BRENHAM - Erin Mellinger and the Blinn Buccaneers don’t like to use the phrase “repeat” when speaking about the opportunity to defend their 2013 NJCAA national championship.
“It’s not a repeat because this is a whole new group,” said head coach Erin Mellinger, now entering her third season with the Buccaneers. “It’s a whole new journey with a different roster and a different chemistry.”
The 2013 season marked Blinn’s third NJCAA championship after previously capturing the title in 2008 and 2011.
“It’s all about how much you want to take care of one another,” Mellinger said. “It starts with leadership, and I’m really not worried about the leadership on this team. We have some sophomores who are very focused, and our freshmen chose to come here because they want to win a title. We just have to remember this is a new team with a clean slate.”
The Buccaneers return six sophomores from last season’s squad, which went 39-3 on its way to the Region XIV Conference and NJCAA championships. Five of those six returners – Alyssa LaMont, Rebecca Reeve, Rachel Sharp, Trinity Alualu, Jaeda Allen and Rebecca Proske – played more than 30 sets last season.
“I don’t think you can replace individual people because they mean so much more to this program than just their physical abilities, but we have really, really good leadership returning,” Mellinger said.
LaMont, a 5-foot-2 libero from Houston, led the Buccaneer defense with 510 digs (3.29 per set) last season.
“She carried our serve receive,” Mellinger said. “She not only leads physically, but emotionally as well. Our serve receive was the reason we were able to do what we did last year.”
Reeve, a 6-foot right side hitter from Adelaide, Australia, got stronger for the Buccaneers as the 2013 season continued, finishing with 236 kills (1.64 per set), 292 digs (2.03 per set) and 66 blocks (0.46 per set) on the season.
“Along with Alyssa, she was one of our two primary passers last year and she had a really, really good spring,” Mellinger said. “She was our top offensive threat all spring.”
Allen, a 6-foot-1 outside hitter from Las Vegas, returns after posting 201 kills (1.99 per set), 48 blocks (0.48 per set) and 73 digs (0.72 per set) in 2013. Allen spent the offseason refining her game, and is one of the club’s most improved players coming back this season, Mellinger said.
“She’s matured this past year. When people see her warm up, she’s scary,” Mellinger said. “She has a heavy, heavy arm.”
Alualu worked equally hard during the offseason, increasing her vertical leap by 2.5 inches. The 5-foot-11 outside hitter from Honolulu, Hawaii tallied 151 kills (1.15 per set), 304 digs (2.32 per set) and 36 blocks (0.27 per set).
“Trinity has grown a lot in the last 5-6 months and I’m expecting a lot from her,” Mellinger said. “She’s probably one of our best leaders on and off the court.”
Sharp, a 6-foot-1 outside hitter from Tarkington, posted 288 kills (2.03 per set), 230 digs (1.62 per set) and 63 blocks (0.44 per set) last season, and has the ability to play middle blocker and right side as well.
“She’s really ripping the ball right now,” Mellinger said. “She’s a six-rotation player who can do some damage.”
Proske, a 5-foot-3 libero from La Grange, will come out of her shell this season after a full season with the Buccaneers, Mellinger said. Proske averaged 0.87 digs per set her freshman year.
“She’s a different player than she was last August,” Mellinger said. “We can rely on her to give us a spark here and there if we need a change in our rotations.”
Without any returning setters, the Buccaneers focused on the position during the offseason and came away with three – Justus Tuiolosega of Moreno Valley, Calif.; Lauren Loehr of Caldwell and Jordyn Keamo of Mililani, Hawaii.
“I’m really, really happy with our setting class,” Mellinger said. “I’m excited about all three.”
The Buccaneers also loaded up on middle blockers. Tawnee Luafalemana comes to Blinn from Carson, Calif., and Mellinger described her as a similar athlete to former Buccaneer All-American middle blocker Bruna
Evangelista – except faster and able to jump higher.
Abolanle Onipede comes to Blinn from Stafford, where she played at Dulles High School. Like Luafalemana, Onipede is a terrific athlete with huge leaping ability and a powerful swing.
Haley Howard of Keller could also make an impact in her freshman season after earning honors at Keller Central.
Paloma da Silva, a 6-foot right side hitter who can also play outside hitter, comes to Blinn from Pocos de Caldas in Brazil after thriving at one of the best club teams in Brazil. Xena Moss, a 5-foot-5 outside hitter from Spring, may not be tall, but can reach 9-foot-7 on her vertical. A left-hander with a deft defensive touch, she can also play the back for the Buccaneers.
Zoe Hodges, a 5-foot-11 outside hitter from Katy, can play all six rotations with strong ball control, and Mellinger said she could very well become the team’s starting libero in 2015.
Mariana dal Pozzo, a 5-foot-8 outside hitter from Toledo, Brazil, brings excellent floor vision and the ability to move the ball around the floor.
Blinn has competed in intercollegiate athletics since 1903 and captured 29 NJCAA national championships since 1987.