A year ago, a young Southwestern University Pirates volleyball team found a quality stride mid-season, making a surge through the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) Tournament to the championship match.
A 3-2 loss to Colorado College kept the Pirates out of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014 and for the first time under Head Coach Don Flora.
This season, that young team got even younger with the graduation of senior leaders Brandi Campos and Jamison Duck and the loss of a few rotation players. More than half of the 17-woman roster is brand new with nine first year athletes on the team.
With a lack of experience relative to other conference powers, Southwestern was voted third in the 2019 SCAC Preseason Coaches' Poll.
Yet, for all the new faces playing big roles this season, Flora expects his team to find familiar success.
"This is a year where we had a couple of expected contributors not return but we still have really good sophomores and this first year class is fully committed to what we're doing," Flora said. "It's a really young group but our goals remain the same. We want to see ourselves as a conference champion, regional champion, and national elite program."
Culture, Flora says, is key.
"We talk about 'The Pirate Way,' and how we walk the walk," Flora said. "When we walk into a gym, how are we seen? Are we doing the little things?
"It's about taking care of yourself, taking care of your teammates, and taking care of the program, whether it's on the court, in the classroom, in the community, or in the locker room. It's about getting into the habits and routines that are important to this program and it's the reason we've been in conference championship matches, hosted a NCAA West Regional, and have been in the Final Four."
In recruiting, Flora and Assistant Coach Sarah Palmer view potential Pirates through three different tiers: Is this a recruit who can help us win a national championship? Can they help us win a conference championship? Are they someone who has intangibles?
Intangibles are not to be overlooked.
"We look for people with that little extra joy in the gym," Flora said. "You've got to be a gym junkie, to really love this game, because we're going to train hard and do things at the highest levels.
"And we want to know how they communicate, how they relate in the gym and outside. We want people who are committed to being a top 10 program."
Over the summer, the student-athletes organized a get together over the Fourth of July holiday for some team bonding. With the time between move in and first match so short, it was a strong move for a team without much history together to lean on.
"Our preseason is a fast and furious event with multiple days of two-a-days," Flora said. "You can't just throw too much against the wall and hope it sticks. We have to understand how much of the system we can put in place. Within this program, learning is job one and I feel they've done a pretty good job understanding that. "
On the court, the Pirates must work to replace the contributions of Campos, who was arguably the best libero in the SCAC over the past three seasons, and Duck, a 1,000-kill outside hitter who twice led the SCAC in service aces. They also lost setter Makenzie Mendez, who was the SCAC leader in assists during conference play.
Returners Ali Grona and Taylor Baccus were rotation players as first years last season, with Grona accumulating 228 digs and Baccus had 77. Newcomers Audrey Schumacher, Elleanna McGown, and Grace Glasscock provide versatile looks as six-rotation hitters with defensive skills.
"They're both very good. Their volleyball IQ as setters is above some of the people we've developed in the past," Flora said. "I like where their starting point is with their high level of club experience, maturity, and high-level knowledge of the game. I truly believe Katie and Jess in the setting position will be a key component of how far we make a run in the future. "
Receiving and passing are key components for a Southwestern team that prefers to play fast.
"We've been one of the better defensive teams in the SCAC with our ability to receive, serve, and dig quality balls," Flora said. "So, to be able to defend, serve, and pass at a high level, if we can do those things, the rest of it comes together."
The rest is a collection of arms and blockers that provide the Southwestern attack the versatility for a potent attack if it can get its offensive tempo in place.
In her first season, Whitlock was Second Team All-SCAC at middle blocker, leading the SCAC in blocks per set (0.89) and hitting percentage (.395) in conference play, finishing with 183 kills and 63 total blocks.
Sophomore Lauren Crabtree had a strong spring, showing skills as a full, six-rotation player who can serve, attack, and block after finishing last season with 139 kills, 146 digs, 57 assists, 23 aces, and 21 blocks in 76 sets. Middle blocker Darby Stowers also had an impressive spring, following a season in which she finished with 66 kills and 22 blocks in 49 sets, setting a career-high 10 kills against the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in 2018.
First year Riley Brantley provides more punch at middle blocker as a two-time First Team All-District player at Clear Creek High School.
The Pirates will open their season on Aug. 30, hosting the Southwestern University Volleyball Fall Invitational, playing Hardin-Simmons University and Whittier College, then Carthage and Whitworth the next day.
With two nationally-ranked teams in conference in Colorado College (7th) and Trinity (17th), the Pirates have to catch up quickly.
"Consistency is key," Flora said. "Being good once is easy. Being good season-to-season is something we pride ourselves on in this program."