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Volleyball Gunning for Breakthrough Season in 2013
All-BIG EAST outside hitter Vesela Zapryanova is back to key the Blue Demon offense in 2013.

All-BIG EAST outside hitter Vesela Zapryanova is back to key the Blue Demon offense in 2013.

Aug 13, 2013

CHICAGO – All conference shuffling aside, head coach Nadia Edwards feels good knowing – more or less – what to expect from her senior-laden roster as she enters her fourth season at the helm of DePaul volleyball.

Having veterans to lean on is a new luxury for a team that has been making incremental improvement in each of the past three years.

“I’m just feeling comfortable about the whole group in general,” said Edwards, who has guided the team to improved win totals in each of her first three seasons. “We’ve come a long way from having seven new players last year, and having them have to find their way within our system during the season.”

“I think the offseason really helped our newcomers figure it out, so to speak, and I think our nucleus is stronger because everybody seems to be on the same page. They all know my expectations and have built a good chemistry.”

Ultimately, Edwards hopes camaraderie and experience are the key ingredients in what could be a breakthrough season as the Blue Demons aim to one-up several program milestones from last fall within the restructured nine-team BIG EAST.

Five teams are gone from last year’s conference lineup, but three reputable programs join the ranks for this fall in Creighton – an AVCA preseason top-25 team – along with fellow Midwest teams in Xavier and Butler.

“I think there’s going to be a little bit more balance in the league,” said Edwards. “Among the new teams coming in, certainly Creighton had a great run in the NCAA Tournament last year and we played against Butler and know they’re tough. Xavier is also a strong RPI team coming out of the Atlantic 10. I think they’ll all help balance out the strong conference that we already have.”

With all three new squads lying in close proximity to Chicago, the new schedule presents many opportunities to establish new regional rivalries.



“All those teams bring that Midwest, local competition and a potential for great rivalries. I’ve seen all three teams play and I know they mostly run faster offenses,” said Edwards. “I think that kind of plays into the teams that we like to see and it’s neat for the conference to have different types of teams and different looks. It’ll definitely be a fun league.”

After finishing in a tie for 11th-place last season, there is nowhere to go but up for the program as it looks to build upon its first 10-win season since 2004 – the Blue Demons also captured five BIG EAST victories last season, which were the most-ever for the program.

Capping off the season with a weekend sweep of Rutgers and St. John’s, the Blue Demons look to carry a lot of that end-of-season momentum into an early fall tournament schedule that features four full weekends scattered across the Midwest, in addition to another competition in Charleston, S.C.

Following a hectic non-conference schedule, Edwards said the team is looking forward to the new schedule for league play. Due to the decreased size of the BIG EAST, the schedule will now allow for all nine teams to play each other home-and-away for the first time ever.

 “Having the opportunity to play double round robin is huge,” said Edwards. “It’s nice, just having that home court advantage once and having a second time around to make adjustments. Last year, I think we saw that a little bit with the last few weekends of the bonus pairings. We definitely got stronger, so we’re looking at that as a positive.”

If the team is to make a big jump in standings, a big reason why will be the variety of offensive options on the roster. The attack all starts with returning All-BIG EAST outside hitter Vesela Zapryanova, who led the team in attempts last season and landed 350 kills.

Paired with another athletic outside hitter, Callie Huebener, who recorded 238 kills in her freshman campaign, the Blue Demons return nearly 45 percent of last season’s offense in those two players alone. Supplementing the offense, senior Natalie Rizzo will be expected to remain an efficient attacker in the middle, while Edwards is also counting on increased production from sophomore Abbie Fleener.

“I’m really excited about last year’s freshman group as a whole,” said Edwards. “But Abbie [Fleener] has shown us some really good things in the spring and I think she’s gotten a lot more comfortable in her position – going from middle to right side – and is a lot stronger.”

Returning five-of-six starters should also pay dividends at the net and in service reception, where senior libero Allyson Rooks returns to stabilize the position.

“I think Ally has done a tremendous job of leading that group this past year,” said Edwards. “She actually stepped into her position the last week of preseason last year and just took over from there. We’ve challenged her to set the bar high for herself and then we’ve challenged Genesis [Reyes], Tyler [Graham] and now Lexi [Chanos] to challenge Ally for that spot. Hopefully we get that healthy competition we’re looking for at that spot.”

There will also likely be some good competition at the setter position, which is a spot the Blue Demons also had a timeshare at last season. Returning senior Laura Witt will be challenged by a highly-recruited transfer in Colleen Smith from Indiana University.

“Both Laura and Colleen bring a lot to the table and have a lot of different strengths,” said Edwards. “We can probably use them both, but we’re happy to have options. At every single position we’re going to have competition, which is great, but it’s going to be wait-and-see at setter. I think Laura comes back stronger and with a lot more experience now, understanding the offense we run. Colleen is pretty feisty and runs a fast offense too, so it’ll be nice.”

Overall, the Blue Demons will be flush with depth and veterans for the first time in Edwards’ tenure. Those factors alone should be reason for optimism, but if the Blue Demons are to really make progress this season Edwards knows the team must first learn how to win close matches. Last season, the team went 1-5 in matches that went to a deciding fifth set.

“Being able to finish and keep this group focused is a big thing,” said Edwards. “If we can maintain our strength and keep healthy – and if we can finish matches – I think those are the main three things.”

“Over the years – in terms of our gradual progression – at the beginning we were nowhere close to our opponents in matches and I think last year we certainly gave everybody a battle. But, at times, when we were up and at times when we should have finished, we didn’t. This year the challenge is to come out strong, maintain things in the middle and finish strong. And win matches.”

DePaul begins its season with a home tournament, the annual DePaul Invitational, hosting Providence at 7:00 p.m. on Aug. 30.