MARQUETTE - Northern Michigan University head volleyball coach Dominic Yoder is once again preaching floor defense and blocking in his seventh season with the Wildcats.
While he admits those two areas are still in need of work - they can always improve according to Yoder - one of the bigger challenges this preseason for the NMU volleyball team is the experience gap.
The 'Cats roster is one of extremes with five proven seniors and the other 12 spots occupied by freshmen and sophomores with limited playing experience.
Northern Michigan University senior Sarah Hamilton attempts to spike the ball Thursday during practice at Vandament Arena in Marquette. (Journal photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
Thankfully for Yoder, he has a solid class of seniors ready to lead and a group of younger players eager to learn.
"The depth is pretty good. I really like our team. Our freshmen work extremely hard," Yoder said.
"Seniors are doing a really good job leading. The freshmen are taking a back seat right now, but we expect our freshmen to take steps forward once they get (rid of) the first-week-of-school jitters and get into that first competition."
Northern will lean on seniors Sarah Hamilton, Kellisha Harley, Kalli Herron, Lina Lopes and Suzanne Solin with some youth sprinkled in as it attempts to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since four of the five veterans were rookies.
Sophomores Alex Berger and Alexis Nelson are back healthy after injuries derailed their freshmen seasons, while Lisa Studnicka brings back the most experience of the non-seniors, having played in all 32 matches a year ago.
Freshmen Alex Larson and Meghan Supple have also caught Yoder's eye and are pushing for serious playing time.
"We have a really good group of underclassmen," Hamilton said. "They gel really well with us. They work really hard to get up to our skill level."
The Wildcats are the strongest and most experienced at left outside hitter heading into the regular-season-opening tournament in Pensacola, Fla., on Friday and Saturday.
Lopes was the Wildcats' most valuable player in 2012 and an All-GLIAC first-teamer, playing not only as an outside hitter, but in a defensive role in the back row. She tallied a team-high 379 kills and 45 aces. She was also second on the team in digs with 312.
Herron is transitioning from the middle to backing up Lopes on the left-side after finishing second on the team last year in kills (360) and blocks (83).
"Just making that transition from the right side to the left side and understanding the angles of the game, it's going to be a learning curve for her," Yoder said.
Northern's right-side attack isn't as experienced as the left, with sophomore Lisa Studnicka moving over from the left side to battle with true freshman Alex Larsen for the starting role.
Studnicka recorded 37 aces, 263 kills and 231 digs on the left side last season, but during Tuesday's intrasquad scrimmage, the sophomore played two of three sets with the younger Gold squad while Larsen played two of the three sets with the veteran Green.
Studnicka finished the night with 10 kills - eight came with the Green - while Larsen had one kill in Green and one in Gold.
"We mixed Alex Larsen and Lisa Studnicka to see who would give us a better attack on the right," Yoder said. "I really think our left sides are solidified with Kalli and Lina. We're really trying to find someone that is going to fill in on that right side and really give us the offense we need."
Feeding the left and right sides is Harley, the senior setter who transferred to Northern a year ago and was named to the All-GLIAC first team for her conference-high 1,290 sets.
One of her jobs this year is getting the middle hitters more involved, with Hamilton coming off a team-high of 91 blocks in 2012 and Nelson back from an injury that ended her freshman year after only 13 matches.
"This year we're really focused on getting our middles into it," Harley said. "We have a really good right side coming in. We're trying to balance out the offense a little more this year."
Like Lopes, Hamilton is proving to be more than just a front-row player this year with Yoder using Hamilton as a serving middle in certain packages.
"She is scoring points. She is keeping her serve," Yoder said. "That's good to see. She's a senior. We're putting her in that leadership role. I think she's really filling those shoes."
The Wildcats' depth this year allows Yoder to give his front row - minus Lopes - a rest when they rotate into a back-row position.
Solin is the lone veteran defensive specialist, having appeared in 26 games as a sophomore and 28 last year as a junior. She had 100-plus digs both years.
Berger was the Wildcats' libero for 18 games last year before getting injured, but still finished with 231 digs. She's back as a libero this season, with freshmen Megan Dahl or Meghan Supple possibly backing her up.
"We still really need to work on serve reception and really consistency across the board defensively," Yoder said. "I thought we had some really good play out of our libero (during the scrimmage) on both sides of the net. Really, ball control is going to be key. Defense is something we're going to continue to work on."