Eight returners, two that bring national and regional awards to the 2013 roster, and a program entering the 2013 season with its highest ranking in school history should have Park University head women's volleyball coach Mike Talamantes on the edge of his seat, waiting for the Aug. 27 season opener against Avila University.
"We have to train and play as hard as we can every time we put on the maroon and gold," Talamantes said. "Nothing is guaranteed, and being ranked No. 14 (in the NAIA) doesn't mean a thing if we're not prepared. We play a loaded schedule, and in our first week of live competition, we're going to see two teams that finished last season in the top 10 (Hastings and Texas-Brownsville). A schedule like ours can beat you up if you're not ready."
While Talamantes doesn't like talking about the accolades from the 2012 season, they're hard to ignore. Lauren Purdy, an NAIA All-American, and Wanessa Siqueira, who joined Purdy on the All-Conference and AVCA All-Region teams, helped the 2012 Pirates nearly rewrite the program's record book in the 25-point era, but the 2013 Pirates are sticking to their motto of "unfinished business," as Park ended the 2012 season one spot shy of an at-large qualification in the NAIA national tournament.
"The way last season ended was shocking," Talamantes said. "We played as tough a schedule as anyone in the country, but we didn't seem to get recognized for that. However, we learned and gained a lot from that, in that we now know what it's like to play at a high level, and we have that core group back from last season. So we felt like we had unfinished business, and although you start most years with a clean slate, this group didn't want to start that way. They want to use that as motivation and momentum."
Park lost one senior off last year's 27-11 (14-4 AMC) roster, all-conference outside hitter Patricia Souza, who, along with Vinicius Baigan, a former Park men's player, will assist Talamantes in 2013. Souza finished her eligibility with 835 kills, second all-time in the 25-point era, including 431 last season. Souza and Siqueira, though, combined for 824 kills last season, and the number stretches to more than 1,000 when adding Pamela Lima's 316. Lima will also return to the offense in 2013, a returning group Talamantes is excited to see in action.
"Every returner has come in to fall camp in great shape, far exceeding my expectations, and with a new focus on training sessions," Talamantes said. "And while it's still early in the year, the newcomers have been impressive as well. It's hard to tell how they will perform once matches start counting, but if things continue to progress as they are, we will start two freshmen (Bruna Bon and Dani Duarte) on the outside, moving Pam (Lima) to the middle."
Toi Collins, a transfer from Cowley County Community College, has also helped the incoming class solidify the Pirates at the net, and Talamantes said that should free Purdy and Siqueira to operate in a way that defenses won't be able to key on them in 2013.
"Lauren and Wanessa will be able to do more things with the way we improved the offense, and the offensive schemes we're installing should be able to take advantage of anything a defense tries to throw at us," Talamantes said. "Our goal is to be able to score from anywhere along the net, and this will be the most balanced offense I've had at Park."
Defensively, senior libero Melissa Honn and sophomore libero Raissa Herczfeld combined for 631 digs last season, and Herczfeld will move back to the defensive side of the ball after playing on the outside at the end of last season.
"With the way things shook out on offense, we've got the luxury of moving Raissa back to libero, which turns a really good offensive team into a very balanced team on both sides of the ball," Talamantes said.
The most interesting position battle in 2013 could come at the setting position, where Kat Partridge became Park's 25-point single-season assists leader, passing out 1,469 balls for kills in 2013, an average of better than 10 per game, which earned national attention in the NAIA. Partridge will share floor time with Juliana Barros, though, a junior-college transfer from Barton County Community College in Great Bend, Kan.
"Kat did a great job in leading us to a 27-win season last year," Talamantes said. "But going head-to-head with her is one of the craftiest setters I've ever worked with in Juliana Barros. Both setters are upper classmen, and we know we'll have leadership in whoever steps on the floor when we open against Avila. We still have work to do, but we're going to find ways to maximize both of their skillsets."
Park opens its season Tuesday (Aug. 27) at 7 p.m., hosting Avila University at Breckon Sports Center, a match that can be watched live on the Pirate Sports Network at www.parkathletics.com. Opening week continues Aug. 30-31 in Columbia, Mo., against nationally ranked Hastings and Texas-Brownsville, as well as against Evangel and Wiley, in the 2013 Hampton Inn Volleyball Classic at The Southwell Complex on the Campus of Columbia College.