In 2010, Spring Hill College Head Volleyball Coach Peggy Martin directed the Badgers to a 19-win improvement over 2009, a school-record 18-match winning streak and a Southern States Athletic Conference (SSAC) West Division Championship. Now comes the hard part. Spring Hill enters the 2011 season as one of the hunted and not the hunters, but Martin says the change of expectations is welcomed by her team.
"It will be a new experience for our team to wear the bulls-eye, but not for our players," Martin says. "Almost all of our players come from top performing high school or junior college programs so they are used to the pressures and expectations of that role. We have to focus every time we go out and approach each match with the right attitude."
Most of the problems that Martin faces as a coach going into this season are the problems that coaches enjoy handling. "Our enthusiasm is very high at practice and during the scrimmages," she says. "Now, maintaining that same level of enthusiasm throughout a long season will be a goal for us. In volleyball an emotional rush before matches is needed, but you need to budget that emotion, as well."
If there is one word that Martin would use to sum up her Badger team this season that word would be "depth." "We have to find places for everyone to play and that's a great problem to have," she says. "Our practices are competitive and that means that each week nobody's starting job is safe. That only makes us better each time we go out."
That Badger depth will be crucial in a tough SSAC schedule that is made all the tougher by the fact that the conference has only one automatic bid to the NAIA National Tournament. "We understand that in volleyball the phrase ‘any given day' is true," says Martin. "We have a goal to build a program similar to what (SSAC rival) Lee University has built, but we can't focus all of our energy on just beating Lee. We need to go out and play our best every match and if that effort takes us beyond just the conference tournament, so be it."
Most Badger fans look to All-American senior right side hitter Yiting Cao (pronounced "E-ting Dow") from Shanghai, China, to be the team's linchpin on offense, but Martin sees the situation in a different light. "Ting is a terrific player who is very coachable and a true team player who works to improve our younger players everyday," she says. "But the key to any volleyball team is the setter. Taryn Nash, a sophomore from Independence, Mo., is a terrific player and just gets better and better." Backing up Nash will be freshman Maddie LaForge of New Orleans, La. "Maddie is a great competitor and we have to find a way to get her on the court," Martin says. "She's a year behind Taryn in development as setter, but she can play any position, so getting her on the court is important."
Martin is quick to point to her senior class as the team's emotional backbone. Cao and outside hitter Abbey Roam of Lebanon, Mo., get most of the attention, but the Badger head coach is also proud of the other three upperclassmen. "Cassandra Marchand-Stewart from Grand Bay, Ala., Holly Shultis from Pewaukee, Wis., and Sarah Stacey of New Berlin, Wis., have been through a lot the last four years, but they've been real leaders on and off the court," Martin says. "I have a lot of respect for each of them. They do everything you ask and they are very excited to be a part of what has happened to this team over the past two years."
Last season, the Badger front line was the difference in most matches as Cao and Roam teamed with sophomore Sha Sha Buchanan of Mobile's McGill-Toolen Catholic High School to control most of the action. Martin has those weapons back in 2011 and adds freshmen Megan Haber from Foley, Ala., and Sami Hantak of St. Louis, Mo., to her arsenal. "Sha developed into a real ‘go to' player last year and Megan and Sami are both showing us tremendous potential every day," she says.
Martin also stresses the need for improvement in the back court. "The back court was our weak spot last year," she says. "But we should be improved. Sophomore libero Meredith Donald of McGill-Toolen was a player who really went after every ball last year, but she finds herself in a competition this year with freshman Sami Maurer from St. Louis. Sophomore Jessica Hall of Grand Bay also gives us more choices along the back line while freshman Sarah Jane Winterton of Lake Charles, La., is a terrific server who we'll work into serving as much as we can."
Jessica's twin sister Jamie Hall has moved from middle hitter to outside hitter, but her tremendous athleticism and versatility means she can be used either as an outside or right side hitter or in the middle. "Jessica's versatility can actually be her downfall at times," says Martin. "She's good at everything, but finding that one specific position for her can be difficult for me to settle on as her coach."
Martin says her team is excited and ready to make something special happen in 2011. "We have five seniors, five sophomores and five freshmen, so it makes for good team chemistry," she says. "We're also excited that big crowds are back to watch us play at home. Our players spend a lot of time being active on campus and that has resulted in some really close personal relationships with the fans. What we now have to do is grab hold to what we've built and not let it get away."
The Badgers open the 2011 regular season at home on Friday at 6 p.m. versus Southeastern University (Fla.) when Martin will attempt to become only the third coach in collegiate volleyball history to crack the 1,100-career win plateau. She currently stands at a career record of 1,099-302-8.