Aug 28, 2013
So close. Maybe one or two wins away.
Heading into the final five matches of the 2012 season, the Auburn volleyball team was 17-8 overall, 8-7 in SEC play, and likely on the good side of the "bubble" for NCAA Tournament consideration.
But a tough end to the season left the Tigers just shy of their second postseason berth in three years and what would have been their first under Head Coach Rick Nold.
"We were very close last year," Nold said. "I think if we had finished the season a little bit stronger, we were in position. There were a lot of games I think we could have been better than we were, and I think we would have been in a different position. Going into this year, I think if we can improve in some areas, that will put us in a position where we can be competitive and have a chance to play in the tournament."
The 2013 version of the Tigers, in their third season under Nold, will look to get back to postseason play with the biggest blend of youth and experience in his tenure. Six seniors - five of whom played in every match last season - will make the Tigers one of the most experienced squads in the Southeastern Conference. Statistically, Auburn returns nearly two-thirds of its scoring from a year ago, including two of the top 10 active kill leaders in the SEC in seniors Katherine Culwell and Camila Jersonsky.
Those six seniors - along with one junior and a pair of returning sophomores - are balanced by six newcomers, the largest recruiting class in Nold's three-year tenure. Two of those incoming freshmen, Stephanie Campbell and Kia Bright, were ranked among the nation's top 100 recruits by PrepVolleyball.com.
"The returning players have made a lot of improvements," Nold said. "I think we had a really good spring individually in terms of what people were doing, just adding depth to their game. Take that and put on top of it a good recruiting class that has the ability to help us in some ways that we need, you hope that we're better than we were last year. That's our hope every year, we want to keep improving."
The strength of the 2012 Tigers was their defense - they held opponents to a .181 hitting percentage, third-best in the SEC. Jersonsky, Culwell and fellow senior Courtney McDonald - the three leading blockers on last year's team - return for the Tigers, as well as four of the top five on the squad in digs, including senior libero Sarah Wroblicky. Wroblicky led an Auburn back row that averaged 16.60 digs/set, second-best in the league.
Culwell and Jersonsky are also the top two returning hitters for the Tigers. Culwell was second on the team with 330 kills last year, and Jersonsky had 269 kills and a .356 hitting percentage, tops on the team and fifth-best in the SEC. Both setters also return for the Tigers - senior Chelsea Wintzinger and sophomore Ciara Richards - as they look to repeat a strong performance that averaged 12.64 assists/set last season.
But Nold says that, as with most teams, the key to success for the Tigers will come early on each point.
"Most everybody will say this, but serve and serve-receive (are the keys)," he said. "First contact is most important for every team. We want to be able to get teams off-balance with our serve, and we want to control what we do by passing the ball well. If we handle those two areas, the next part will be coming together a team and working toward a goal."
The stats prove that philosophy. In 2011, Nold's first season, Auburn recorded a total of 87 service aces (0.81/set) while committing 287 errors on serve. Last year, the Tigers had 17 more aces and 104 fewer errors in the service game.
But Nold knows it will take a total effort on all fronts - serving, passing and a strong attack - with a strong schedule awaiting the Tigers. Non-conference tilts against the likes of Nebraska, Notre Dame and Florida State will provide early tests for Auburn heading into what looks to be a mysterious conference slate.
"We wanted to challenge ourselves early with some of these non-conference opponents," Nold said. "We're really happy to have Florida State coming on our home floor. Those teams will give us an idea of what to expect in conference play.
"I think there's a lot of uncertainty in the SEC - a lot of new players coming in. Some teams are changing their rosters quite a bit, but will still have very good teams. Top to bottom, if you ask around, nobody's really sure where people are going to fall. But I think it will be a competitive year.
"Our goal is to find ways to move up and improve our standing in the SEC. We want to win a championship, and we've got to work toward it. If we play the way we're capable, we can have a lot of success."