How far has Southwestern Community College volleyball advanced in three years under coach Melissa Blessington?
Her first season in 2011 was one of transition — 10-25.
Last year was a rapid rebound, as the Spartans went on an 11-match winning streak en route to a 25-17 mark, including 5-4 and a tie for fourth in ICCAC Division II standings with Ellsworth. It was Ellsworth that ended the Spartans’ campaign in regional play, as nationally-ranked Kirkwood and Iowa Central each advanced to the national tournament.
This year could be another step up for the Spartans under Blessington, a former standout player for longtime coach Rita Schroeder at Southwestern. The preseason national ratings list Kirkwood at No. 8 in the nation in Division II volleyball, DMACC at No. 11 and both Iowa Central and Southwestern as “other teams to watch” on the national scene.
Blessington calls such high expectations “a little nerve-wracking” as she patiently prepares her squad of six returning sophomores, one sophomore transfer and five new freshmen for what should be peak performance at tournament time in October.
One reason for her patience is the fact that three returnees are manning new positions this year — second team all-region setter Molly Schimp is taking her athleticism to the back row as the new libero; Alex Duffy moves from outside hitter to middle hitter; and Ashley Strong goes from outside hitter to bolster the back row defense.
The new setter is Nebraska all-stater Cassidy Yong, a highly-recruited player out of the Omaha area who happens to be the younger sister of Spartan right side hitter Serena Yong.
The Yongs are former club teammates of the new star transfer from Bellevue, Neb., 6-1 outside hitter Janaya Fox, who began her career at Northwest Missouri State.
However, Fox is an expectant mother — due any day now — and plans to resume her volleyball participation in the near future. Blessington said family will be here to support Fox, as she combines the challenges of motherhood and the life of a college student-athlete.
“The girls are excited for her,” Blessington said, “as well as looking forward to having her back with us. They know how good she is. Janaya continued to work out until about two weeks ago, and even then she walked every day. We know her cardio may be a little behind at first.
“With Janaya’s progress, as well as everyone getting used to their new roles, that’s why I really think this is a team that will be peaking in October, which is perfect,” Blessington said.
The national recognition is nice, Blessington said, but this year’s schedule is more difficult. Several matches against small-college JV teams were replaced by the likes of home-and-away matches against Division I second-ranked Iowa Western, and Division I Indian Hills, which is Southwestern’s home opener at 6:30 p.m.Tuesday.
“Our schedule last year was what it needed to be, because we were mostly freshmen,” Blessington said. “But last year when we got up against nationally-ranked teams at tournaments, I think we would have reacted better had we played harder competition consistently. This team should be ready to take on that type of challenge.”
The Spartans open the season Saturday at Beatrice, Neb., against Southeast Nebraska with a lineup featuring two returning all-region players. Schimp and 5-9 middle hitter Mel Mangrum of Rock Island, Ill., were both named to the second all-region list a year ago.
“Molly is just so quick and athletic, she can be an outstanding libero for us and continue her good floor leadership,” Blessington said. “Mel can just hop out of the gym. She’s fantastic.”
Last year’s libero, Jacelle Neill of Le Mars, transferred to play on scholarship at four-year McPherson in Kansas.
A trio of middle hitters are formidable for Southwestern this year, as Duffy helps fill the role of graduated Lily Lower, and 5-10 freshman Sydney Whitmarch of Arlington, Neb., joins the rotation with Mangrum.
“All three are good,” Blessington said. “That’s the nice thing about this year’s team. We’re smaller in numbers (12), but deeper in the fact that so many of them can change roles and make an immediate impact on the court with no dropoff.”
Outside hitters are the consistent Jenna Casey from last year, along with freshman Allyson Kocour from IKM-Manning and Fox, when she returns in mid or late September.
Serena Yong returns as a right side hitter and defensive player, and a new right side hitter is 6-2 lefty Shelby Sullivan of Tri-Center, younger sister of former SWCC standout Blake Sullivan.
“Shelby is a smart player who can play all the way around for us,” Blessington said. “Shelby and Sydney are great blockers, too.”
Freshman Kirsten Anderson of Underwood is a hustling defensive player, Blessington noted.
With two spots available for national berths from the 10-team region, Blessington cautiously hopes her team can reach the heights of the Southwestern squad she played on a decade ago.
“Now I think about how close we were,” Blessington said. “We lost 13-15 to Kirkwood to go to nationals, and that’s when they just took one team. This year, we know Kirkwood is going to be good. We’d like to think we’re right in there. With all the new stuff, I was very encouraged in our (Wednesday) scrimmage against Graceland.”
It’s baptism by fire for this squad, however. After Tuesday’s home match against Division I Indian Hills, the Spartans travel to Boone Wednesday to take on DMACC in the first conference match. A week from Saturday is the Graceland Tournament.
The first league home match is Sept. 4 against NIACC at 6:30 p.m.
Sophomores — Molly Schimp, 5-9, libero/setter, Hampton-Dumont; Ashley Strong, 5-9, OH/setter, Vinton-Shellsburg; Serena Yong, 5-7, RS/Libero, Millard West (Neb.); Mel Mangrum, 5-9, MH, Rock Island (Ill.); Alex Duffy, 5-11, MH/OHG, Bondurant-Farrar; Jenna Casey, 5-11, OH/RS, Hampton-Dumont; Janaya Fox, 6-1, OH, Bellevue East (Neb.).
Freshmen — Allyson Kocour, 5-9, OH/RS, IKM-Manning; Shelby Sullivan, 6-2, RS, Tri-Center, Neola; Sydney Whitmarsh, 5-10, MH, Arlington (Neb.); Cassidy Yong, 5-5, setter, Millard West (Neb.); Kirsten Anderson, 5-7, OH/DS, Underwood.
Aug. 24 — at Southeast CC (Neb.), Beatrice
Aug. 27 — vs. Indian Hills CC, 6:30 p.m.
Aug. 28 — at DMACC, Boone, 6:30 p.m.
Aug. 31 — at Graceland Tournament, Lamoni
Sept. 4 — vs. NIACC, 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 6-7 — at Highland CC (Kan.) Invitational
Sept. 10 — vs. Iowa Western CC, 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 11 — at Kirkwood CC, Cedar Rapids, 7 p.m.
Sept. 13-14 — at Marshalltown Invitational
Sept. 18 — vs. Iowa Central CC, 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 24 — at Indian Hills CC, Ottumwa, 7 p.m.
Sept. 25 — at Northeast (Neb.) CC, Norfolk, 7 p.m.
Sept. 27 — vs. Ellsworth, 6:30 p.m.
Oct. 1 — at Iowa Western CC, Council Bluffs, 7 p.m.
Oct. 4 — Reiver Classic, Council Bluffs
Oct. 9 — vs. Southeastern CC, 6:30 p.m.
Oct. 11-12 — at DMACC Invitational, Boone
Oct. 14 — vs. Grand View JV, 6:30 p.m.
Oct. 16 — at Eastern Iowa CC, Clinton, 7 p.m.
Oct. 17 — vs. Highland (Kan.) CC, 6:30 p.m.
Oct. 22 — vs. Southeast (Neb.) CC, 6:30 p.m.
Oct. 23 — at Marshalltown CC, 7 p.m.
Oct. 28 — at Grand View JV, 7 p.m.
Oct. 30 — vs. Iowa Lakes, 6:30 p.m.
Nov. 1 — vs. Graceland JV, 6 p.m.
Nov. 5 — Regional first round, TBD
Nov. 9 — Regional finals, TBD