TWU volleyball coach Shelly Barberee readily admits her squad is the most experienced she’s had in her 10 seasons running the Pioneers program. Better yet, it also may be her most talented team.
Whether that combination of veteran experience and skill translates into a championship-caliber team, of course, will be determined during the season. But it does appear the Pioneers are loaded with enough weapons to be considered a legitimate contender for the Lone Star Conference title.
It’s a role Barberee welcomes.
“Every day I let the girls know that my expectations are higher because of the seniority on the team,” Barberee said. “And it should be. The older you get, the more pressure you should have.
“But the girls are excited as well. They know we have a lot of talent this year. They know we have a lot of experience. Along with experience comes smarter game play at a higher level, and we’ve already seen glimpses of that.”
The numbers lean heavily in TWU’s favor this season, which begins Friday when the Pioneers host the five-team Holiday Inn Express & Suites Classic at Kitty Magee Arena.
The Pioneers return 10 letter winners from last year’s 13-17 team, including six regular starters. The roster features five seniors and five juniors, and will have just four new faces in uniform, including three transfers from Panola College. Only one player is listed as a freshman on this year’s team.
To say the Pioneers possess plenty of talent might be an understatement. Senior hitter Viktorija Jablonska was the LSC Co-Offensive Player of the Year last season and has been voted the preseason favorite to claim the award this season. Two other returning starters, junior blocker Chloe’ Tate — a Ryan product — and sophomore libero Morgan Wilson, also earned league notice with second-team and honorable mention recognition, respectively, last season.
Meanwhile, three incoming transfers from Panola College, juniors Josie Santos (5-8, hitter), Courtnee Davis (5-10, hitter) and Marcela Alves (6-1, blocker) bring NJCAA All-America skills that helped Panola to the national tournament the last two years. In 2010, Davis and Santos became the school’s first volleyball athletes to earn NJCAA All-America honors when they were named to the second team. Last season Santos was named a first-team All-American.
“The group that we’ve got, including the athletes we’ve recruited as well as those that are returning, we’re super excited about,” Barberee said. “Experience — that’s the name of the game in volleyball. We have transfer kids who went to the national tournament, and most of our starters are returning.”
Nearly all of the statistical leaders from last season are back. Jablonska, Tate and senior Erin Harmon were the team’s top three kills leaders, while sophomores Hannah Marshall (also a graduate of Ryan) and Kayla Rivero were the Pioneers’ two assists leaders in 2011. Sophomore Morgan Wilson led the team in digs while Tate finished No. 1 in blocks.
Jablonska again will be the Pioneer who will give opponents the most concern. She emerged to lead the LSC in kills (359) and kills per set (4.08) in league play last year after transferring to TWU. Now comfortable in her life at TWU, the native of Daugavpils, Latvia, named first-team All-LSC and second-team All-South Central Region a year ago, hopes to make her final season a memorable one.
“I don’t think the team feels any more pressure this year,” she said. “But I feel that everyone knows we are better. And this year we should be better. I know I’m very confident. This is my last season and I want to play my best.”
She’s already noticed how the trio of Panola transfers has made a quick and smooth transition — much easier than when the shy, soft-spoken Jablonska showed up on campus not knowing anyone a year ago.
“The newcomers are more confident than when I came here last year,” she said. “I feel like I’ve played with them all my life. I think we’ll all play together very well.”
Santos, Davis and Alves were successfully recruited to TWU in large part because of Pioneers assistant coach Todd Lyles’ connection to their school. Lyles formerly coached at Panola and brought similar offensive and defensive schemes to the Pioneers that helped lure the threesome to Denton.
“The transition has been really easy for us,” Davis said. “I thought it would be harder, going from a junior college to a university, but the team’s really helped us out. Everyone has been really supportive and very helpful.”
TWU opens the season at home by hosting its annual Holiday Inn Express & Suites Classic. The Pioneers will face East Central (2 p.m.) and Arkansas Monticello (7 p.m.) on Friday before taking on New Mexico Highlands (11:30 a.m.) and Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras (4:30 p.m.) on Saturday. All games will be at Kitty Magee Arena.
The Pioneers will have both a local and international look this season. Three former Denton athletes are on the roster, including junior Chloe’ Tate (Ryan), sophomore Hannah Marshall (Ryan) and sophomore Katelyn Barnett (Denton). Also suiting up for TWU this season will be three players with international backgrounds, including transfers Josie Santos and Marcela Alves from Brazil and senior standout Viktorija Jablonska, a native of Latvia.
TWU QUICK FACTS
Head Coach: Shelly Barberee
Record at TWU: 147-148 (nine seasons)
Career record: 349-229 (14 seasons)
Conference: Lone Star (NCAA Division II)
Home court: Kitty Magee Arena
2011 record: 13-17 (11-9 LSC)
Letter winners returning/lost: 10/3
Starters returning/lost: 6/1