The Washburn volleyball team entered last season with a core group of returners that featured proven All-MIAA and All-American performers.
A year later, WU coach Chris Herron and the Ichabods will be tasked with replacing that talent.
“It’s caused me a few sleepless nights, I have to admit,” Herron said. “Losing that much talent and that much ball control, all you can do is hope you recruited well.”
Washburn’s losses from last season include three All-Americans and first-team All-MIAA selections in libero Alyssa Carney, middle hitter Sarah Vicory and outside hitter Leanna Willer. WU also lost second-team All-MIAA pick Natalie Bates at setter.
The Ichabods went 28-6 overall and 16-2 in the MIAA last year, but WU saw its season come to an unexpected end after the Bods were left out of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003.
Washburn, which opened practice on Monday, was picked No. 16 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association preseason poll released on Monday.
“Obviously we don’t have a lot of returners so this year is a big year for new people to step up into the places that we need them to step up in,” WU junior middle hitter Makayla Maxwell said. “This will be a big year. It’s a big learning curve for everybody. The main goal is just coming together and working hard together just to get back to where we want to be, and that’s making the tournament.”
Maxwell is the only returning player who received all-conference honors last season, earning honorable mention. She hit .304 and averaged 1.65 kills per set.
“We’re looking to get way more out of her this year than we did last year, not that we didn’t get a lot,” Herron said. “She hit over .300 and she was an all-conference kid, so she had a good year. But we need her to go further and be into the All-American status that we’ve kind of expected out of the middles here.”
Other returners with significant playing experience include senior hitters Taylor Selk and Carley Swan, junior setter Shayla Conner and sophomore hitter Erica Montgomery.
Hitters Olivia Powell and Aubrey Wilson will join the Ichabods as transfers. Powell, a junior, spent the last two seasons at Cowley County Community College and Wilson, a senior, played last season at Division I Arkansas-Little Rock.
“The kids that have been in the program, they have to make the natural progression, the natural maturation of being in the program,” Herron said. “The kids that we’re bringing in, a couple of transfers, you hope that their playing experience carries over.”
Washburn has seven true freshmen on its roster, with a few likely to play immediately.
“We think that probably about three of them are going to have to make an impact right away,” Herron said. “We’re going to try to have patience as much as we can, and we’re going to have to. But at the same time, the process for at least two or three of them is going to have to be expedited, whereas in the past, we’ve just kind of let them come along.”
“Some of the freshmen are going to have to hit the floor running,” Maxwell added. “It’ll be real exciting to see who will actually step up and make it on the court this year.”
Herron said he’s eager to see who emerges in the battles for playing time.
“Somebody’s really got to separate themselves, that’s what we’re looking for this week,” he said. “Just separate yourselves from the others so it’s clear that you should be playing.”
Herron said the Ichabods won’t be allowed many missteps in order to get back into the NCAA Tournament through a loaded Central Region. Nebraska-Kearney was the only MIAA team to make the regional last year.
“There’s no room for error,” he said. “Last year, our error was our loss to Oklahoma Baptist, that’s what kept us out of the tournament. Oklahoma Baptist was an OK team last year; they weren’t great, but they weren’t really bad. We just lost to a team that on paper we shouldn’t have, and that cost us.
“There’s just no room for error. You just have to take care of your own business.”
Washburn will open the season on Sept. 1, playing Arkansas Tech and East Central in the Washburn Invitational in Lee Arena.