Senior Grace Vickers was the 2012 America East Championship Most Outstanding Player and a first-team all-conference selection after leading the league with a .271 hitting percentage.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Volleyball looks to defend title in 2013Tweet
The hunters become the hunted.
The Binghamton volleyball team captured its third America East title in program history almost a year ago, and now they are the ones the seven other teams in the conference will be chasing.
Last November, the Bearcats dethroned two-time defending champion Albany in the state’s capital leading to a berth in the NCAA Volleyball Championship. Now, Binghamton is seeking back-to-back titles for the first time in program history.
However, the road back to the top will not be easy and nobody knows that more than three-time America East Coach of the Year, Glenn Kiriyama. As daunting a task it was to win championship in 2012, it will be an even greater challenge in 2013.
“Teams will definitely be gunning for us this year,” the 2012 Coach of the Year said. “But similar to last year, it will be a wide-open race. We don’t see anyone as head-and-shoulders above anyone else, so we will take the same approach as last season.”
The top three teams in the America East preseason poll, as voted by the conference coaches, were separated by just two votes. Albany was tabbed as the preseason favorite with 37 points, while Binghamton followed behind by just one point and UMBC by one more. The Great Danes secured three first-place votes, while the Bearcats received two and UMBC one.
Kiriyama, who begin his 15th season as the head coach at Binghamton, knows his team’s road back to the conference championship will be extremely difficult: “It will definitely be a tough road…just getting back to the America East tournament will be trying. Each team is different with a different chemistry. We lost some key pieces and will have to fill those voids with some young players.”
Although, the Bearcats lost offensive production to graduation, two key components return in captains Grace Vickers and Amanda Dettmann. The duo was a major reason why Binghamton led the conference in hitting percentage and will be vital in grooming the five freshmen who joined the team in mid-August. Binghamton returns four starters and their two-time all-conference libero.
“It’s very reassuring having Grace and Amanda back in the fold,” Kiriyama said. “The players really respect and look up to both of them. They work very hard on and off the court and set the tone for this team. We will rely heavily upon each of them to take us back to where we want to be.”
The majority of the responsibilities in the middle will fall on the shoulders of Vickers, as she will be responsible to lead a young group on the inside for Kiriyama. The senior from Pleasanton, Calif., was the 2012 America East Championship Most Outstanding Player and a first-team all-conference selection after leading the league with a .271 hitting percentage. Vickers was third on the team last season with 283 kills, but that number will have to increase significantly for Binghamton to be as an efficient offense as last season.
“Grace gets better every single day,” Kiriyama said of his third-year captain. “She has improved her game immensely over the past three years and she has turned herself into one of the best players this program has ever seen.”
Joining Vickers in the middle will be sophomore Shannon Kirkpatrick and freshman Bianca Anderson. Kirkpatrick sat out all of last season due to an injury while the 6-foot-1 Anderson arrives from Columbus, Ohio. Both will be called upon to bolster the middle and each has the potential to play a prominent role in Kiriyama’s rotation.
“Bianca is extremely athletic, but still a little raw in terms of volleyball skills,” Kiriyama said. “She will be a big factor for us defensively with her ability to challenge people at the net. Shannon is a versatile athlete that can play every position on the front row. She will find a spot on the floor and contribute in a plethora of ways.”
Headlining the group of outside hitters will be junior Kristin Hovie. The two-year starter from Neenah, Wisconsin was second on the team with 351 kills last season after leading the team with 281 kills during her freshman year. Her accuracy still needs to improve in order to be a top threat in the conference, but she did increase her hitting percentage almost 60 points from year one to year two.
“We’re very excited to see what Kristin can accomplish this year,” Kiriyama said. “She has worked very hard to become a more efficient hitter and that showed last year. We will depend on her throughout the year to carry us offensively.”
Fulfilling the other outside hitter position could be the biggest challenge for Kiriyama. Replacing the 448 kills, a Binghamton single-season record, from the right arm of Iva Partaleva will be the most intriguing storyline of the season. Sophomore Megan Burgess and freshman and Allison Hovie, sister of Kristin, will be the primary options. Burgess saw action in 29 matches last year, collecting 82 kills and 56 total blocks from a predominately right-side role. Hovie was a two-time all-conference selection at Neenah High School and has the talent to be an instant contributor.
“Megan has a really strong arm and we will utilize her skills both on the outside and the right side,” Kiriyama stated. “Having the experience from last year should really pay off this season as she continues to develop. Allison will be relied upon to contribute right away. She has the talent and volleyball experience to be a very good player.”
Completing the group of outsides are newcomers Meghan Kraus and Kelly Leach. Kraus is a senior walk-on who competed on the Binghamton Club volleyball team last year. Prior to that, she transferred from Alfred State, where she accumulated more than 700 kills for the JUCO school. Leach arrives in Binghamton with significant high school and club volleyball experience and should provide much needed depth on the outside.
The position that Kiriyama feels most comfortable with is the setter, with the return of Dettmann, the America East Co-Setter of the Year. The two-year starter became the first Binghamton player in school history to garner a major conference award after dishing out almost 1,200 assists to finish second in the conference with 9.74 assists per set. Her outstanding season landed her on the America East All-Conference Second Team.
“Amanda is the catalyst for our offense,” Kiriyama said. “She is tremendously experienced now with two years under her belt and really blossomed last season, which was great to see. Her ability to make plays and keep us consistent offensively will be very important. Last year she quarterbacked us to the top hitting percentage in the league, which we’ve never done before.”
Backing up Dettmann is junior Alexa Zbytniewski, who provides Kiriyama with quality depth at one the most important positions on the court. Zbytniewski earned a spot in the rotation last year, seeing action in 30 games, primarily at the right-side position. Her versatility gives the Bearcats an additional option in several areas on the floor.
“It gives us a little bit of comfort knowing that Alexa is there. She is extremely versatile in her volleyball skills. She is a true workhorse and is always ready when called upon.”
Anchoring the backline will be three-year starter Xiomara Ortiz, but that is where the experience stops. Ortiz will be responsible for grooming freshmen Bailey Walker and Kasey Muchnicki into solid rotation players. Ortiz, a two-time all-conference selection, set the school record for single-season digs with 551 in 2012. She is just 250 digs away from setting the all-time program mark held by Jaclyn Strader.
“Xiomara is one of the reasons we were as successful as we were last year,” Kiriyama said. “Her quickness and athleticism on the backline is second to none. Xiomara makes plays all over the floor and never gives up on a ball. She again will be a huge factor in our success.”
Walker and Muchnicki, teammates in the Long Island Volleyball Academy club program, will be relied upon to step up in defensive situations.
Binghamton continues to employ a difficult non-conference schedule in preparation of America East play. The Bearcats’ non-conference schedule features a pair of matchups against 2012 NCAA participants Colgate and North Carolina State. Half of Binghamton’s non-conference opponents reside in the top-half of the NCAA RPI.
“Every match we play during our non-conference schedule will be tough,” Kiriyama said. “There are no easy wins out there, so we definitely have our work cut out for us.”