTSDAM -- In his 10 years as head coach of the SUNY Potsdam volleyball team, Steve Pike has never seen anything like this.
The Bears, who enter the 2010 season with 12 of their 14 players at freshmen or sophomore eligibility, are so evenly talented across the board that Pike couldn't name a starting lineup without mentioning multiple players at each position.
“The difference right now from 1-13, not including (injured freshman) Dakota (Pruiss), is minimal at best,” said Pike, who has been working with the team since Aug. 21. “It’s a good problem to have, but it also means we¹ve got a lot of potential to reach and a lot of work to do.”
Potsdam hopes to reach that potential following a 6-30 season in 2009.
Despite the record, Pike believes the program took steps forward and hopes to build around those steps with a young team in 2010.
“The team never changed its mentality or its focus about what they were here for,” Pike said. “They were here to become great as a program. So even though we didn't have the success in wins and losses that we'd like, we didn't take any steps backward. We only took steps forward in developing leaders, communicating, working as a group and getting more contact on the volleyball.”
After watching the team perform in scrimmages during a team trip to Costa Rica in early August and a pair of recent scrimmages against local rivals St. Lawrence and Clarkson, Pike pointed to blocking, serve receive and serving as areas he believes to be the Bears' strengths.
“We blocked three balls per game against the Costa Rican national team and four balls per game against Clarkson and SLU in our scrimmage,” Pike said.
“So that's a huge strength for us. I also think that our serve receive has improved, and our ability to serve and take other teams out of system is going to be a strength for us.”
According to Pike, the team will work hard to improve running its offense at a faster tempo and being able to create offense when the team is out of system.
Erica Romaniello, the team's lone senior, has been selected as a captain for the year and has embraced her leadership role so far, Pike said. The coach also mentioned several others, including several second-year players, who are helping the team's five freshmen along.
“Erica has picked up where she’s left off as far as being a leader that just helps pull people along,” Pike said. “Everyone is taking their own little piece, or part, so nobody has to do the whole thing, which has been good to see.”
Several players on the roster look to factor in to the regular rotation.
Romaniello (Selden) and sophomore Jill Dye (Middletown) will compete for playing time at libero. Romaniello led the team in 2009 with 478 digs and finished second with 37 service aces. Dye totaled 142 digs, good for third on the team.
According to Pike, Romaniello is in great physical shape, while Dye has increased her aggressiveness on the court. The two may be on the court at the same time for passing and defensive purposes in the back row.
“Watching by the naked eye, it's really hard to tell between Jill and Erica, as far as who's serve-receiving at a higher point or who's digging more balls,” Pike said.
At outside hitter, juniors Allison Metot (Bernhards Bay) and Sam Strader (Watertown) and freshman Annie Smith (Burke) project to be a part of the rotation. Strader led the Bears in kills (201), and finished second in digs (232) and blocks (43) in 2009.
Metot recorded 67 kills and 56 digs last season, while Smith is an offensive talent.
“It's clear that Allison played a ton of volleyball over the summer, because she’s just bettering the ball each time she makes a contact,” Pike said. “Annie Smith could really be a dominant force for us.”
Sophomores Anne Fildes (Red Hook) and Kayla Howard (Marcellus) look to be the go-to middle hitters. Fildes registered 48 kills and 24 blocks in 30 matches played, while Howard totaled 34 kills and 18 blocks in 22 matches last year.
“Both (Fildes and Howard) are consistent blockers and they bring different strengths to the offense,”Pike said.
The right side hitter position will likely be split between sophomore Jessica Archinal (Amsterdam) and freshman Brittany Lapham (West Chazy,). Archinal, who missed most of the 2009 season due to a health condition, is a good blocker. Lapham is quick to the volleyball, and will likely be used in the back row for defense.
Sophomore Hannah Lockwood (Victor) and freshman Jenna Blujus (Baldwinsville) will see time at setter. Last season, Lockwood finished second on the team with 213 assists and collected a team-high 45 service aces.
“One of the things we didn’ stat (in the scrimmage) was setting efficiency,” Pike said. “I know who led us in assists, but I don't know if they had more setting attempts to see if they’e really more efficient right now. So it’s a legitimate battle.”
Others battling for playing time include sophomore middle hitter Sam Willert (East Aurora) and freshman outside/right side hitter Erin Wagner (Rochester).
Freshman outside/right side hitter Dakota Pruiss (Wallkill) has been limited in practice but has the potential to play a key role this season.
Potsdam opens State University of New York Athletic Conference play on Sept. 24-25 with a play date at New Paltz. The Bears, who finished 2-6 in SUNYAC East play last season, will host the second SUNYAC play date on Oct. 22-23.
“The first two weekends we always tend to circle are the two SUNYAC weekends,”Pike said. “Our entire conference season is based on how you perform those two weekends, which determines whether you get into the SUNYACs, which then determines if you've got a shot at getting into the NCAA Tournament.”
The Bears open up the season on Sept. 3-4 with the Cortland Red Dragon Classic in Cortland.
“We start out with Vassar and the University of Rochester, both very strong programs, on the first night,” Pike said. “So those (matches) will give us a good idea about where we¹re at.”
On the following weekend, Sept. 10-11, Potsdam hosts the 10-team Victory Promotions Invitational, which includes a good mix of local and regional competition.
While SUNY Potsdam players and coaches are focused on getting better as a program and competing, Pike hopes his student-athletes take more out of it than winning and losing.
“We want to be a place where female student-athletes can really see themselves grow, prosper and develop for their entire lives because they were here," Pike said. "The wins and losses will take care of themselves if you're doing the little things right.”