GREENWOOD - Lander volleyball coach Ashley Stathas stated a very clear goal for her team this year and it caught her players completely off-guard.
“We have one goal. We are going to have turkey dinner together,” the Lady Bearcats second-year coach said, with a big smile.
It is a fun goal involving Thanksgiving, yet a serious one.
“If we have turkey dinner together, that means we’ve made it to the (NCAA) regional tournament,” she explained. “The players can’t go home for Thanksgiving because we would be playing the following week. So we would need to practice.”
The players warmed up to the idea.
“I told our players on the very first day, I walked in and I said, ‘this is my goal, to have Thanksgiving with you,’” Stathas said. “And they were all like, ‘what do you mean coach? Why do you want to eat?’
“And I said, ‘because if we are eating Thanksgiving dinner together, then that means we have made it to the regional tournament and that’s a good thing for us.’ And they were all like, ‘yea, I want to have Thanksgiving dinner with you too.’
“Then they said ‘can we have stuffing? Will we have cranberry sauce?’ And I said let’s just get there first and I will make you whatever you want. So that’s our goal. We want to have Thanksgiving dinner together because that would mean we have had a successful season.”
The quest for turkey dinner begins Sept. 6-7 when Lander plays in the North Greenville University Invitational. The home opener is Sept. 17 versus Newberry College.
The Lady Bearcats only lost one player off last year’s team, libero Madison Kubal, yet are still young. Lander has three seniors, two juniors, five sophomores and six freshmen on its 2013 roster.
The Lady Bearcats finished 15-17 overall and 6-8 in the Peach Belt last fall in Stathas’s first year as head coach. Stathas earned PBC Coach of the Year honors after leading Lander to twice as many league wins as the year before. This year, the team will need to take another big jump in order to reach its Thanksgiving goal.
Among the top returning players is last year’s Peach Belt Conference Freshman of the Year Tarryn Angermeier, a sophomore middle hitter from Spartanburg, S.C.
Also returning is junior setter Jessica Register (Spartanburg) and several other key players, including senior middle blocker Hannah Dederick (Lugoff, S.C.) and sophomore outside hitter Kaitlyn Harrison (Normal, Ill.).
“I am excited about the players who we have coming back because of their strong leadership,” said Stathas, who played at Lander from 2001-04. “We have a good setter, Jessica Register, coming back to help lead us offensively. We’ve got Tarryn Angermeier, who was Freshman of the Year and was named preseason All-Conference (this year). We have our senior Hannah Dederick in the middle and she is another strong force. We have some good leaders who can help mold our freshmen.”
There are seven newcomers on the team, including one transfer who is a sophomore.
“I am excited about the incoming freshmen and a transfer student that we have coming in,” Stathas said. “They are bringing a lot of competitiveness to our team. We’ve got some depth now. So we are really able to battle hard in practice, which has been fun. I think a few (newcomers) will get some playing time. But they are battling some kids who aren’t willing to give up their spots.”
Despite losing only one senior from last year, “we are still a young team,” Stathas said. “We do have a couple of juniors and seniors now. But we are still freshman and sophomore based. We will still have some errors here and there that we will have to work through.”
The competition for starting positions and playing time has been continuous throughout the preseason.
The middle hitters include Angermeier, Dederick, and freshman Kate Schwartz (Greenwood, S.C.). The 5-foot-9 Angermeier led the conference in total blocks (117) and blocks per set (0.96) last year, was third in kills per set (3.25), and fifth in total kills (396).
“I think Tarryn is ready to get back on the court and show her opponents that she is quicker and stronger than ever,” Stathas said.
Dederick was second on the team with 59 blocks last year and posted 212 kills. Stathas believes the 6-footer is primed for a big senior year.
“She is going to be a force to be reckoned with this year,” Stathas said. “This is her last year and she is ready to go out with a bang.”
Stathas said Schwartz, who played at Greenwood High School, has a bright future at Lander.
“She is a local Greenwood kid in the middle who is going to be a good asset for us in the next couple of years,” Stathas said. “She had two big middles to follow behind and she is learning quite a bit.”
Outside hitters include returning sophomore Harrison, and newcomers sophomore Julia Ferreira-Alves (Knoxville, Tenn., Winthrop University) and freshman Kendall Korte (Morris, Ill.).
Harrison was Lander’s second-leading attacker last fall with 335 kills.
“Kaitlyn has come a long way over the summer and I think she will definitely find her mark on the court,” Stathas said. “She is going to be a strong returner for is this season on the outside.”
Stathas is also looking forward to seeing the incoming outside hitters play.
