MATTOON — Lake Land College volleyball coach Ashli Robison sees a different team from the one that won the Great Rivers Athletic Conference last season. Last year's team featured an even mix of returning players to go with the incoming freshmen. The two groups meshed quickly and it led to an 18-13 overall record and an 8-2 mark in the GRAC, which was tops in the conference.
Robison still feels her team this season has the talent to compete for the GRAC title again, but there's more youth on the team than last season. Once again there's seven freshmen with seven sophomores, but last season's group of sophomores had more experience coming into the year.
"We will be learning as we go. Last year, we were experienced already and the sophomores took on a huge role," Robison said. "We are going to get there for sure (this year). It's exciting. We are young. We've already scrimmaged twice and we've already grown so much. Everything is important at the end of the season and we will gain some good experience at tournaments, focus on Wednesdays with GRAC matches and I think it will be okay."
Four of the sophomores from last year's GRAC title team moved on to play at the next level. Defensive specialist Rachel Schultz will walk on at NCAA Division I Butler University, outside hitter Nathalya deSouza is at NAIA Lindsey Wilson, setter Maria Brasel is at NAIA Indiana University East and right side hitter Daria Voronina is at NAIA Roosevelt University.
Robison said all four put the work needed to move on to next level.
"If you are coming in and that's what you want in the future and you work together as a team, we can get you somewhere," Robison said. "As long as you put in the effort, it's not going to come easy, and anytime you can get stats, it will affect your future. We play at a high-level and it allows you to play at a four-year school."
Robison was especially excited for Schultz, who moved on to a D-I program. Schultz had 591 digs last season and averaged 5.68 digs per set.
"When she reported, a player left and she is the number two defensive specialist and has a chance to see some playing time," Robison said. "She was going to Butler on an academic scholarship. She is super excited and thankful. It's huge for our program to send someone to D-I."
Losing Schultz leaves a big hole in the back row for Lake Land, though, because Robison also lost defensive specialist Rachel Mullen, who had 373 digs. So it will be a new back row for the Lady Lakers. Freshman Jannah Mullen, Rachel's younger sister, is the new libero and Shelbyville graduate Kelcie Darnell is working as a defensive specialist this season.
"Jannah is filling in at the libero position really well and we are getting reps from Kelcie," Robison said. "Some of the outsides will have to play a full rotation. (Freshman) Brooklyn Elsas will fill one of those (outside) roles for sure. Claudia Watson worked on her passing and (freshman) Ashley Bartley will play an important factor. We have some depth and options."
Even though Brasel graduated, the Lady Lakers still have a quality setter back with Mattoon graduate and sophomore Emily Watson, who was second on the team with 401 set assists last season. Watson is dealing with a foot injury and Robison expects her to be a key part of the offense when she gets back. Freshman Alexandra Beckers is filling in as the starting setter with Watson out.
"Once Emily gets healthy, she will be a huge key to our success. Luckily Alexandra is filling in well," Robison said. "We are running a 5-1 with just her. Once Emily gets healthy, we will run a 6-2. It's different than what we are used to. Emily's eager and doesn't like sitting on the sidelines. She is motivated to get healthy as fast as she can."
Ryann Ambrose, a Shelbyville graduate, is the top attacker back and was a second-team All-GRAC selection last season after putting down 230 kills with a .308 hitting percentage. Robison thinks Ambrose can be one of the best players in the conference this season.
"This is a key year for her. She told me I was stressing her out a bit because I know how good she can be," Robison said. "She is already really good and that's me having faith in her. We might see her in the middle and the outside. I am going to mix it up to get her noticed more."
After Ambrose, the Lady Lakers need some players to step up as the second and third options. Robinson thinks Elsas can step into a key role offensive and Okaw Valley graduate Kristy Burford is stepping into an outside hitter role. Mattoon graduate Lexi Rankin will see time on the right side long with in the middle.
"Luckily I have depth in hitters," Robison said. "A lot of girls are going to play multiple positions. We got to see where everyone is sitting and it's nice to see that clarity since we start (Tuesday at Vincennes). Taylor Williams will play a major ole in the middle and it will be nice to see some good blocks."
Lake Land's first match is Tuesday at Vincennes followed by the first GRAC match at Rend Lake on Wednesday. Then at the end of the season, Lake Land stays at home for the Region 24 Tournament since the Lady Lakers are hosting it.
"It seems far away, but it's not. We will have home court advantage and it will be nice to see how it all works out in the future," Robinson said. "It will be exciting to have it on our home court and if we win, we host Districts, so there's potential for double home court advantage."