It is time for another level.
Head coach Bryndon Paulsen knows it … his student-athletes understand that fact, too.
An elevated level of excitement is brewing, as Manchester University's 2017 volleyball season continues to approach on the calendar. However, that has been the theme of a high-flying Class of 2019 since they arrived in North Manchester two late summers ago.
The results have been there … Back-to-back Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference postseason tournament appearances among two double-digit win campaigns that included a 2016 where the Black and Gold finished just shy of 20 victories.
As Paulsen admitted, going from where the program started when he became an assistant in 2014 to now has been the "easy" part. Now, it is time for something more difficult.
"(The individuals) have been speaking with our coaching staff about wanting to achieve something more," he said. "They've got to take ownership (of it). We need to figure out where we are going and how important that fact is. To do so, it is coming down to leadership.
There were many times we were just showed up to play and were successful," he added. "In order to get where we want, it'll take some floor leaders to step forward. There were flashes last season but nothing steady. Being a top tier program is not something that just happens overnight … you have to do so year round with the work and so forth. They tell us they want that level, but it's on them (to get there)."
Paulsen and his staff's team jigsaw puzzle does not have as many loose pieces as in previous seasons. He had the following comments when previewing each section of the court …
Defensively, the fourth-year coach remarked the team is "stacked" with depth and talent. Among the returners, sophomore Anna Marie Lawrie (Indianapolis, Ind.) averaged four digs per set and delivered 21 service aces in 28 matches played. Junior Morgan Oliver (Alexandria, Ind.) is nearly in the same statistical totals career-wise in regards to digs.
"Anna Marie had a remarkable freshman season even though, at times, she had to go into survival mode due to being caught out of position. We worked on cleaning that up in the spring so there could be more accountability and comfort. Morgan is one of the better defensive players (in the HCAC). She can dig all kinds of opponent attacks. We also like the potential of (freshman MacKenzie) Rooks (of Columbus, Ind.)."
In front of them is just as strong of a setting crew. Junior Dakota Stanichuk (Troy, Mich.), a two-time honorable mention all-conference selection, continues to track up the program's all-time top five in assists, needing only 216 to reach the 2,000 mark. Junior Bree Baldini (Monticello, Ind.) did see court time as a sophomore with almost four assists per set, while freshman Lauren Gandhi (Westfield, Ind.) can provide some fireworks, according to Paulsen.
"We have so many options (at setter)," he noted. "Dakota's numbers bear out what she's meant to the program the last two seasons. Bree showed strong signs last fall and improved even more during the spring. Lauren brings a lot to the table and we have another freshman (Alexandria Collins of Lowell, Ind.) that can add to the equation."
They will feed to the ball to a veteran-laden front line. In the middle, former and reigning league all-freshman team honors Hannah Tevis (Royal Center, Ind.) and Riley Patterson (Walkerton, Ind.) top the list after Tevis combined for better than 100 blocks and nearly 400 kills over her first two seasons, and Patterson hit at a strong .233 to go with 127 kills and 36 blocks during her first year. "Hannah proved to be one of the team's best hitters during the league tournament (a year ago)," Paulsen noted. "She might not have had the statistical year she wanted but when it counted, she was always there. Riley was great offensively and in serving. She needed to work on her blocking.
(Junior Emma) Voelker (of North Bend, Ohio) is always in the mix," he added. "She was top five in blocks per match (in the HCAC) last year and is one of the best in the gym (in that area). She just need to be consistent offensively. (Sophomore Emily) Bailey (of Warsaw, Ind.) has proven to be so coachable … constantly looking to get better. We're very happy with what she's accomplished and look to get her more chances, especially on the right side."
Delving deeper into the right and outsides, the Spartans have no shortage of wealth. Junior Haley Duncan (Albion, Ind.) tallied over 200 kills as a sophomore; Ally Roskos of Elkhart, Ind., the lone senior on the squad, has played in 10-or-more matches twice during her career; sophomore Emma DeWitt of Brookston, Ind., averaged more than a kill per set as a freshman; and junior Kaitlin Mindiola (Roachdale, Ind.) hit at a gaudy .313 in three matches appearances over her sophomore career.
"Haley has shown so much promise since her freshman season and the numbers back it," Paulsen said. "She was tremendous a year ago. Her work needs to come in the consistency area. There were nights she was all-conference capable and other evenings, she struggled. It needs to even out … we know she is capable. Emma made it a three-way battle for starting time at the outside last fall and has more potential. Ally has been a real pin for us all over the floor … proving very versatile. Kaitlin can be a factor, too, but needs to stay away from the injury bug.
On an overall level, we are excited," he added. "It's the best of the time … the players get to be back in the gym playing and our staff can coach volleyball again. I know this group will have some level of success but how much? … Who knows. It's unpredictable."
Reaching top tier status always is … Paulsen, his staff and MU fans hope the team is ready for the journey.