“Julia is an outside hitter who is a really strong, well-rounded player coming from a high-level program at Winthrop. She is a good addition for us,” Stathas said. “Kendall Korte is a great outside player, a good all-around kid, strong serve receiver, a great attitude, just a well-rounded player.”
The right-side hitters include returners junior Anna Padezanin (Milton, Ga.) and sophomore Kaitlyn Peperone (Lakeland, Tenn.), and freshmen Gracie Bryant (North Augusta, S.C.) and Paige Switzer (Sidney, Mich.).
“Anna has come a long way and has become a lot more consistent player,” Stathas said. “Peperone had shoulder surgery last December. She is finally back 100 percent ready to go. I am excited to see her healthy.”
Bryant is the tallest player on Lander’s roster at 6-2.
“We are really looking forward to training her and getting her going on the right side,” Stathas said of Bryant.
“Paige Switzer will become a really good right side for us,” Stathas added. “She is starting to learn the pace of the game so she is catching on really quickly.”
Register returns as the team’s starting setter after totaling 1,137 assists last year. Freshman Kristen Dodge (Duncan, S.C.) is the squad’s other setter and is one of the taller players at 5-10.
“Jessica Register is a strong leader on the court and a great presence to have out there,” Stathas said. “Kristen runs a very solid offensive for us and we are hoping that she will become a strong rightside attacker as well.”
The Lady Bearcats have four battling for playing time at the libero/defensive specialist position including seniors Katelyn Kraft (Cincinnati) and Kiki Hennessey (Aiken, S.C.), sophomore Sarah Bradley (Arlington, Tenn.) and freshman Kendall Romain (Orlando, Fla.).
“Kiki Hennessey was an outside for us last year and this year she is battling for a defensive position,” Stathas said. “She is very energetic. She would run through a wall if I asked her to. She is a go-getter. She just wants to play and compete.”
Kraft has been out of action with an elbow injury since the first day of preseason. “We are hoping to get her back into the swing of things,” Stathas said.
The coach said Bradley and Romain are both scrappy players who are battling for playing time. Bradley had 325 digs last year as a freshman.
Lander was picked sixth in the Peach Belt preseason coaches poll behind favorite Armstrong Atlantic, Flagler, Montevallo, Georgia Regents University of Augusta (formerly Augusta State), and USC Aiken. Francis Marion, Columbus State, UNC Pembroke and Georgia College round out the top 10. Columbus State and Georgia College are in their first year of Peach Belt volleyball.
“I think we are going to finish much higher than sixth,” Stathas said, with a smile. “That gives us some drive and motivation to prove some people wrong. The Peach Belt is pretty even. You have one or two at the top end. Other than that, it’s a free for all. Anybody can win any given day.”
Stathas said Lander’s depth could be the team’s biggest asset and is one of the reasons for her optimism.
“We lacked depth last year,” she said. “I think it is going to be very valuable to us to have some people on the bench that are very capable and qualified to step in and replace somebody who starts. I don’t think bringing players off the bench will affect us. I think we will be just as strong (with the reserves).”
The Lady Bearcats will open their season versus Brevard on Friday, Sept. 6, and St. Augustine's and North Greenville on Sept. 7 in the North Greenville Tournament. A fourth team, Shaw University, dropped out of the tournament.
“I scheduled that tournament to be a good opening weekend for us,” Stathas said. “I really wanted us to get our feet wet. We knew we were going to have such a big roster. I wanted to give some people opportunities to show me what we can do. I am hoping we can come out 3-0 and I can get some people in and experiment with some lineups.”
The Peach Belt opener is Sept. 11 at USC Aiken.
“They are one of our biggest rivals in the conference,” Stathas said of Aiken. “The girls get fired up when we play them. It might be a blessing for us to come out of the gate, our very first match in the Peach Belt, and play our biggest rival. I think our girls will bring everything to the table.”
The home opener on Sept. 17 in a non-conference match versus Newberry.
“That ought to be a very good region match,” she said. “Newberry is going to be a solid team. I am excited to see how we do against them.”
Alumni Weekend is Sept. 20-21 versus UNC Pembroke and Francis Marion. The Dig Pink match is Oct. 22 versus Georgia Regents, ending a two-week stretch of six consecutive home matches that includes back-to-back games versus preseason favorites Flagler and Armstrong Oct. 11-12.
“I am excited about the season,” Stathas said. “This group that I have, I just enjoy being around. I love to travel on the road with them. I love just hanging out with them in the gym. They are fun. They are a good group. We get along very well. They make me laugh constantly. They are always doing something silly.
“This year excites me just because of the camaraderie they have with one another. I am ready to go. No nervousness. No cold feet. I am ready to jump in and start showing people what we can do.”