MARQUETTE - The Northern Michigan University volleyball team holds its first official practice for the 2013 season Monday afternoon inside Vandament Arena in Marquette with five mainstays back for their senior season.
Four of those seniors - Sarah Hamilton, Kalli Herron, Lina Lopes and Suzanne Solin - were on the last Wildcats squad to reach the NCAA tournament in 2010 while senior setter Kellisha Harley is coming off a first-team All-GLIAC season after transferring to NMU last fall.
Despite all that experience, head coach Dominic Yoder said there is no pressure on this year's senior class to lead the 'Cats back to the NCAA tournament.
Northern Michigan outside hitter Lina Lopes serves against Ohio Dominican on Friday Oct. 19, 2012 at Vandament Arena in Marquette. Lopes is one of five players returning for their senior season in 2013. (Journal file photo by Zach Jay)
"For a group of seniors that size, I think there's less pressure because they can really lean on each other," Yoder said. "They really like each other, work well together. If one player has a sub-standard match, the other three or four can pick her up and really create a dynamic that's going to allow them to be not stressed and not pressurized to perform as a solo senior or pair of seniors.
"It's just a great group of seniors. They work hard. They perform on the floor. It's going to be a good year."
Harley, Hamilton, Herron and Lopes appeared in all 32 matches last year while Solin played in 28 matches as a defensive specialist, recording double-digit digs in 11 of those matches.
Harley led the GLIAC with 1,290 sets; middle hitter Herron was second on the team in kills (360) and blocks (83) while the team-high in blocks went to middle hitter Hamilton with 91.
Lopes, an outside hitter, was the Wildcats' most valuable player in 2012 and joined Harley on the All-GLIAC first-team, totaling a team-high 379 kills and 45 aces. She was also second on the team in digs with 312.
It was a rebound year for Lopes, who as a freshman in 2010 was named the GLIAC and American Volleyball Coaches Association Midwest Region freshman of the year after leading the 'Cats in kills (329), digs (323) and aces (50).
Lopes only earned honorable mention status from the GLIAC as a sophomore in 2011 after totaling 240 kills, 220 digs and 38 aces.
"(Lopes) has all the potential in the world to do above (her career averages)," Yoder said. "I think if she puts in an above average performance for this year, she's going to be really good for us and it will be good for her."
Yoder said the Wildcats will not go as Lopes goes, however, in 2013 because of the senior class around her and the young players below her.
"It's not going to be the direction (Lopes) goes, we go," Yoder said. "It's going to be, how is that senior group going to respond to each other's performances and how will they balance it out for us."
Sophomore left-side hitter Lisa Studnicka is coming off a freshman year in which she appeared in all 32 matches, scoring 37 aces, 263 kills and 231 digs.
Along with Studnicka, sophomores Alexis Nelson, a middle hitter, and Alex Berger, the original starting libero, are back from injuries that ended their freshman season around the halfway mark.
All three will be challenged by the incoming freshmen class, though, Yoder said.
"We're looking for our freshmen class to come in and do a really good job for us," Yoder said. "We have a couple defensive players who will do really well.
"Offensively we can score with the best of them. We've got to be able to stop them. That's an area we're going to continue to focus on."
Berger's return will provide an immediate boost to one of Yoder's pet-peeves - floor defense.
As a freshman, Berger led the team in average digs-per-set with 3.05. She finished with double-digit digs in 13 of the 18 matches and totaled 231 digs having played in only 66 sets.
"Alex is back healthy and strong," Yoder said. "We're looking at her to do a really good job in the libero spot, but she's going to get challenged. She's going to get challenged by some of the freshmen and she knows that. She's prepared. She came in early from the summer to really start to build those relationships. It will be a very good year for her as long as she stays healthy."
NMU will hold a green vs. gold scrimmage on Tues., Aug. 27, then open the 2013 regular season Sept. 6-7 in Pensacola, Fla., at the University of West Florida Invite.
Northern's regular season home opener is the Superior Oasis Wildcat Open on Sept. 13-14 at Vandament Arena.
Editor's note: The original story that was posted on Saturday, Aug. 17 had the NMU volleyball team starting practice on Aug. 17. That information was incorrectly provided to The Mining Journal. The team's first official practice is Aug. 19.