The Slippery Rock University volleyball team kicks the season off Saturday at the Raider Classic in Shippensburg, Pa.

Following a subpar 2018 season, in which the team finished with an 11-16 (8-10 PSAC) record, SRU returns with  a team of mostly underclassmen and a continued goal of making it to the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference tournament this season.

“We want to qualify for the playoffs, that’s always a goal that we have. We’ve got a lot of work to do to get there, but it’s a reachable goal,” SRU volleyball coach Lokash said.

Lokash, in her 36th year in charge of Rock volleyball, feels as though this season’s team has the talent to make a push, but the pieces will not be an instant fit overnight.

“We have the talent base, but that talent base is going to need to come together rather quickly,” Lokash said. “We have some things that have affected us from an off the court perspective as far as uncontrollable things. So, I think the quicker that we can start understanding that we work with the controllable, we work with the things we can get, the better. It’s building blocks. There’s a lot that they have to learn, but you can’t throw everything at them.”

In preparing for the season, Lokash explained how the initial preparation will start in setting the groundwork for two defenses while working on striking the ball better.

In order to ease the team into the season, Lokash hopes to start on a deliberate pace before adding a new element to training each week. She hopes to continue to bring out the best in each of her players, allowing them to thrive in their strengths, while also challenging them in new ways.

A challenge that has not worried Lokash as the season starts, despite the small senior class, is the veteran leadership.

The senior class of setter Zoe Rivet, outside hitter Kaley Fucci and middle hitter Shannon Ream, according to Lokash, each have very different and distinct ways to impacting the team in terms of leadership.

“I think one of the best ways to be a leader is to lead by example, and they all have three different strengths,” Lokash said. “One of them is probably a little more positive in the way she goes about things, one of them is a little more intense, which could be off-putting at times for people, and then there’s another kid who wavers between the two.”

Instead, the biggest challenge Lokash anticipates is getting the freshmen and sophomores, a majority of the team this season, to fully buy-in to the squad mentality.

“When you’re looking at leaders, you have to have people who will look at them and follow them. It has to be a situation where they do take control of things and reach out to the underclassmen and get them to bond together,” Lokash said.

According to Lokash, the leadership from the junior class will determine how quickly the team will be able to gel. While all teams go through rough patches at some point in a season, typically early in the season, Lokash said the ability to adapt will determine how successful the team will be this season.

While the leadership lost from graduated seniors is hard to replace, the production can arguably be harder. SRU will look to the underclassmen to replace the former All-PSAC middle hitter Shayla Ray.

Freshman middle hitters Stephanie O’Donnell and Abigail Nigon, redshirt freshman middle hitter Tiara Teague and sophomore middle hitter Lauren Crytzer will compete for more playing time.

Lokash pointed to the extra year of experience from Crytzer, and the year of training while injured for Teague, in giving them the advantage in preseason so far.

While Lokash tipped a sophomore to take over for Ray, she acknowledged how well the freshman class has acclimated since arriving at SRU.

A couple of freshmen that have stood out to Lokash have been Abigail Koeller, an outside hitter from Virginia, and Logan Whitaker, an outside/opposite hitter from Ohio. Koeller has the potential to be very good in the conference, according to Lokash, while Whitaker has the raw talent but needs some seasoning.

With such a large freshman and sophomore majority, Lokash attributed the collective club volleyball experience as a blessing and a curse, especially regarding the kind of competition that will be faced every week.

“All these kids are used to playing a certain level of club, and now they have to realize that even though they’ve played club, they’ve played against better players than they may play at the D-II level, but they’ve also played against players that are not as good at the D-II level. It’s going to be more the latter, so it’s an adjustment to what you’ll see day in and day out,” Lokash said.

Despite the losses of Ray and outside hitter Beth Stumpf, The Rock returns Rivet, Fucci, sophomore defensive specialist Jalyn Willard and sophomore middle hitter Erinn Kahoe to complement a core of young, budding players.

Rivet paced SRU last season with 920 digs, good for ninth in the PSAC, while also ranking in the top five on the team in aces, digs and blocks. Rivet and Kahoe, who led the team in aces and blocks last season, will serve as the heart and soul for SRU this season.

Willard and Fucci will feature in key roles for a young, relatively inexperienced starting lineup at defensive specialist and outside hitter.

For a team lacking general experience in some positions, a quick start to the season, especially in non-conference play, will allow the team to gel quickly and shake the rust off before PSAC play begins.

In addition to working on early-season chemistry, Lokash credits the stretch of road matches to start the season as a way of preparing for most situations that will arise throughout the year.

“We get to play a little bit in strange environments, and it prepares us for going into gyms on the road,” Lokash said. “Half our games are on the road this year.”

With the exception of the season-opening Raider Classic, the early season tournaments provide SRU with a chance to get a feel for teams in the region.

“We get to see some of the outside competition early,” Lokash said. “Everything we’re doing, with the exception of the Shippensburg tournament, are all MEC-PSAC crossovers, so we’ll get to see more teams from our region.”

With the Raider Classic kicking off Friday, SRU will compete against Roberts Wesleyan College, Chestnut Hill College and Walsh University.

The first match against Roberts Wesleyan begins at 2:00 p.m.

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