HENDERSON, Tenn. - The 2011 season was definitely an historic one for Freed-Hardeman University volleyball.
For the first time ever, the Lady Lions advanced to the final site of the NAIA National Tournament in Sioux City, Iowa, as one of the 24 teams in the field and held their own against some of the top-ranked teams in the nation. The strong finish also earned FHU its highest national ranking as the Lady Lions placed at No. 21 in the final coaches poll of the season.
That's not to mention the program's fourth TranSouth Conference regular season and tournament championships in the last five years.
However, six seniors graduated from that team including most of the team's front-row production, leaving several roles to be filled.
"We have brought several talented young players in this season," said FHU head coach Todd Humphry, who is entering his 13th year with the program. "The key to a successful post season is getting them experience early in the year. We are scheduled to play in four tournaments this season and that should help prepare the young players for post season."
The good news is that three key players from that run are returning led by NAIA All-American Fernanda Ferreira. The senior from Minas Gerais, Brazil, was the team's go-to attacker last year and finished the season with 436 kills, an average of 3.2 per set. She also had 50 aces and a team-high 114 blocks. She will again be the focal point of the team's attack in the middle in her final season.
Also returning to lead the defense once again is senior libero Callie West. The Memphis, Tenn., native posted a career-high 502 digs (3.9/set) and surpassed the 1000 dig mark for her career. Her leadership and communication will be vital on what will otherwise be a young back row.
The final returning player that saw a lot of action last season is setting Renata Ferreira, who last year was part of a two-setter rotation with Amber Turner. Now that Turner is graduated, Ferreira will move into the role of the team's primary setter. Last season, she had 628 assists (4.5/set) but also has the height and wingspan to help defensively, as her 45 blocks from 2011 demonstrate.
Other returnees include junior hitter Jasmine Johnson, junior defensive specialist Hannah Claiborne and sophomore defensive specialist/setter Rachel Jetton. Of the thre, Claiborne saw the most action last season, appearing in 20 matches and posting 49 digs. All three have the opportunity to take on larger roles this season.
"Fernanda will be key as she was last season," Humphry said, "but with off-season rehab she should be stronger. Callie will anchor the back row in the absence of [Sandra] Montoya. Rachel looks to step in the hole provided by the graduation of Amber Turner."
Joining the six returnees are seven newcomers, six of which are freshmen and all of whom could have a chance to see playing time throughout the season.
"They will have to play from the first day of season," said Humphry. "They will have to grow fast. I do believe this will make us a strong team as they mature as players and as a core group."
Outside hitters Mikaela Powers (Big Bear Creek, Calif.), Kara England (Bowling Green, Ky.) and Allie Moss (Covington, Tenn.) all had successful high school and club ball careers and are solid bets to move into key roles on the outsides with the graduations of players like Sydney Rice, Sandra Montoya and Rachelle Prince. Likewise, middle blocker Amanda Cunningham (Cookeville, Tenn.) will look to make an impact early in her Lady Lion career after being part of a winning high school program.
Emily Humphry (Henderson, Tenn.) and Tabatha Peace (Jonesboro, Ark.) are both options at setter, and Peace can also play back row along with Michelle Bennett (Memphis, Tenn.), a standout libero who ranked fourth in the state in digs during her senior season while playing at Harding Academy.
Though the look of the team will be different this year, the goal remains the same - make another trip to the NAIA National Tournament. Humphry believes that the experience and confidence gained from last year's trip will serve as a springboard to continued success.
"The impact of that national tournament just made us more hungry," he said. "We competed last season at nationals so we do feel we belong there every year."