COLLEGE STATION, Texas – The Texas A&M volleyball team officially reports to campus Tuesday afternoon in preparation of the 2012 season and the Aggies’ inaugural campaign in the Southeastern Conference. The team will attend meetings and a team dinner on the first day before participating in a run test Wednesday morning followed by its first preseason practice later that afternoon at Reed Arena.
“This is always a really exciting time because it is the time of year that volleyball coaches and athletes live for,” said Laurie Corbelli, who is entering her 20th season as head coach of the Aggies and the 26th year of her overall head coaching career. “They have been preparing all spring and summer both physically and strategically and in so many other ways for this day.”
Corbelli, who will be going for the 500th victory of her head coaching career and her 400th A&M victory in her 20th season at the helm of the Aggies in the team’s season opener on August 24, will welcome 18 athletes to training camp.
She returns 10 letterwinners – including four starters plus the libero -- from last year’s team that went 23-8 and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. She also welcomes one transfer and seven highly touted freshmen who represent the 20th-ranked recruiting class in the nation.
“There are two things that come to my mind about this group,” Corbelli said. “One is the influx of new talent and just the youth. They are really excited to be here yet kind of naïve about what it is going to be like. They have so much to offer this program. They are really a big part of this program not only because there are seven of them, but because of their ability. They are going to be important to us this year, and they will be a huge class for us in the coming years.
“And the other part that comes to mind is just knowing the talent that we return. Having a returning starting setter, returning opposite, returning middles, an outside, a libero, it is pretty much a full squad returning and they are pretty hungry.”
Lindsey Miller, a 6-2 middle blocker who received All-America honorable mention distinction last year and has started every match during her career, highlights a solid and experienced senior class. Alisia Kastmo, a 6-4 opposite who earned All-Big 12 first team honors last year, 5-10 outside hitter Tori Mellinger and libero Megan Pendergast also are returning senior starters, and fifth-year 6-2 senior middle Stephanie Minnerly, who has starting experience, completes the senior class.
Junior two-year starter Allie Sawatzky, a 6-2 lefty, returns at the setter position after earning AVCA All-Central Region honorable mention last year. Junior outside hitters Heather Reynolds (6-0) and Ashley Vrana (5-11) will be competing for the vacancy left by the graduation of All-American honorable mention Kelsey Black. Defensive specialist Kelsey Kinley and setter Mariah Agre, who transferred to A&M in January, round out the junior class, while defensive specialist Hannah Hood is the lone sophomore on the squad.
“In between the seniors and freshmen is a group of athletes who have spent two years focusing on strength and conditioning with one of the top coaches in the country – Raychelle Ellsworth – and training every day competing for spots,” Corbelli said. “The improvements that they made in the spring were really remarkable, Vrana and Reynolds in particular. We had a spring that once we got rolling, we had a great rhythm and great chemistry, and the team was doing some really top-level things on the court.”
The freshman class provides a plethora of young talent at nearly every position, including 6-1 middles Jazzmin Babers, Darby Graff and Shelby Sullivan, as well as 6-2 middle/outside hitter Shelbi Vaughan. Angela Lowak (6-0) and Sierra Patrick (5-10), who both teamed with Babers to win the 2011 USA Volleyball Junior National Champion 17 Open Division, will be competing for an outside hitter position, and Kate Praslicka will provide depth as a defensive specialist and setter.
“These freshmen have been competing against each other in high school and in club ball for many years as some of the top talent in Texas and in the nation,” Corbelli said. “I think they are all expecting to break into the lineup at some point this season. They have that expectation of themselves to contribute a lot and compete hard every day.”
In addition to the large number of newcomers, the team will be facing new opponents this season as the Aggies enter their first season as members of the SEC.
“Everything about the season seems so new, not only with the large number of newcomers, but the schedule is relatively brand new as well,” Corbelli said. “Missouri is the only team we are familiar with, having played them regularly over the last few years, so we have a new conference, new cities to travel to and so many new faces that it just kind of feels so fresh and it gives you a whole different outlook. It is going to be challenging as coaches; however, it is going to make our team that much better, and that is what I am most looking forward to.”
The Aggies open the season with the Texas A&M Invitational, Aug. 24-25 at Reed Arena. Teams participating are Texas State, which received an automatic berth in the 2011 NCAA tournament after winning the Southland Conference tournament, 2011 NCAA semifinalist Southern California and three-time defending Great West Conference champion North Dakota.
A&M completes the non-conference schedule with tournaments at Yale and Delaware before playing its first-ever SEC match on Friday, Sept. 14 at Reed Arena against Ole Miss.
Season tickets for the 13-match home slate are only $100 for reserved seating and $65 for general admission seating, and there are three easy and convenient ways to purchase the tickets: 1) online, 24 hours a day at tickets.www.12thmanfoundation.com; 2) by phone by calling 979-845-2311 or toll free at 1-888-99-AGGIE; or 3) in person at the ticket office located inside the Zone at the north end of Kyle Field. Ticket office hours of operation are 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. weekdays.
For the complete volleyball schedule and roster, go to www.AggieAthletics.com.