A year ago, the Benedict College Lady Tiger volleyball team was decimated by injuries and limped to a 16-15 overall record and 9-8 in the SIAC. Now with a healthy roster, the Lady Tigers have high expectations for the 2018 season, which began with a home game against Johnson C. Smith University.
“The energy is great,” said Benedict head coach Gwendolyn Rouse.
V’Aira Harris was named the preseason SIAC player of the year prior to last season and missed the entire season with a shoulder injury. Aaliyah Lawson, a 2016 preseason All-Conference selection, went down with a season-ending knee injury just six points into the first match of the season last year. Ka’Tia Wright, a freshman who was expected to be an immediate contributor, also never saw the court with a season-ending injury.
All those players are back, better than ever, and join a talented roster with two players who stepped up in their absence and earned All-Conference honors, as well as a quartet of freshman and one transfer.
The Lady Tigers were picked to finish third in the SIAC Eastern Division, mostly based on last year’s mediocre finish, but Rouse just smiles when she thinks about the potential this squad has.
“We’re shooting for one. I think we can win it,” Rouse said. “On paper, we’re capable of being first in the east. It’s just a matter of them pulling together as a team.”
The offense will be led by Harris, the high-jumping junior who ranked fifth in the SIAC with 2.84 kills per set in 2016, when she was named SIAC Newcomer of the Year. She will be paired with Lawson, who averaged 2.87 kills per set in 2016.
“We have our two outside hitters back,” Rouse said. She said they both look great so far in practice coming off their injuries. “Our trainer saw V’Aira in practice and was amazed how she was getting up and hitting. I think Liyah is still a little bit timid, which is to be expected. But when she hits it, she hits it.”
With both Harris and Lawson out of the lineup last season, Adrionna Washington was forced into the role as the team’s primary offensive attack. She finished fourth in the conference in kills per set and earned All-Conference honors. Rouse expects Washington to play more middle blocker this year, but her experience as a hitter last season will make the team stronger.
Senior libero Majda Cisic, who has already surpassed the 1,000-dig milestone in just three seasons, is back. She ranked second in the conference in digs last year and joined Washington on the All-SIAC squad. Rouse expects an even better season from Cisic now that she has more defensive help from two freshmen – Alia Gomez and Amber Scott.
“Last year, Majda had to do a lot. This is finally a year that she knows she has help,” Rouse said. “Those two freshmen have her back. They work really well together. She is so happy this year because she has help.”
Rouse said the defense will be much improved this year with the two freshmen. “When I say they hit the floor, they hit the floor,” Rouse said.
Also returning for the Lady Tigers is junior middle blocker Taylor Stephens. Stephens recorded a respectable 70 blocks last season, but Rouse said Stephens may be the most improved player on the team and will be a threat on offense.
“Taylor has become very strong. Taylor will probably be the surprise of the team this year,” Rouse said. “She has learned how to hit to a lot of different spots. She’s jumping and really getting on top of the ball. Her blocking was always pretty good, but her hitting has really elevated to another level.”
Also returning for the Lady Tigers are Wright and sophomore setter Mariah Cobbin.
“K’Tia can play all the way around, too. She has very good hands, probably the best hands on the team,” Rouse said. “Mariah has gotten better. She’s worked a lot over the summer.”
Jasmine Wright, a left-handed hitter, transfers into Benedict from Lawson State Community College and can play all three positions on the front row. Freshman Kiera Brothers will also see action at all three front row spots.
Freshman Ashleigh Reeves will run the offense as a talented setter.
“I was lucky to get her,” Rouse said. “That’s the quarterback of the team. You can have all the hitters you want to have, but if you don’t have someone to set who has the right mind frame and the right attitude, it doesn’t matter. This kid has the right attitude. She jells with the kids and she’s a good setter.”
And Reeves is already making the offense run smoother, Rouse said.
“We’re running a lot of quicker offenses, so that will help us to wear out our opponents. So that definitely makes a difference and we have the girls to do that this year.”
With the addition of a top notch setter to get the ball to her stable of powerful hitters and an improved defense, it is easy to see why Rouse has high hopes for this season.
“I’m very excited, and the girls are very excited about the season.”