Young Panthers Have Eyes On Another Run At League Title
Aug. 20, 2012
MILWAUKEE - Many times, when a team loses six seniors from a 15-person roster, the next season would be a time for rebuilding.
Well, that's far from the case for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee women's volleyball team.
In fact, while it won't be easy for the Panthers to replace the now-departed senior class, UWM has its eyes on being better than ever.
Those goals seem to be well within reach for Milwaukee, which sees its list of returnees topped by honorable mention All-American Rachel Neuberger, AVCA Midwest Region Freshman of the Year Kayla Price and Horizon League Tournament Most Valuable Player Elizabeth Egerer.
When all is said and done, the Panthers will be looking to repeat as Horizon League champions and possibly break through with their first-ever postseason victory.
Egerer and Anna Bartz make up this year's two-person senior class. Each will play a key role in the upcoming season, with Egerer in the front row and Bartz in the back. They will also provide leadership and stability for the group, setting a strong example of two people who have grown tremendously during their time in Milwaukee.
"Anna is one who has really come along in her career here as far as leadership," Johnson said. "She has always been a hard worker and I expect really great things out of her. She is a captain now and has really become a voice for the team on and off the court. She has a lot of respect from her teammates and that is really going to help the team this year."
"Biz really came on strong the last half of the season last year and has a lot of confidence coming into her senior year. She hits the ball a ton and has a lot of respect from the league. I don't know if she was expecting to get to a point last year where should would win MVP of the tournament, but she really came through with a lot of confidence in that conference tournament last year. We're really excited about our seniors."
Neuberger takes the mantle as UWM's most decorated returnee after posting one of the best sophomore seasons in school history. Along with her All-America honors, Neuberger was an All-Horizon League performer while leading the league in hitting percentage and finishing second in blocks. Johnson thinks her junior middle blocker can be even better.
"She is such a great leader, such a competitor, really tough and demands a lot out of herself every time she touches the ball," Johnson said. "She has worked incredibly hard at her blocking and she had an excellent spring, really her best-ever spring. She came in this spring ready to work, like she always does, and she wants to be great. I do expect the league to be prepared for her and be ready for her, but I also expect her to be even better than she was last year."
The Panthers also have a group of sophomores who earned their stripes as freshmen a season ago. Setter Kayla Price tops that list after earning league and regional honors. Price led the league in assists and directed UWM's offense from the first set of the first match onward. She'll settle right back into that role again this year.
"One thing that happens with freshmen when they play a lot is that every match they are just learning more and more and more," Johnson said. "The huge benefit of playing every match your freshman year is that you have all of that experience, which is pretty unique. It is great to only be a sophomore and have all of that experience. I have already seen a difference in Kayla. She is walking taller, she expects a lot more out of herself now and having as many accolades as she did her freshman year, she is so prepared for the fall and her teammates now know what to expect out of her. They are all going to demand more out of each other, which is a really great thing."
Milwaukee's breakthrough player in 2012 could well be sophomore Julie Kolinske, who came on strong at the end of last year. In fact, she earned a spot on the league's all-tournament team after tallying 21 kills in the two tourney matches. She actually finished the year by reaching doubles digits in kills in three of her final five outings and started the NCAA Tournament match at Iowa State.
"Julie really works hard in the off-season and she did the same this summer," Johnson said. "The one thing she has really gained the most in this last year is confidence. She saw herself rise in that last third of the season and she started believing in herself. It is extremely powerful when you start believing in yourself and you get more confidence. Julie can back it up with physical ability and she could very well be one of the best players in this league at some point. We're really excited about the potential for Julie."
There are two other returnees who will clearly have the chance to work their way in the mix, as well. Taylor Golabowski played 30 matches in the back row, collecting 203 digs. Hannah Blanchard showed flashes of brilliance for Milwaukee, with a pair of double-figure kill outings. Plus, Arianna Wiersma did not play last season while Amber Simonton has missed the last two years, first as a redshirt and then last year with an injury.
"I believe every player has an opportunity every day to compete," Johnson said. "Players like Arianna and Hannah have been practicing at outside positions and have been working really hard at their passing and defense. Amber is doing a nice job on the right side so we're going to keep working her there. And somebody like Taylor who had that whole first year with a lot of match play, the experience is really going to go far for her this fall. It is really helpful to have another steady defensive player to help us out."
The presence of all of those returnees does not mean some of the newest faces won't find their way on the court, as well. In fact, it seems likely at least a couple players of the four-person freshman class will see playing time. Maisey Mulvey has a head start having been at UWM in the second semester and playing for the Panthers during the spring season. Sammi Herron, Nicole Latzig and Maggie Dunbar also join the roster, with the group bringing a wide variety of skills and personalities to the table.
"The goal of recruiting is to try to figure out how to fill the holes left by the players that have left. They are all such different players," Johnson said. "We're really excited about Maggie's potential because it is a unique set of qualities she has. Sammi is more of a firecracker on the outside - she is fast and spunky and a great team player. It is going miles that Maisey was able to train with us for three months this past spring. She has already played matches at the Fieldhouse in Madison and at Marquette, so she knows more of what to expect. And then Nicole is a really steady player. We're excited about her potential and it will be interesting to see where she fits in."
The group will do all it can to live up to the expectations of Panther volleyball and the strong tradition left behind. The follow in the footsteps of another ultra-successful senior class that helped keep Milwaukee volleyball on top of the league.
"The senior group that just left was definitely a great group," Johnson said. "All of our seniors were very ingrained in our tradition of winning. But they did a very good job of passing that on to the younger people and helping to keep us in a position of being successful."
Now, the baton is passed to a group that will try to exceed even the lofty accomplishments of teams past.