Coming off their winningest season since 1996 with no graduation losses, volleyball had good reason to believe that this year could be their chance to establish the Maroons as one of the school'sand conference'sbetter programs.
One month, five wins and twelve losses into the season, Chicago is once again looking at a rebuilding year.
The Maroons were derailed before they really had a chance to leave the station, as three of 2004's biggest contributors have only played a combined five games this year. Fourth-year libero Tracie Kenyon, the school's all-time defensive digs leader, chose not to return for her final season of eligibility, leaving a hole at what had been one of Chicago's most consistent positions. Second-years Erin O'Neill, who set a school record with 76 solo blocks last year as a middle hitter, and Colette Hausoul, one of the Maroons' leading attackers, have been sidelined for nearly the entire season due to injury.
What's left for the Maroons is a squad that while talented and determined features a wildly varying mix of experience. As a result, the team has struggled to play to the collective potential of its members.
"Team goals have not had to be adjusted because of injury, just our strategy and approach to them have," fourth-year right-side hitter Erica Pettke, who again leads the team in kills and service aces, said. "Many people had to learn to not only play but execute at multiple positions, which can take some time."
Second-year middle-hitter Koryn Kendall has perhaps handled the transition best, stepping up to spearhead the attack for Chicago. Last year's team leader with a .310 hitting percentage, Kendall has upped that average to .383, nearly double the team's .197 mark. She has also increased her kill frequency to two-and-a-half per game, almost a quarter of the squad's production.
Pettke and her classmate outside-hitter Katie Meinhover have again been the team's most dependable veterans. Though Meinhover has been slowed as of late by an ankle injury, she remains the team's best two-way player. The pair offers needed on-court leadership to a slew of newcomers who have been suddenly thrust into the rotation.
"They've been starters since the day they walked in here. It's nice to finally have a senior class that really knows the conference, the regional competition, the system, and are very confident players," head coach Dorinda von Tersch said.
"Returning players help the freshmen grow, prepping them for this year and beyond by setting a standard for training," Pettke said. "I think that the commitment of those who are injured has also been a great example to the freshmen."
Outside-hitter Katie Volzer has been the team's standout first-year, supporting Chicago's veterans with the third-most kills, blocks, and aces for the team over the first 17 matches. Standing an impressive six-foot-one, Volzer has helped the Maroons make up some of the size up front the team lacks with the six-foot-two duo of O'Neill and Hausoul out. First-years Nicole Boddicker (6.53 sets per game) and Tereza Widmar (2.02 digs per game) have also contributed in the early going.
"It's really a matter of embracing the first-years and getting them comfortable with starting, playing more than they anticipated, getting them to perform like they can perform," von Tersch said. "They have to develop first as a unit and get a rhythm together. The injuries diverted a little focus from that."
Perhaps the most disheartening sign for the Maroons is their return to pre-2004 form against top-tier opponents. Big upsets were a major feature of last year's campaign. This fall, the squad has only won two matches that went beyond the third game, demonstrating strength against weak teams and a marked inability to close out tougher competition.
Now with one conference weekend behind them, including matches against the nation's first- and third-ranked teams, the Maroons enter the second half of their autumn looking to build on individual growth and, hopefully, to finally put all the pieces together. While it is no doubt a disappointment to see this year's prospects fall so far, the development of these young players suggests that happy days may soon be here again.