December 1, 2020

Volleyball aims for second straight SLIAC title

Webster University volleyball coach Merry Graf returns for her 12th season as the Gorloks look to build on last year’s 14-2 St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference record. Last year, the Gorloks won the SLIAC regular season title, the SLIAC tournament championship and earned an NCAA tournament berth.

The Gorloks return 11 players this season and added 12 new players, giving them a balance of experience and depth. Graf said even with all the new faces, the team has started to gel.

“We were fortunate last year. We started four freshmen on a regular basis and a fifth one started at least one-third of the games for us,” Graf said. “We returned all of those players. In addition to some others, we have two senior setters that both returned with varsity experience and a couple of juniors as well, so we had a nice group of returners and we have a great incoming class that I think will add a lot of depth for us … We are very excited about the season.”

Freshman outside hitter/defensive specialist Lauren McCulley digs for a ball at practice at Grant Gymnasium on Wednesday, Aug. 22. Webster volleyball won the SLIAC championship in 2011. PHOTO BY VICTORIA CASWELL.

In addition to the 12 new players the Gorloks added a few transfer players including one with an old tie to the team.

“We do we have a couple of transfers. (Sophomore middle hitter) Samantha Kersting is one of those, and she was actually recruited coming out of high school,”  Graf said. “(She) ended up getting an offer to go to Indiana State University. She took it, didn’t like the experience of playing Division I and decided to come back.

“She’s actually played club ball with several of the other girls when she was 18, so it’s kind of fun to see them reunite. There’s a couple other transfers that we’ve added to the roster as well, so that adds even more depth for us.”

Graf said her goals this season are to win the conference title and to host and win the conference tournament, which the team has done five of the last six years. She also has high expectations for the NCAA tournament.

“We’ve gone to the NCAA tournament, but unfortunately when we come out of our bracket, we’re the low seed and play the up seed, and many times it’s WashU (Washington University),” Graf said. “… So we’re hoping to work really hard and win against some of our tough regional teams and maybe get a higher seed coming out to the regional tournament.”

Graf also said this is the tallest team she has had in many years, and with four players at six feet and above, she’s excited about the blockers on this team.

In addition to size, Webster strength and conditioning coach Matt Saitz implemented a new program for the team last spring.

“We’re thrilled here at Webster with what he’s doing with our programs,” Graf said. “He’s got a really nice program that he works with strengthening their core … He had an offseason summer training program that he sent out, and a lot of them have been working really hard doing that. So, we’re hoping that we came back into camp in much better shape and ready to go.”

Last season as a freshman, outside hitter Jenny Howard earned the 2011 SLIAC Newcomer of the Year award, was an All-Conference first-team selection and led the conference in hitting percentage. Graf thinks Howard will step into more of a leadership role this year as a sophomore.

“I definitely want to be one of the top hitters in the conference again,” Howard said. “Last year, I was first team All-Conference, so I want to get that accolade again. But I’m definitely focusing on helping the team more than anything.

“I think we’re really solid on defense and really solid on passing. We have some really tall girls this year so hopefully our blocking improves, and I think we’re going to be strong defensively. I think we’re going to be a really well-rounded team this year.”

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