WINTER PARK, Fla. - After posting the best start in the Sindee Snow era, the 2009 season appeared to be very promising for the Rollins volleyball team. Boosting an 11-1 record, the best mark since 1989, the Tars fell victim, for a second-straight year, to injuries and finished with an overall record of 15-20 and 2-14 in the Sunshine State Conference.
Rollins exploded out of the gate, going undefeated in its first two tournaments. At the West Georgia Classic, the Tars started the year with a 3-1 victory over Valdosta State. Sweeps over Albany State and South Carolina-Aiken ensued before a showdown with host, West Georgia.
The Wolves captured the first set, but the Tars roared back with 20 kills from Nikki Hartman to improve to 4-0. However, it was fellow senior Natalie Branche who received the recognition when she was the named the Sunshine State Conference Defensive Player of the Week after collecting 19 blocks in the weekend.
For the following the classic, Rollins returned home for its own invitational. Shepherd and Barton suffered sweeps against the Tars to kick off the event. The next match featured nationally-ranked Minnesota State-Mankato and brought the first true competition for Rollins. Despite a close first set, the Mavericks earned the 3-0 victory to hand the Tars their first loss of the season. Rollins closed out the invitational with a victory over in-state rival Webber International as Hartman secured a spot on the All-Tournament Team.
The Tars trekked north to participate in the Bentley Invitational where they met harsher competition than expected. Despite three sweeps in their first three matches against eventual NCAA Third Round participant Bridgeport and NCAA Tournament members Georgian Court and Bentley, the Tars increased their record to 11-1 with the most grueling section of the schedule on the horizon.
It began with the conclusion of the Bentley Invitational against 2008 NCAA Quarterfinal Participant New Haven. After a 3-1 loss, the Tars dropped four-straight matches against nationally-ranked opponents. A loss to the eventual SSC Co-Champion, Saint Leo, preceded defeats against 15th-ranked Florida Southern, fifth-ranked Tampa and 25th-ranked Eckerd.
With the record adjusted to 11-6, Rollins took down two-consecutive conference opponents, Barry and 2008 NCAA Quarterfinal member, Nova Southeastern. Against the Sharks, Rollins trailed in the match 2-1 before securing the final two sets en route to a 3-2 victory.
Hard times followed as Rollins lost back-to-back five-set conference matches. Both Lynn and Florida Tech took down the Tars at Warden Arena in marathon contests, before the Tars captured win No. 14 over non-conference foe, Southern New Hampshire.
At 14-7, the Tars went on a 12-match losing streak, which saw five, five-set heartbreakers. At this point, injuries continued to mount as the Tars saw its rightside hitter Caitlin Vyborny end her season with a knee injury. However, the Tars rallied to send their seniors off with a victory over Palm Beach Atlantic and snapped the losing skid.
Offensively, Senior Nikki Hartman continued her dominance as one the elite outside hitters in the conference as she again led the team in kills. After transferring to Rollins for her final two seasons, Hartman quickly became the primary offensive target. She finished the season with 501 kills after racking up 23 in the season finale in three sets. Those 501 kills tied her for second on the Tars single-season list and she finished third in total attacks with 1,498.
Rollins received considerable play from its four freshmen. Kiana Parks and Kayla Austin split time at the setter position, as Parks was the primary passer finishing with 1,151 assists. Austin was used in key moments to provide support, but her passing was done by collecting 294 digs, third on the team. Outside hitter Mikayla Pierce enjoyed playing alongside Hartman as she racked up the kills to end with 357, 2.77 per set to earn a spot on the SSC All-Freshman Team.
Leading the teams in digs for a second-straight season was Phoebe Corder. The Buda, Texas native missed time in the early portion of the season due to an illness, but got things going to finish as the digs leader with 472.
Defensively, the middle blockers increased their season totals from a year ago. Failing to record a blocker with triple digits in 2008, the Tars’ Jenny Sherwood and Branche teamed up for 230 total blocks. Branche was the team-high with 116, while Sherwood added 114. Branche also received the SSC Defensive Player of the Week award, twice. Freshman middle blocker, Jill Lau, saw significant playing time, but was forced to switch positions to the right side at the mid-way point of the season. Playing back-and-forth in the two spots, Lau finished with 116 kills and 47 blocks.
The Tars’ Karin Barborikova, Page Cottrell, Lora Lieb and and Grace MacLean all saw action during the season as Barborikova saw the most playing in 100 sets and filled in for Corder at the libero position.
Despite a very young team that regularly started three freshmen, the Tars failed to overcome adversity due to their lack of experience. The 2009 scheduled didn’t help as it was arguably one of the toughest in the nation, which included seven matches against nationally-ranked opponents, nine 2009 NCAA Volleyball Tournament members and one Final Four participant, Flagler.
With nine five-set matches and eight four-set matches the wear and tear of collegiate volleyball wore down this young squad. However, the future looks bright for Rollins as it loses just two seniors from the 2009 season and looks to bring in one of the best recruiting classes in the program’s history.