Appalachian State University volleyball enters the 2012 season looking to build off the success of last year's 21-win season and a run to the Southern Conference semifinals.
Despite a roster lacking in upperclassmen, the Mountaineers feature a bevy of highly-talented young players who will attempt to make their mark on the program moving forward.
In addition to breaking in nearly an entirely new roster, the Apps will also have to navigate their way through a challenging schedule, which includes just nine home matches and features competitions against three 2011 NCAA Tournament qualifiers.
The Mountaineers begin the season at the James Madison Days Inn Invitational from Aug. 24-25 and will play at home for the first time on Sept. 18 against North Carolina A&T.
Appalachian returns just two starters and six total letterwinners from last year's squad that advanced to the SoCon semifinals and posted a 21-11 record. Senior libero Courtney Rhein will be relied on heavily to lead a young squad in her final season with the Mountaineers.
Rhein ended last season as the SoCon leader in digs per set (4.95) and twice earned conference awards as the Defensive Player of the Week (Oct. 15) and Defensive Player of the Month (October). The lone senior on this year's squad, she needs just 519 digs to become the Apps' all-time leader in career digs. Rhein has surpassed 530 digs in each of the previous two seasons and has collected 1,310 during her career.
The Mountaineers' other returning starter is middle blocker Jessica Eley, who appeared in 28 matches a year ago while making 26 starts. She will be relied on to fill the void left by the departure of Alison Blasingame, who earned first-team all-SoCon honors as a senior a year ago. Eley was third on the squad last season with 61 total blocks, a clip of 0.64 blocks per set.
Also expected to play a large role in Appalachian's rotation this year is junior setter Lauren Brown, who will step into the spotlight after the team lost four-year starter Kasey Sauls to graduation. Brown will have her work cut out for her as Sauls ended her career as one of the better setters in school history with 3,304 career assists, the fifth-best career tally for any Mountaineer. In just two short seasons Brown has been solid in a backup role as the setter, amassing 833 assists (3.8 a/s) while seeing time in all 219 matches during her first two years.
The Apps' sophomore class includes three players who saw match action a year ago in Lauren Gray, Lindsey Sauls and Jacqui Spurgeon. All three will play a more integral role in this year's game plan after sitting behind upperclassmen most of last season.
App State welcomes a total of six newcomers to this year's roster, including five freshmen and one transfer. Despite their relative youth and inexperience, the group of new Mountaineers is both highly talented and highly motivated to make its mark on the program early on.
Sophomore middle blocker Dalton Tolliver should contribute immediately for the Apps after transferring from UMBC following her freshman season. Tolliver, the 2011 America East Rookie of the Year, gives Appalachian some much-needed experience at the NCAA Division I level and should prove to be a tough matchup against opponents due to her height and attacking ability.
The Mountaineers' incoming freshman class should also make an immediate impact on the court after it was recognized by PrepVolleyball.com as the top recruiting class in the SoCon and one of the nation's best.
The class is highlighted by two players who earned high school All-America accolades from PrepVolleyball.com in setter Paige Brown and outside hitter Emily Corrigan. Brown also earned Gatorade Kansas Player of the Year honors and was a two-time all-state selection.
Corrigan was an all-area and all-state selection two times and ended her career as the Chattahoochee High School record holder in single-season kills while ranking second in career kills.
The Apps will not only see a major change in faces on the court but on the sideline as well, where two-thirds of the coaching staff is in its first year in the high country. Matt Ginipro, the 2007 SoCon Coach of the Year, returns for his sixth season at the helm of the program but will be joined by two new faces.
Gregg Whitis takes over as associate head coach following Kolby O'Donnell's departure to Miami (Fla.) in the offseason. Whitis, a former assistant coach in the ACC, Big Ten and SEC, brings with him a reputation as one of the nation's top recruiters.
During his most recent coaching stop at the University of Tennessee, Whitis helped the Lady Vols haul in the nation's No. 4 and No. 8 recruiting classes in 2010 and '11 , respectively. Prior to his time at Tennessee, he was an assistant coach at the University of Michigan where he helped the Wolverines to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.
Also joining the App State volleyball coaching staff this season is former Lees-McRae standout Eli Valentin. After spending two years in the high school ranks as an assistant coach, Valentin will bring his high-energy coaching style to the Mountain after helping Hillcrest High School (Greenville, S.C.) to a state title in 2011. The Rams amassed a school-record 53 wins last season after finishing the 2010 campaign ranked No. 3 in South Carolina.
In addition to his coaching acumen, Valentin was a standout libero/setter at nearby Lees-McRae College where he was a four-year letterwinner and team captain for the Bobcats. As a senior, Valentin led all NCAA Division II players in digs per set.
The Mountaineers will face a difficult slate of non-conference opponents in 2012 in addition to a difficult SoCon schedule that includes a match against defending conference champion Samford to end the season.
Appalachian opens the season at the James Madison Days Inn Invitational where it will face James Madison, Seton Hall and Minnesota on the first weekend of competition. The Golden Gophers finished last season ranked No. 15 in the nation and will welcome one of the nation's highest-profile coaches in U.S. National Team head coach Hugh McCutcheon, who takes over the program after winning a silver medal at the 2012 London Summer Olympics.
The Apps then take on Winthrop in a midweek matchup before heading to Nashville, Tenn., where they will square off with Lipscomb, Houston and Missouri.
A series of two more regular-season tournaments take place at both the VCU Invitational and the Wake Forest Black and Gold Challenge before the Mountaineers play their first home match on Sept. 18 against North Carolina A&T.
SoCon play begins for the Black and Gold with road matches at Chattanooga and Samford while the first conference home matches come against Elon and UNCG the following weekend.
The 2012 SoCon Volleyball Championships will take place in Davidson, N.C. from Nov. 17-19 where the top four teams in each division will vie for an automatic bid to the 2012 NCAA Volleyball Championship.