Aug. 25, 2015
Head Coach Ed Allen, now entering his fifth season at the helm of the program, has seen Alabama rise from the bottom of the Southeastern Conference to an SEC and even a national contender. After finishing with a losing record in 2011, his first season at Alabama, he led the team to an 18-14 finish in 2012, its first winning season since 2008. The turnaround continued quickly over the next two years, as the team tied a program record for wins in 2013 (24) and set a new record for wins in 2014 (26), including the team’s first ever win at the NCAA Tournament in a five-set thriller over Samford. Alabama will look to continue the upward trend in 2015, returning every regular starter from last season while adding even more depth and talent alongside them.
The rest of the league’s coaches have certainly noticed Alabama’s quick rise to success, as the Tide were picked second in the 2015 preseason SEC coaches’ poll. With three All-Americans in the starting lineup and a year of experience as a unit, the Crimson Tide are poised to continue its upward trend.
“Three years ago we were picked dead last in the league and ended up there,” says Allen. “Three years later, here we are picked to finish second. We’ve seen the talent escalate every year. We’re maybe even a little bit ahead of schedule from where we thought we’d be but I think that one of our best seasons is still ahead of us.”
Allen has the luxury of returning every starter from last season’s team while adding even more talent around them to push for playing time and provide depth. Redshirt junior Krystal Rivers earned Third Team All-America and All-SEC honors last year, leading the team in kills (557), points (656) and aces (48). This season, she will make the move back to middle blocker after playing that position her first season before a move to right-side hitter last year. Flanking her on the outside will be sophomore Kat Hutson, who was named honorable mention All-America, All-SEC and SEC All-Freshman in 2014. Hutson finished second on the team and fifth in the SEC with 475 kills (3.71/set) last season and was the fifth player in program history to be named All-SEC as a freshman. Junior outside hitter Brittany Thomas (338 kills) and sophomore middle blocker Leah Lawrence (114 blocks) were regular starters last season and will look to anchor a talented front line along with sophomore Emily Stebbins and seniors Bruna Evangelista and Laura Steiner.
“All of our players are continuing to develop and get better,” says Allen. “Krystal will make the transition back to middle blocker where she played her first year. We expect her to bring more athleticism into that position and to hit for a higher percentage throughout the course of the year. The nice thing offensively is that Krystal won’t have to carry the load that she has the past two years. We’ve added quality players the last two years to help and we expect players like Kat, Tabitha [Brown], Brittany and Leah to all contribute significantly on offense.”
Pacing the high-powered offense will be senior setter Sierra Wilson, who is within striking distance of the Alabama career assists record. She currently sits in third place with 4,272, just 62 shy of Jennifer Miller (4,333) and 1,307 shy of current leader Brigitte Slack (5,578). Last season, Wilson set a single-season school record with 1,529 assists which led the SEC and ranked second nationally. Her assist totals over the previous two seasons as the regular starter are both among the top four in program history.
Defensively, sophomore Natalie Murison returns after serving as the primary libero in 2014, finishing with 403 digs (3.03/set) and 29 service aces. Senior Kryssi Daniels saw time in 31 matches last season as a defensive specialist while sophomore Brooke Feld made 14 appearances, including three starts. The pair combined for 266 digs and will be looked at to play significant minutes along with freshman Quincey Gary.
Gary, Tabitha Brown and Shannon Mikesky are the team’s three newcomers this season and will each provide depth at different positions. Gary played as an outside hitter during her prep and club career in Alexandria, Ind., but will making the shift to defensive specialist at Alabama. Brown, a native of Spring, Texas, brings a powerful swing and good jumping ability to the outside and will challenge for playing time in the front row. Mikesky, a setter from Schulenburg, Texas, will likely have a year to redshirt and learn under Wilson before taking over as the primary setter after Wilson graduates.
“We return every starter from last year’s team but have also added three quality players that help us in three different positions,” says Allen. “Tabitha is a complete player that has the ability to defend, attack, serve and pass. She will make us a lot better in that position and will likely carry quite a bit of the offensive load. Quincey will provide more assistance in the back row and will challenge for playing time there. Her strongest suit is her ability to ball control and to defend and she will continue to improve her service moving forward. Shannon is someone we’ll hope to redshirt this season and give her a year to learn and develop even more under Sierra. Shannon will be able to provide a level of physicality to the position that we haven’t had in the past. I think she can be a great defender at the net and apply pressure by being aggressive with a second ball.”
The 2015 season begins with a west coast trip against three different teams in three different venues on Aug. 28-29 at Long Beach State, Cal State Fullerton and Pepperdine. The Tide then return home for consecutive weekends, hosting the Hampton Inn Bama Bash (Sept. 4-5) and the Crimson-White Tournament (Sept. 11-12). Teams competing in Tuscaloosa include Northwestern State, Tulsa, Southern Miss, College of Charleston, Troy, Saint Louis and Virginia. The preseason wraps up with a trip to DeKalb, Ill., and the campus of Northern Illinois as they host the Huskie Invitational on Sept. 18-19. Competing alongside the Tide will be Western Kentucky and Northern Iowa.
“Our preseason schedule is going to prepare us well for conference play,” says Allen. “It’s a very high-level schedule RPI-wise. These are teams that we expect to push for 20-plus win seasons. We open up in Long Beach and we’ll see a team right away that won the Big West and finished with a 27-5 record. Completing that weekend as well as our two home tournaments and our weekend in DeKalb will really prepare us for SEC play. I think we’re probably playing as difficult of an SEC schedule as anyone has.”
Southeastern Conference play includes nine home matches while a total of nine matches (six home, three away) will be broadcast live on the SEC Network. Last season, Alabama only lost one match at home all year and set attendance records twice, packing 1,749 fans into Foster Auditorium for the Sept. 28 win over LSU before besting that mark with 2,169 on Nov. 21 against Auburn.
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