"We have a number of our starters returning this season.
"Caitlin Rance, a senior who played in every match that we played last season, was one of our top performers last year. She led our team in kills, kills per set and in hitting percentage. A tireless worker, she is also one of our captains and sets the right example. She is a huge part of this team and this program.
"Faith Steinwedell is recovering from her ACL injury, and she is doing really well. Dut to the injury, she redshirted last season. But she played in all four of our spring tournaments, although she didn't play in every match that we played. She is another one of our leaders. And we missed her leadership a lot on the court. Her volleyball IQ is very, very high. She is someone, due to her volleyball knowledge, who sees things on the court really well. There may be times when I'm about to go on the court and tell the team something and I see her already telling them. It's nice to have that kind of leader on the court. She is also one of our best servers, and we have a really good serving team. Due to that, we are scoring a lot of points when Faith is serving. She is also one of our best blockers and one of our primary passers. Losing her the first weekend of the season last year was a really big blow to us.
"We also have Chanelle Baker returning. She started most of the season for us on the outside. But she battled some on-going injuries that we have learned to manage. She played in our spring tournaments and did fine in them. I look for her to be a very strong offensive threat for us. If we do our job of keeping her as healthy as possible, then I think she is going to be really strong for us.
"Our starting setter, Paris Perret, is returning. She was very, very good as a freshman last year, earning two-time freshman of the week honors. She played in every match and every set. I've very hard on setters because I was a setter. To be a great team, I believe you have to have a great setter. So I pushed Paris a lot. But she worked hard and improved as the season went on. Then, we pushed her even more in the spring. I'm excited to see her come out and be that much stronger as a sophomore. She's still young but I expect a lot out of her.
"We have a couple of other girls who played quite a bit during the fall, two middles, Mandy Mellencamp and Hannah Wilkinson. (Graduated senior) Ashley Newsome was one of our starting middle blockers so those two shared time at the other spot. They brought different qualities, so it was just who we needed at that point or maybe whoever was a little bit stronger that day. This past spring both of them really stepped up their games and improved a great deal. Mandy Mellencamp tore her ACL two years ago. So this past year she was still kind of in a recovery phase where she had to deal with some knee pain and had to work through fear of that. I think she had a great breakthrough during the spring with her mental battles, and it showed because she had a great spring.
"Hilary Parker was a defensive sub for us last season. But this past spring, she played libero for us. Heading into two-a-days in August, if we were to break into starters and non-starters on day-one, she would be our starting libero. She has worked very hard to earn the spot she is in right now. She has been very coachable and will be a very solid player for us.
"We have some young ones. Dani McCree, who will be a sophomore, saw quite a bit of playing time as a freshman. She had some great matches, including at Georgia. Without her, we don't beat Georgia. That's how well she played. She has worked a ton in the off-season, especially this summer. She definitely has the potential to do great things for us."
Where do your signees and walk-ons fit into this year's team? I know you don't hesitate to play a freshman if they are ready to play.
"Sarah Temperilli actually came in in January, so she has trained with us all spring. She worked really hard and learned a lot. It was a really good time for her to get her feet wet and learn the way we teach things. She is a right side outside hitter so she is playing behind Caitlin Rance, one of our top performers last year, and Chanelle Baker, who has been very, very strong when she's healthy. Because of that, Sarah is not going to be under a lot of pressure to have to come in and start. And I like it to be that way for freshmen.
"(However) with Faith (Steinwedell) still trying to get back to 100%, I think Sarah might be one of our options to go in if we have a tournament and we play three matches in one weekend. Faith might not be able to play all three matches, so I think Sarah would be a great option to go in for one of the matches.
"Our other two are middles, Kristin Byers and Lainey Wyman. Both are outstanding volleyball players who are also tall, (6-2), so they are going to be a big presence for us in the middle. I believe they will really challenge our two returning middles. Between the four of them, we either will have our two returning middles doing great things or our freshmen middles come in and do even better than our returning middles. Either way means we can be highly successful. It's a win-win situation either way.
"At the setting position we have Rachel Williams coming in. And she's a taller setter who will be able to push Paris (Perret). It's always good to have someone push you because if there is someone that is quality that plays your same position, then you will be a lot more motivated. Paris has always been very coachable and done the things that we have asked, but this will still help.
