MARQUETTE - Northern Michigan University volleyball coach Dominic Yoder had some high praise for his 2012 newcomers after a Green vs. Gold scrimmage on Tuesday night at Vandament Arena, so much praise in fact the sixth-year coach even cracked a smile talking about the standouts.
The highest praise, however, came from junior outside hitter Lina Lopes for freshman outside hitter Lisa Studnicka of Auroa, Ill.
According to Lopes, Studnicka has the potential to be the GLIAC's top freshman in 2012.
Northern Michigan University junior Lina Lopes passes a serve up to a teammate during the Green vs. Gold scrimmage on Tuesday night at Vandament Arena. (Journal photo by Matt Wellens)
NMU junior setter Kellisha Harley sets a teammate during the scrimmage. The Wildcats open the season this weekend in Big Rapids at a tournament hosted by Ferris State. (Journal photo by Matt Wellens)
It's an award Lopes would know something about, having run away with the title her freshman year at NMU, when she was also named the American Volleyball Coaches Association Midwest Regional Freshman of the Year.
"She's been pretty good," Lopes said. "I think she can be freshman of the year if she wants to. I really believe she is going to be really, really, strong. She is going to make our team much stronger."
Studnicka led all attackers with nine kills during Tuesday's intrasquad scrimmage inside Vandament Arena and was one of three newcomers Yoder used in key positions during the Green vs. Gold showdown.
Like Lopes, Studnicka is a six-rotation player who can block and attack in the front row while serving and digging in the back row, according to Yoder.
It's a skill set that should allow the Aurora, Ill., native to see significant time on the floor, like her senior teammate Lopes has in each of her previous two seasons.
"Lisa is a tremendous shot maker," Yoder said. "She hits a lot of balls. Her shots, she can really tee off on a ball when she needs to."
Studnicka and Lopes will be charged with filling the offensive hole left by the graduation of outside hitter Emma Wolfe and transfer of senior Sami Vierk to Saint Leo University in Florida.
Wolfe led NMU in kills last season with 364 while Vierk - who voiced her displeasure with the program through Twitter on her way out - was second with 270.
Lopes, a native of Brazil, was third on the team in kills with 240, which was a far from her all-conference and all-region freshman season when she posted 329 kills, 323 digs and 50 aces - all team-highs.
Also back offensively are juniors Kalli Herron and Sarah Hamilton at middle hitter, who had 159 and 65 kills, respectively.
The attack will go through Lopes, even though Yoder said he plans to continue to use her throughout the floor. Yoder said he is also working with the attacker to improve her blocking and hitting up front in order to return the Brazilian to her freshman form.
"Her heart and her soul are in the right spot, we just have to get her body in the right spot," Yoder said.
Lopes said she has already received a boost from her new setter, junior Kellisha Harley of Lakewood, Colo.
Harley transferred in from Iowa Lakes Community College over the summer to replace Abby Lovell, who transferred with Vierk to Saint Leo for her senior season.
Lovell was a two-time All-GLIAC first-team setter for Northern as a sophomore and junior each of the previous two seasons, however, Lopes said Harley is a much better fit for the Wildcats' quick-pace offense.
"Kellisha is really fast," Lopes said. "Abby was slow and didn't change much. (Kellisha) changes really fast. If you ask for a different kind of ball, ask for a faster ball a higher ball, she adjusts really fast. It's easy to work with her."
Harley said adapting to the speed of Northern's offense has been the biggest challenge for her so far at NMU, since the all-region setter didn't play as fast of an offense at Iowa Lakes.
"We run a much faster offense here than we had at my other school," Harley said. "I'm doing a good job adjusting and the offense is looking pretty good so far in the preseason. It's running really well."
Yoder said Harley's worst volleyball skill may be her setting and that's because of her strengths defensively.
"She plays great defense, she serves aggressive, she blocks, she wants to attack," Yoder said. "She's just a tremendous athlete with a lot of heart."
Lopes said Harley could be the team's libero if they needed her to.
That starting position, however, is going to freshman Alex Berger of Shakopee, Minn., after she beat out returning senior libero Kalin Zimmerman, who is now available to insert in off the bench to strengthen what was an inconsistent the back row from last season.
Defense was a sore spot for Yoder as his team strung together a third-place finished in the GLIAC North at 12-7 and 15-14 overall record that left NMU short of an NCAA tournament bid after three consecutive trips.
Northern's opponent's hitting percentage of .197 ranked eighth in the GLIAC, it's blocking average of 1.51 per set ranked 10th and digs per set average of 11.90 was 13th, or second-to-last in the league.
Lopes said the team's defense should be much stronger this season, as should its offense in part due to a better attitude on and off the floor.
"This team is going to be much better than last season," Lopes said. "We have pretty good freshman coming up. The team is getting along really well outside the court and on the court."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.