HUNTSVILLE, Texas The Sam Houston volleyball team opens its 2013 season this weekend traveling to the Appalachian State Invitational in Boone, North Carolina.
The defending Southland Conference champions take on Norfolk State Friday at 4 p.m. Saturday, the Bearkats play host Appalachian State at 12:30 p.m. then end the tournament competition with a 4 p.m. matchup with Loyola-Maryland.
“We really need to play someone else besides ourselves and see what we need to work on,” Sam Houston head coach Brenda Gray said. “We don’t know a whole lot about the teams we’re playing in this tournament. We’ve been focusing on ourselves and working to get better every day.”
The Bearkats earned the 2012 Southland Conference championship with a 15-3 league record, hoisting the volleyball regular season trophy for the first time since 1994.
Last year’s campaign marked a banner year climaxed by having Deveney Wells-Gibson named as the league’s “Player of the Year,” Gray as the Southland’s “Coach of the Year” and four Bearkats voted as All-Southland performers.
The 2013 season is different with only Wells-Gibson, setter Tayler Gray and middle blocker Haley Neisler returning as starters.
“It’s so different this year,” Gray said. “Last season we didn’t letter anyone new. Everyone that played was a veteran. This is year we’re young again. Although we have three starters back, I look at this as a whole new team.”
Wells-Gibson brings plenty of offense to the Bearkat attack. The junior was the top scorer for a Sam Houston team that rolled to a 21-11 overall season mark and posted its highest Southland Conference victory total ever.
Gray assisted on 1,162 of Sam Houston’s 1,413 kills last year and led the squad with 338 digs. Neisler has totaled 562 kills in 84 matches including 76 starts for the Kats.
Other returning players include Lauren Bohlen, Cherise Coleman, Michelle Griffith, Sarah Guzman and Carling Urben. The Bearkats also look to reload with freshmen Claire Kilpatrick, Sarah Sherman, Brenna Homer and Shelby Grenung and transfers Krista Koopmann and Morgan O’Brien.
“What really has impressed me about this group is their work ethic,” Gray said. “They just don’t stop.”
Host Appalachian State compiled a 7-23 overall record last season. Loyola, which is playing its inaugural season in the Patriot League, improved to 13-15 last year. Norfolk State put together its best Division I season ever with a 14-20 mark.
“Each team we play is going to expose our weaknesses and we’ll have to adjust,” Gray said. “This group definitely wants to do everything it takes to be successful.”
Following the Appalachian State event, Sam Houston returns to Huntsville where the Kats will play host to former Southland Conference rival Texas State Tuesday in the team’s home opener.
First serve of the match Tuesday is at 7 p.m. in Bernard G. Johnson Coliseum.
Season tickets for Sam Houston volleyball are on sale online at www.gobearkats.com or at the SHSU athletic ticket office in the Ron Mafrige Field House at Bowers Stadium. Call the ticket office at (936) 294-1729 for more information.