POTSDAM -- The 2013 season was SUNY Potsdam head volleyball coach Josh Stokes' first at the helm of the Bears.
With the help of long-time assistant Carrie Corriveau, he guided Potsdam to a 15-16 overall mark, a 5-4 SUNYAC record and the program's second straight playoff appearance.
The Bears will look to fill the void left by the graduation of three-time All-SUNYAC setter Jenna Blujus, All-SUNYAC middle hitter Sara Anderson and the strong leadership of setter Lauren Manzo and outside hitter Dakota Pruiss. They will do so with 10 returnees and six new faces. With his veterans and his first recruiting class, Stokes has already raised the bar for 2014.
"The goal is always to improve upon what we did the year before," said Stokes. “Losing that senior class was tough because they were a very talented group. But with this young group coming in plus two veterans returning to the game after a few years off, our look and style are completely different. My ultimate goal is not to just make the SUNYAC Playoffs. It's obviously to get there and try to win a title. We know that the other teams will make it tough for us, but we expect to go out and challenge and compete at every given opportunity."
As is the case every season, the responsibility of leadership will fall mainly on the team's seniors.
"I'm looking to them to lead us," Stokes said. "With them having played collegiate volleyball for three seasons, I'm looking to them to help us break the threshold of just reaching the SUNYACS. We're looking to rattle off some games and really win in the SUNYACS, not just to play close ones or just be competitive. We have the right group and the right chemistry to help push us to the next level. The nice part is having Lauren and Jenna here because they can help guide us."
Blujus and Manzo will return as student assists along with Anderson as the statistician to support Stokes and Corriveau. Corriveau is entering her seventh season with the Bears and Stokes appreciates the synergy of the coaching duo.
"Coach 'Vo has really helped our backcourt become more consistent and more fluid," said Stokes. "She and I, we share the same ideas of volleyball. It's great because we're on the same page with everything. We both can offer insight to each other, to help the program improve continually."
Three liberos/defensive specialists return this season. Senior Gabby Arana (Williston Park, N.Y./Herricks) is the most experienced. Arana saw action in all 31 of Potsdam's contests in 2013. She led the team in digs (406) and totaled 24 service aces. Junior Allie Romaniello (Selden, N.Y./Newfield) and sophomore Sloane Campbell (Scotia, N.Y./Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake) also played in each of the Bears' matches. Romaniello recorded 187 digs and 23 aces, while Campbell was third on the team in aces (36) and contributed 207 digs.
Two freshmen, that have traveled a long distance to come to Potsdam, will step into the setter positions left open by Blujus and Manzo's departures. Despite their youth, Stokes has high expectations for Alaskan Rachel Topf (Eagle River, Alaska/Chugiak) and Californian Kelsea Healis (San Diego, Calif./Rancho Cotate).
"Having lost Lauren and Jenna, we have two young setters coming in," Stokes said. "Both are from the West Coast to go with a couple of girls we're transitioning into setters. We're looking very solid in the position right now in the absence of the two seniors."
Stokes is excited about the possibilities at outside hitter.
"I'm feeling a lot of confidence right now in our outside hitting position," said Stokes. We didn't really have a fluid dynamic there last year, but this year we have six that can do the job. In the middle right now, where losing Sara Anderson was very tough for us, we're four deep."
Potsdam has seven outside hitters returning and four new faces. Liza Fields (Duanesburg, N.Y./Duanesburg), Sharon Ofori (Bronx, N.Y./John F. Kennedy) and Tia Wright (Vestal, N.Y./Vestal) are the returning seniors. In Potsdam's 31 matches, Fields was third in kills (213) and digs (232), fourth in aces (27) and recorded 23 blocks. Ofori posted 109 kills, 34 digs and nine blocks in 28 matches. Wright posted 65 kills, 31 digs and 22 blocks in 24 contests.
Casey Chase (Central Square, N.Y./Paul V. Moore), who also sees some time as a setter, is the lone returning junior outside hitter on the roster. Chase played in 22 matches last season and totaled 22 kills and 30 digs.
Sarah Becker (Troy, N.Y./Tamarac), Felicia Barr (Ogdensburg, N.Y./Ogdensburg Free Academy) and Amara Pascuito (Ballston Spa, N.Y./Ballston Spa) are the sophomore class. Becker, also a middle hitter, played in every match last season and was second on the team in blocks with 40. She also totaled 90 kills and 20 digs. Barr had nine kills and 10 digs in 12 matches last year. Pascuito, also a defensive specialist, saw time in 16 contests and had 28 digs.
Katie Agar (Saugerties, N.Y./Saugerties) and Kelsey Tompkins (Vestal, N.Y./Vestal) are the lone freshmen to join the squad at outside hitter. Graduate student Annie Smith (Chateauguay, N.Y./Chateauguay) and junior Chelsea Sunday (Akwesasne, N.Y./Salmon River) are new additions to the Bears this season, but familiar faces to the program and bring plenty of volleyball experience with them. Smith played in 31 matches for Potsdam in 2010 and led the team in kills with 252. She also had 21 aces, 146 digs and 23 blocks. Sunday last played for Potsdam in 2005. In the 2004 and 2005 seasons she saw action in 49 matches and totaled 166 kills, 34 aces, 128 digs and 34 blocks.
The Bears will play the always-tough nine-match SUNYAC schedule featuring perennial powers New Paltz, Cortland and Buffalo State. To prepare for conference play the team will face a challenging nonconference schedule. Potsdam will battle 2013 NCAA tourney teams Southern Vermont and Williams as well as talented NYU, Richard Stockton and Western New England squads to name a few. They will also face St. Lawrence and SUNY Canton to continue heated local rivalries.
The Bears open the 2014 campaign this Friday, August 29, at 2 p.m. when they take on the host Kangaroos at the SUNY Canton Invitational.