BAROURVILLE, Ky. - Stability, certainty and consistency is what any team wants, and the 2012 Union volleyball team might well have that under second-year coach Chuck Amshoff.
While last season netted an Appalachian Athletic Conference regular-season championship, the 2011 campaign was a bit of a roller coaster as the Lady Bulldogs adjusted to the then-new coach who only joined the program after preseason practices began. Union started off 0-5 and dropped 10 of its first 13 matches before regrouping and finished the regular season 17-15. More importantly, the Lady Bulldogs took care of business within the AAC, posting a 14-2 league mark to win the regular-season title.
Union, though, went 3-2 in the conference tournament to finish 20-17 overall.
The Lady Bulldogs lost a few key pieces from last year's squad, but they return a hefty dose of experience to go with a profusion of youth.
Gone from last year's team are two all-conference team members, yet Union returns two All-AAC First Teamers in Karina Ramos and Cat Neumann. And the duo will help lead the charge at the net.
Neumann, a senior outside hitter, made not only the all-conference team but landed on the AAC All-Tournament Team as well. Neumann delivered 270 kills, but she was also solid defensively with 215 digs and 45 total blocks. She finished the season strong, registering double-digit kills in six of the final 10 matches.
Ramos earned all-conference first team honors despite missing eight matches due to injury. The junior middle blocker hammered home 161 kills, boasting a .244 hitting percentage to go with 46 total blocks.
Helping Neumann and Ramos up front will be Caity Merritt, Paige Moore and Christa Hicks. A junior right-side hitter, Merritt continued to improve her game as the 2011 campaign, finishing with 119 kills, a .202 hitting percentage and a 51 total blocks, the most of any returnee. Moore, a sophomore outside hitter, played sparingly as a freshman. She appeared in 30 of 37 matches but played in only 47 total sets out of 131. Still, Moore recorded 64 kills, a .188 hitting percentage and 61 digs. Although a senior, Hicks is new to Union having transferred from the University of Mobile (Ala.), where she played one season in 2010. Prior to playing at Mobile, she was a two-time all-conference player at Chabot College (Calif.).
Last season, Kalia Yasek held the responsibility of setting up the Lady Bulldog hitters and racked up 1,221 assists. However, Union is moving to a 6-2 system and will rely on a pair of freshmen to handle the setting duties.
Heather Fields red-shirted last season and has a year of working within the program under her belt. Helping Fields will be first-year player Chandler Gray.
At libero, the Lady Bulldogs have three options in seniors Brooke Porter and Gabrielle Kelly and junior Linsey Ellis. Porter held the role in 2011, leading the team in digs (606) and service aces (32). Kelly and Ellis got plenty of playing time as defensive specialists with Kelly notching 155 digs and 10 aces and Ellis chipping in 193 digs and 18 aces.
Union is the favorite to win the conference championship, according the AAC Coaches' Poll with long-time rival Bryan tabbed second. Union garnered seven first-place votes and tallied 87 total points to be the overwhelming favorite. Bryan is picked to finish second as the Lady Lions received one first-place vote and 75 total points.
Milligan and Montreat each collected 65 total points, but in a tie-breaker vote, Milligan was selected to place third. Columbia picked up the final first-place vote and had 61 points to land fifth.
Making up the rest of the field are Virginia Intermont (47) in sixth, Reinhardt (46) in seventh, Tennessee Wesleyan (24) in eighth, Point (21) in ninth and St. Andrews (9) in 10th.
The schedule will be tough early on as Union has only three home matches total during the months of August and September. In addition, the Lady Bulldogs will participate in two highly competitive classics at Lee University and Cumberland University. However, the schedule flips in Union's favor in October as it will host eight of its 11 matches during the month.
Union has four matches against teams which are either ranked or received votes in the NAIA Preseason Poll. The Lady Bulldogs will face No. 9 Indiana Wesleyan and No. 18 Freed-Hardeman, while taking on Georgetown, which received votes, twice.
The Lady Bulldogs open the 2012 campaign Friday and Saturday at the Lee University Classic.