"We have a couple of other defensive players coming in - Alex Scott and Bentley Witte. Those two freshmen, if we put a defensive sub in, there is a good chance it will be one of them. They are both good, solid players who come from good volleyball backgrounds and are really hard workers. That allows us to have depth at that position.
"Our last player is Kaitlin Parker. She is from Addison High School, which is located in Arley, Alabama. Alex Scott is from there as well. That's where (former MSU volleyball player) Kayla Woodard played. Like Kayla, Kaitlin and Alex are very hard workers. Someone like Kayla graduates and I get two more girls that are just as wonderful as Kayla was. I'm very excited about that. Kaitlin played middle in high school but we will train her on the outside because she is tall, 6-0, and very athletic."
Schedule-wise, you start the season with three tournaments, one at Mississippi State and two on the road.
"That's a typical volleyball schedule. We play three tournaments to start the season, then we start SEC play the fourth weekend. We'll always look to host one tournament here but go somewhere for the other two. This year, we are going out to California where we are playing at the University of Pacific, a very strong volleyball program. We have a number of girls on our roster from California and Arizona, so this is a great opportunity for their families to come see us play. We recruit the west coast heavily, so it's aldo good exposure for our program. We will also typically try to go to a tournament in Texas every year because we also recruit there a lot as well. And a lot of families can come see us play."
Why not play two tournaments at home instead of one?
"The first year we did have two home tournaments. And that is not a bad thing but the problem we run into are football games. This past year, we had our home tournament the first weekend, when football had not started. But the next two weekends we could not have played at home because football was at home and we play our tournaments Friday and Saturday. And there was no way we could have played while they played because people wouldn't be able to get to our facility. Our parking is used by the athletic department for donors during the football games.
"With our schedule, we play our first tournament at home since there is no home football game, then we go on the road and play our next two tournaments. And we are very fortunate that we are home for our first SEC weekend after being gone the previous two weekends.
"I like a lot of things about our schedule. That Friday of our home tournament is a big Friday on campus because student football tickets go on sale Saturday. So, they are doing the tent for tickets in front of the football stadium. We are going to do a promotion then to try and get students to come over and watch volleyball. We are going to do a lot promotions this year. We also have a lot of support on and off campus. Those are the kind of things we need as we continue to build a better volleyball program. We want to get it out that volleyball is a fun sport to watch.
"And our first SEC weekend we play Florida and South Carolina at home Friday and Sunday. The Thursday night before that is when the football team will play LSU at home. It's a big football game leading up to the weekend when we are at home.
"Another huge weekend for us is October 14th and 16th when we play at home and the football team is playing South Carolina at home on that Saturday. People can come watch them play Saturday and stick around and watch us play on Sunday.
"Something else that will help promote our program is the announcement that our game against The School Up North is going to be televised on ESPNU. It will be played October 2nd. This will be the first time we have been on one of the ESPN channels, at least since I have been here. That's a huge national exposure type thing for us. We will be able to tell our recruits that we are playing on ESPNU and they can watch us play."
Over the course of the past year your facility, Newell-Grissom, has really had some nice things added to it. What was added last year and what are in the plans to be added the next year or two?
"A lot of work has been done just since I have been here. And that was a big focus of ours as well as the (Mississippi State athletic department) administration. We have done a large amount of work on the inside, from painting, to putting our logos all over the facility, to installing a new scoreboard that is volleyball specific. This year, we had a new sound system installed, which will be fantastic. Before next year we are hoping to get new lighting in the building. (MSU AD) Scott Stricklin is very aware that that is a big need for us. There are a lot of reasons for new lighting, from just making it look brighter in the facility to meeting television requirements. It should help us get more television exposure.
"In the coming years we are going to completely renovate the (west) side of Newell-Grissom, where there is really nothing over there. We want to build a brand new locker room, shower area, team room, and a new training room. Basically, we will make that our home side. It will make it great for our players. Plus, it will be great from a recruiting standpoint because it will be a top-notch facility.
"We are one of the few SEC schools that has a volleyball-only facility. We don't share it with any other sport. We are very, very fortunate that the entire building is ours. Scott Stricklin is definitely dedicated to making it state-of-the-art in the years to come, just like we are doing with all our facilities across campus. And it will be one of the top volleyball facilities in our conference."
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.