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Volleyball: Pioneers bring back experience

Profile image for By Randy Cummings / For the Denton Record-Chronicle
By Randy Cummings / For the Denton Record-Chronicle

On paper, the numbers stack up heavily in favor of the TWU volleyball team this season. Add them all up, and the Pioneers appear to be loaded for 2013.

Five of six starters return from last year’s 23-8 team that advanced to the Lone Star Conference tournament for the 10th consecutive season. Five seniors and six juniors give TWU an experienced foundation that knows what it takes to be successful, and four transfers — including a junior college All-America outside hitter — have been added to the mix.

However, there is one number — the starting job previously filled by standout Viktorija Jablonska — that jumps out. Jablonska, a two-time All-LSC first-teamer who closed out her two-year TWU career by receiving All-America honorable mention from the American Volleyball Coaches Association last season, has left a glaring spot in the lineup that the Pioneers need to fill.

“I don’t know if we’re trying to replace Vik,” said head coach Shelly Barberee, entering her 11th season at TWU. “It’s going to take everybody stepping up their game a notch. We’re not looking for one person to come in and do what Viktorija did. Everybody knew that Vik was a big part of our offense, so I think they know they have to step up.”

The Pioneers will start the season by playing 12 of their first 13 matches on the road. TWU will open 2013 in the Hilltopper/Rattler Classic this weekend with Friday games against Adams State and St. Edward’s in Austin and Saturday games against Central Missouri and St. Mary’s in San Antonio.

Middle blocker Chloe’ Tate, a Ryan product, was a first-team All-LSC player a year ago and returns as one of TWU’s five seniors. She finished third on the team in kills a year ago, and the Pioneers return three of their top four in kills.

Marcela Alves ranked second to Jablonska in kills last season with 274 while Tate contributed 272 and Josie Santos was fourth with 209.

“No one person can win a game,” Tate said. “I’m not taking anything away from [Jablonska’s] game, but in volleyball with six people on the court, you’ve got to have six strong players to be a good team. She helped us a lot and did great things for the team, but I feel with the people coming in and the people returning that we’ll be in a good spot.”

Other experienced returners include junior libero Morgan Wilson, senior middle blocker Erica Humbach, sophomore outside hitter Torie Talkington and outside hitter Katelyn Barnett, a junior from Denton.

Expected to return to their starting roles along with Tate, Alves and Santos are junior setter Kayla Rivero and senior outside hitter Courtnee Davis.

“Last year we did great and it was probably one of the best teams I’ve been on,” Tate said. “We know what is expected of us from our coaches. We’ve been in tight situations in conference, and we know what we have to do to get the job done.”

The four transfers are expected to make immediate contributions. Junior outside hitter Jaqueline Santos, who transferred from Tyler Junior College, was a first-team All-American after leading the Apache Ladies to a 32-6 record and a fifth-place finish in the NJCAA Division I national tournament.

“She knows the game and knows what it takes,” Barberee said. “She’s big at the net but she can also pass the ball. I’ve been very impressed with her on the court. She knows what it takes to win.”

Jaqueline Santos, a native of Rio de Janeiro who is not related to Josie Santos, has quickly impressed her new teammates.

“She’s pretty quiet, but man can she play,” Tate said. “She’s a presence on the court. Off the court she’s very soft-spoken and quiet, but she can really play. She’s great.”

Junior outside hitter Kelci Lind joins the Pioneers after two seasons at LSC rival Incarnate Word. Lind started all 31 games for the Cardinals last season and led the team in kills with 271.

The other transfers are sophomore blocker Hillary Shaffer, who played one season of Division I basketball before choosing to pursue a volleyball career at Panola College last season, and sophomore hitter Morgan Hofacker, who arrives from Bellhaven.

Barberee says the team has some unfinished business from last season. TWU beat Angelo State in conference play but watched as the Rambelles advanced to the regional final against LSC champion West Texas A&M, which played in the Division II semifinals.

TWU received votes for the regional rankings a year ago and can achieve more notoriety this year after being voted to finish third in the LSC. But this year’s seniors have never beaten top-ranked West Texas — a hurdle the Pioneers have to clear to reach their goal of a conference title.

“We finished the season strong last year, beating Angelo State and going to the tournament,” Barberee said. “But we haven’t been to regionals and I thought we should have gone last year.

“We’re just as good as [West Texas A&M and Angelo State], but we just haven’t had a good day against West Texas,” she said. “That’s what we want this year. That’s our goal. We want a ring.”