ABILENE, Texas - Abilene Christian volleyball begins its 43rd season and first as a NCAA Division I member of the Southland Conference this weekend when they head to Arlington for the UTA Hilton Invitational. The Wildcats will face the host Mavericks Friday at 7 p.m. at the College Park Center and battle both Louisiana Tech (11 a.m.) and Grambling State on Saturday (4:30 p.m.).
The Wildcats have never any of these schools, but ACU head coach Kellen Mock has known UTA's Diane Seymour since her junior high days as a club player, while the Mavericks' new assistant coach, Jason Bibler, served ACU in a similar role from 2010-12.
"It's going to be different seeing Jason on the opposing bench," said Mock, who is at the start of her eighth season at ACU. "He certainly taught our girls a lot and it's going to be a tough opening match for our team since he knows so much about us … but they're a good squad to begin with. They are powerful, quick, and athletic. We also have to be aware of their middles, so we need to block well and defend."
Last season's Mavericks went 9-22 overall and 5-13 against the WAC, but they recently joined the Sun Belt Conference, where they're expected to finish sixth in a 10-team field.
Louisiana Tech also was part of the WAC last season, but will be entering enters its first year as members of Conference USA coming off a 3-27 season. This mark included a 0-18 record against the conference.
Grambling State – members of the SWAC since 1958 – struggled last season as well, going 3-19 overall and 1-7 vs. the conference.
ACU experienced it's own share of hardships a year ago as an assortment of injuries to veterans such as Neely Borger, Madelyn Robinett and Haley Rhoads forced Mock to start her entire four-woman freshmen class. But each responded extremely well to the various challenges and all saw time in all 31 matches.
Setter Sarah Siemens provided 1,123 assists, which helped earn her Lone Star Conference Freshman of the Year honors, while Jennie Loerch – an outside hitter – ranked 13th in the LSC with 2.81 kills per match.
Madison Hoover established herself as one of the league's top defensive players after finishing the year ranked 40th in the nation and sixth in the conference with 5.01 digs per set. Corrie Reeder, meanwhile, led the team in blocks in Borger's absence with 86 – 21 of which were ruled solo efforts.
Borger is fully recovered from last year's knee injury and remains the squad's most decorated veteran with 243 career blocks and 498 kills. She's also someone who Mock will depend on to provide on-court leadership as the Wildcats look to make a quick adjustment to the speed of the D-I game.
"I'm not sure what it's all going to look like come game day, but we're really working hard on being solid defensively and on serve/receive," said Mock. "We need to be a team that's low error and which can still perform well out of system, and right now I feel that ball control is our greatest strength as we move up to D-I. That's our current game plan: to play smart and consistent and let the other team make all the errors."
Last year's team especially struggled on the attack in committing 720 errors on 4197 attempts for a .152 hitting percentage. By comparison, ACU's opponents made a 155 fewer miscues on 100 fewer attempts (.196). The young Wildcats also made 151 serving errors, 37 on the block, and were aced on 148 occasions.
The year prior – when the team won 21 games and qualified for NCAA regionals – the Wildcats hit over 40 points better at .193 and watched the opposition make 182 errors on its serve.
This year's team will remain young with the addition of four freshmen, but the veteran corps of Borger, Robinett, Rhoads, outside hitter Rachel Riley and defensive specialist Caley Johnson are all battled tested from having to play some of the nation's best D-II squads night after night as part of the LSC.
Rhoads was the team's primary setter in 2012 and her freshman-year total of 1,132 assists still ranks her ninth all-time on ACU's single-season record list. She also was honored twice that year as the LSC's Setter of the Week after leading the Wildcats to wins over No. 16 Angelo State, Kingsville and Tarleton State.
Riley saw a dramatic rise in her offensive production a year ago as she hit .180 as a sophomore with 207 kills and 223.5 points (2.38 per set), while Robinett shook off an early-season wrist injury to finished ranked among the national leaders and first in the LSC with 0.38 service aces per set (28 through 74 sets played).
Johnson, who also has two years experience as the Wildcats' setter, made a successful transition last year into a defensive specialist and came away with a career-season high 213 digs.
An obvious strength of the incoming freshmen is their height. Middle blocker Lexi Mercier is six-feet tall and should immediately bolster the ACU block alongside Reeder and Borger, while another Colorado native, Erica Lambert – a right-side and outside hitter – stands at 6-1. Lambert, according to Mock, is a, "low-error player, who is developing more power on her swing."
Mock also is excited to play 5-10 outside hitter Dorothy Swanson, who was a three-sport star at White Oak High School.
"Dorothy has proven to be very coachable on top of possessing sheer athleticism," Mock said. "We've had to tweak her arm swing as she adjusts from the middle to the outside … she just needs to wait and hit the ball with some power, but long-term she has the potential to be one of our strongest and most physical players on the court."
Emily Adkins is the most recent addition to the roster. She was a three-year co-captain and two-time first team all-district setter at Ranchview High School, but will moved into the role of defensive specialist.
"Even if not every one of our players is a full-time starter, this is a solid group of kids and I believe that every one of them can play," said Mock. "The team coming out of camp is extremely unified and knows how hard it has to work to overcome the challenges of playing a full D-I schedule."
Information for this story provided by ACU Athletics.