Last season, for just the second time in 10 years, the Binghamton volleyball team did not make the America East postseason tournament. As the team seeks redemption for its loss, it will have to do so without two of the most accomplished players in program history: middle hitter Grace Vickers and defensive specialist Xiomara Ortiz, both of whom graduated. Add a 2014 roster that includes nine underclassmen, and on paper it looks as if the Bearcats face a rebuilding season.
But that’s only on paper.
“They have been working hard,” BU head coach Glenn Kiriyama said of his team. “We have a pretty young squad, but they are working hard and they have improved quite a bit this past week. We are pleased with the progress.”
Facing no shortage of talent, Binghamton returns some of the most gifted players in the conference. The Bearcats have built their team around senior setter and captain Amanda Dettmann, a four-year starter and 2012 championship team member.
“Amanda has been our captain for all four years,” Kiriyama said. “She has gone through a lot with the team, with myself.”
The Bearcats will surround Dettmann with a pair of strong outside hitters in the Hovie sisters. Allison, a sophomore, brought consistency to BU last season, recording 272 kills on her way to earning America East first-team all-rookie recognition. Kristin, a senior, has been known to disrupt her opposition’s game with her powerful spikes. Add in junior Megan Burgess, who finished third on the team in kills last season, and BU is both deep and strong at the position.
But Binghamton finds itself weak at the middle hitter spot, as replacing powerhouse Vickers will be a difficult task for the young Bearcats. Add on the absence of Shannon Kirkpatrick, who will not be participating this season and BU has little experience at the position. Kiriyama will turn to seldom-used sophomore Bianca Anderson to rise to the challenge.
“She played very sparingly last year,” Kiriyama said. “We are looking forward to having her get her feet wet pretty quick. She will do a good job; she has some height and a good jump. I think she will cause some havoc in the middle there.”
But the middle hitter spot isn’t the only position lacking experience. Despite defensive specialist and senior captain Alexa Zbytniewski filling out the veteran squad, BU’s roster features four untested freshmen and returning sophomores Kelly Leach, Bailey Walker and Kasey Muchnicki, all of whom played little in 2013. The young players will have to learn fast, but the veterans are more than willing to teach them.
“I think the returners definitely worked all spring season to create a foundation for these girls to come into,” Zbytniewski said. “And honestly with these girls I feel like we are going to give it everything we’ve got, every practice, every game. We come to practice every day and give 100 percent so if we keep that up, there is no telling what could happen.”
The Bearcats saw their first three rivals last weekend at the Loyola Marymount University Invitational, dropping each game in three sets. Binghamton (0-3) first fell to national powerhouse UCLA on Friday, with its closest set finishing at 17-25. On Saturday, the Bearcats faced host-team LMU and LIU Brooklyn, finding the most success against the latter, in which they lost the first set by just a two-point margin. As expected, the Hovie sisters and Burgess led the attack through the tournament. Allison Hovie recorded a team-high 22 kills, while Kristin Hovie and Burgess added in 15 and 14 kills, respectively. At the setter position, Dettmann led with 53 sets through the tournament.
“The team played up and down through the weekend,” Kiriyama wrote via text message. “Saw some good things but couldn’t sustain any runs against such strong opponents. This was a very productive tournament as we learned a lot about our team.”
Binghamton returns to action this weekend with four contests at the Akron Invitational. The Bearcats will take on Austin Peay and Akron on Friday, followed by matches against Bryant and Drake on Saturday. All games will be played at James A. Rhodes Arena in Akron, Ohio.