2017-18 PREVIEW: Maple Leaf Women’s Volleyball Grows, Seeks To Blend
Five six-footers dot 18-player roster with eight newcomers and 5’9″ average height
GOSHEN, Ind. — Any teacher or coach worth their salt will tell you that while grades, like wins and losses, are an important measure of progress, they are by no means the only important one.
Goshen College head women’s volleyball coach Jim Routhier, a veteran of 35 years in the science classroom at Concord High School and 42 years on the sidelines as a coach and trainer, certainly fits that bill.
A year ago, the Maple Leafs turned in a 3.50 grade-point average, the second-highest of any GC women’s athletic team. They went 13-19 on the court in an up-and-down season with no winning or losing streak longer than four matches.
That winning in the classroom had an unintended consequence: in addition to a pair of four-year players, the Maple Leafs graduated two athletes off their roster after three years of college apiece. Those matriculations allowed Routhier and his coaching staff, Jim Daugherty and Whitney Pyle, to bring in eight recruits. The resulting roster is both the deepest (18 varsity players) and tallest (average height 5’9″, including five six-footers) of his nine-year tenure.
It might also be his biggest challenge.
“One of our biggest challenges will be integrating the whole team,” Routhier said. “We have a large number of very talented freshmen. We have excellent senior leadership. We have some great juniors who are going to be role players in there as well as the sophomores. The big challenge is going to be putting everybody together.”
A junior class that numbered five last fall has shrunk to two seniors: Christy Swartzendruber and Meghan Gerke. In four seasons wearing GC purple (Swartzendruber played two years at Hesston College in Kansas), the duo has racked up 525 kills while watching its year-by-year hitting percentage grow from .082 to .102 to .214.
“I’m really looking forward to the team dynamics with eight incoming freshmen and a large group of upperclassmen,” Gerke said. “It will be really fun to have everyone merge together and develop a really good team chemistry on and off the court. We’re going to have a lot of key players that haven’t played with us and we’ll end up mixing things up a lot because we have a lot of depth this year.”
“I think (coagulating as a team) will also be one of the challenges we face, since college volleyball has a faster pace,” said Swartzendruber, the only Leaf with playing experience at the high school, junior college and four-year college levels. “A lot of the teams we play have really fast offenses, so it’s going to be a little hard adjusting, especially since there are only two seniors on the team.”
The offense’s fulcrum matches the overall roster in its mix of experience and turnover. One of the three-year graduates was setter Lisa Rodriguez, who accumulated 1,569 assists in a career that was closer to two years after injury sidelined her for much of 2016.
Graduating the setter with the seventh-most assists in program history sounds like a hindrance, except that the roster still includes sophomore Ally Roehr, who led the team with 548 helpers last fall. In fact, her mark of 4.86 assists per set was better than two of Rodriguez’s three year-by-year totals.
A pair of incoming freshmen, Brooklyn Harris and Shelbey Younts, figure to spell Roehr on occasion. Both newcomers will add height to the team on the floor (Roehr stands 5’6″, Harris 5’7″ and Younts 5’8″) and bring the versatility embodied by participation in a range of extracurriculars throughout high school.
While both of last season’s four-year seniors, Kylie Giger and Lexa Magnuson, were middle hitters, the Maple Leafs’ net play might be the area that returns the most as well. The team brings back Swartzendruber, a second-team all-Crossroads Leagueperformer who led the team with 240 winners, as well as Darienne Maust, who turned in a team-high 13 solo blocks with 164 kills in 98 sets and earned all-freshman team honors.
The front lines also include two more six-foot returners, junior Sydney Cruz and sophomore Lindsay McQuinn, who each averaged more than a kill per set, along with Gerke and Hallie Vanitvelt, a member of the Crossroads League all-freshman team in 2015 before missing more than a quarter of 2016.
Of the four freshman hitters, three (Elizabeth Breckbill, Autumn Hilton and Taylor Eash) boast heights of 5’11” or better, and the fourth (Natalie Omtvedt) showcases the best vertical leap of the bunch.
“It never hurts to have height in volleyball, and we’ll be able to put three players 6’2″ or taller at the net,” said Routhier. “So we’re really looking at an exciting season. But the biggest challenge is probably going to be that the conference is very tough. It kind of comes and goes. This year, across the board, we’re going to be tall on every team that we play.”
“It’s a good thing that we’ll have depth,” said Gerke, the lone four-year player on the roster. “But it’s also throwing a lot of people into the mix and trying to find a good offense and defense that works together well in a really tough conference.”
Behind the front lines waits MacKinnon Tracy, a two-year letterwinner who was third on the team in digs with 273 (trailing Swartzendruber and Danielle Plank) a season ago. The only team member who both served and received 300 times, Tracy’s 28 service aces were a team high. Four of the top five Maple Leafs in service aces return, including junior Meghan Manley as well as Roehr and Swartzendruber.
Erin Strock, who transitioned from hitter to defensive specialist last fall, also returns to the defense after a season of 177 digs. All told, six of the top seven diggers from last season’s team are back.
The defensive specialists may not have needed recruiting help, but they got it anyway: Tessa Clark joins the team after setting a school record with 1,254 digs at Bethany Christian High School, while Jennifer Ritchie was all-conference in two different leagues and backstopped three regional-champion clubs at New Prairie High School.
“I’m excited to see how the freshmen are going to help our team this year,” Swartzendruber said. “I think success for us will be having a lot of fun, on the court and off the court, and also making a sort of new team culture. If we all come together as a group and really become a team, it’ll be a successful year.”
“The freshmen are going to have some key roles bringing their level up from high school to college,” Routhier concluded. “Our team is going to grow together. We’re looking at focusing on the end of the season so that we get ourselves together through the middle of the season and we’re ready for the tournament. That’ll be the success that we’re looking for: how much we advance and how good we get.”
After seeing its scheduled opener with Marygrove College on Wednesday cancelled, Routhier’s team will open a 31-match slate Friday morning against Robert Morris University at Huntington University’s Forester Invitational. Goshen starts with nine straight matches away from home, wrapping up August 30 with a conference opener at Huntington.
The home lid-lifter comes six days later on Tuesday, Sept. 5, when Routhier welcomes an Anderson team coached by one of his former players—1988 Concord alum Tami Miller. With some luck in the form of a 5-4 season start, that match might also be Routhier’s 600th win between high school and college: teacher and pupil also met in the former’s 900th career match at Anderson last fall.
GC opens the home portion of its conference double-round-robin schedule against Bethel three days later before hitting the road for eight of its next 10 matches, reaching the midpoint of league play on September’s penultimate evening at Mount Vernon Nazarene.
Six straight home matches and eight of the final 10 bring the team back to its 24th season at Gunden Gymnasium. The homestand includes a homecoming match against Lawrence Tech on Friday, Oct. 6: it prefaces the first match for Goshen’s men’s team, which will play as a club this winter before becoming a varsity sport in January 2019. The women follow that match with four conference tilts in six days before returning home to sandwich home matches with Spring Arbor and Grace around Halloween.
The top eight teams in the Crossroads League qualify for the conference tournament, which runs from November 4-11. The regular-season and tournament champions, along with 11 at-large teams, qualify for the 48-team NAIA Women’s Volleyball National Championship beginning November 18.
Goshen College is an affordable, nationally-ranked Christian liberal arts college in Northern Indiana known for leadership in intercultural and international education, sustainability and social justice.