ABILENE, Texas — High expectations have become the norm for the Hardin-Simmons volleyball team and the 2013 season is no exception.
The Cowgirls are coming off a 29-4 record a year ago that included a school-record 25-match winning streak. HSU also won its third straight conference title, going undefeated in conference play along the way.
HSU returns five starters from that team and is loaded with experience and a talented recruiting class. They will have to find a way to replace all-American and two-time conference MVP Madison Reyes who is now an assistant coach with the team after graduating. They will attempt to make up some of the ground with a defense that is one of the stronger ones in the region.
“We are very strong defensive club all the way around,” said seventh-year head coach Sabrina Bingham. “When you replace someone that you relied on, like we did with Madison, it will take time to find a new rhythm on offense but we are talented and that will come.”
The Cowgirls return six seniors and a bevy of talented players that have played significant rotations.
“Having five starters coming back lets you start right back up where you left off last year and then you can add in some of the talented newcomers to help fill roles,” Bingham said. “It makes a difference to have that leadership and experience. They know what we are looking forward.”
A new scheduling format has basically eliminated home games. HSU has just three home tilts this year. A pod system has teams playing a lot of neutral court matches. The Cowgirls will also play in four non-conference tournaments.
“We are on the road a lot usually, but this year it is pretty much the entire season,” said Bingham. “If anything, I am glad to have a veteran team that can hopefully overcome the schedule. They know how we do things on the road and they can lead the way on that. We are just taking the attitude that wherever we play, we have to play at a high level.”
The non-conference schedule features national power Emory along with Randolph-Macon, Averett, Chapman, Trinity, Southwestern, Texas Lutheran, Austin College and Whitworth are all teams that have played in the NCAA Tournament in recent years.
“We have played a good schedule the last several years,” said Bingham. “We are playing Trinity and Southwestern along with Emory, Randolph-Macon and Maryville and some others along with our conference schedule. The experience of getting to play some of those better schools like the Emory’s and Randolph-Macon’s and Trinity and Southwestern just helps our program. Every time we play those teams it gives us more experience and it is not as new and shocking every time we play someone that is going to test us. We have had some success and it helps us get better by playing those established teams that are really talented.”
That doesn’t count the conference season, where the Cowgirls will have a target on its back after three straight league titles.
“Every team is looking to take that from us,” said Bingham. “We have that target on us. The way we approach that is we play it one point at a time and one game at a time and worry about us and not what the other team is doing. We can’t overlook any of the details and if we do that, we know we have what it takes to be successful.”
Here is a position-by-position look at the Cowgirls.
Molli Owen is back as a junior for the Cowgirls. She led the team with 732 assists and was a third-team all-conference performer a year ago.
“She can get the ball wherever it needs to go, she has improved defensively so we can use her more in that role as well.”
The other setter position in the Cowgirls 6-2 format will be split between a pair of talented freshmen, Tucker Smith and Karis Cullen.
The Cowgirls have a pair of veterans in the middle. Senior Tori Martinez and junior Morgan Watts return as starters. Martinez led the ASC with 131 blocks a year ago and Watts added 80.
“They both know what is expected out of them and they have been in tough situations. They work well and really set up our defense with their blocking ability.”
Freshmen Kylie Jenkins, Amber Bowman and Lauren Pirkey are two talented options off the bench for the Cowgirls that will provide depth.
The Cowgirls right sides are experienced as well. Seniors Gabi Martinez and Belle Shaver both played in the rotation last year and junior Hannah Hornsby also played there.
“We have experience with Belle, Gabi and Hannah,” said Bingham. “They do a good job for us and just have been in every possible situation that you see on the court.”
The freshmen middle blockers could also see time on the right side as well to add some power and sophomore Reagan Davis will add depth.
Preseason ASC Player of the Year Christine Sas leads the outside attack for the Cowgirls. She is a three-time all-conference performer and was all-region a year ago. She had 335 kills and led the team with 49 service aces and 418 digs.
“Christine has been an incredible player and leader for us,” said Bingham. “She can do anything we ask of her on the court. I think she continues to improve and she works hard. We expect her to score a lot of points for us in her senior year.”
Hornsby will also move over and play more on the outside. She brings a strong swing that will be a weapon for the Cowgirls. She had 214 kills last year.
Sophomore Ellen Dees is also poised for a big year and Barbie Mills will add depth.
Seniors Ashley Babineaux and Addison Zaya have both played libero and on the back row for the Cowgirls and they give HSU a strong presence defensively.
“They are both very good defensively and they can rotate in and out. They can get to any ball and are not afraid to dive and give up their body to keep a ball from hitting the floor,” said Bingham. “We may have to use both in the back row more.”
The Cowgirls also have two freshmen in Lauren Wish and Morgan Mills.
“They are both from very good programs and we will work them in when we can. They have also shown the ability to keep the ball from hitting the ground.”