Turning a corner: UNCW volleyball

McLeod Brown | Sports Editor

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For UNC Wilmington’s volleyball team, recent seasons have been a test of the teams will and patience.

While the team has made significant strides as a program, including posting their highest CAA win total in 24 seasons during the 2011 season, and earning double-digit wins in three out of four of coach Amy Bambenek’s seasons, the team has found it difficult to climb out of the bottom of the conference standings.

The Seahawks are hoping this is their year to change that.

“I think that we’ve always been missing a little bit of consistency and I think we have that this year,” Bambenek said. “We have enough experience, enough talent, to help push through those pressure situations. I felt like, even with our record last year, the way it ended definitely didn’t show how strong our team is. Some of those matches could’ve gone either way.”

The team finished last year with an 11-17 record, including going 3-9 in the conference, leaving them at seventh in the CAA’s final standings. The record is deceiving, however, as five of UNCW’s losses went the full five sets, games that could have easily gone in the Seahawks’ favor.

Although they only lost two seniors from last year’s squad, UNCW entered this season predicted to finish last in the newly reformed CAA by the league’s head coaches.

All the more reason to prove the doubters wrong.

“We’ve always been seen as the underdog,” said senior Haley Collins. “The other teams have never seen us as much of a threat so we’re looking to prove ourselves this year because we know we have the talent to do it.”

The optimism surrounding the team comes from the squad returning four starters and the addition of seven freshmen into the mix.

While the process of getting the first-years acclimated to everything involved with being a student-athlete may seem overwhelming, Bambenek notes her upperclassmen are more than capable of pulling the best out of the newcomers.

“It’s tricky with the limited amount of time we have in our preseason,” Bambenek said. “We just started practice in August, but our returning players are great at mentoring our freshmen and making sure they know they ropes. It’s gone smoothly and I think the team has bonded this year.”

The early results on the season have been more than satisfactory for the Seahawks. After winning all four of their matches this past weekend at the Hilton Garden Inn Mayfaire UNCW Volleyball Classic, including 3-0 sweeps of North Carolina A&T and Mercer, the team’s record improved to 8-2.

Junior Morgan Kline was named Tournament MVP after averaging 3.61 kills and 3.00 digs per set, garnering Co-Offensive Player-of-the-Week honors in the process. Senior Christi Laite, a Preseason First-Team All-CAA selection, joined Kline on the All-Tournament team for UNCW.

Freshman Nicole Lott also earned Rookie-of-the-Week honors as she averaged 2.18 kills and 1.90 digs per set during the tournament, displaying the broad range of talent the team has.

“We’ve made a lot of improvements, defensively and offensively,” Collins said. “That’s made the chemistry better, as well so we’re really connecting. We have more power from our hitters, our defense is scrappier, and we’re running a more dynamic offense.”

Although the Seahawks’ climb back to relevance in the CAA has proven to be arduous, the team enters one of its most promising seasons under the leadership of Coach Bambenek.

Under the former Coastal Carolina volleyballer Bambenek, the Seahawks have nearly doubled their win total from the three years prior to her overtaking the position.

While her career record of 43-77 at UNCW shows there is still work to be done, it is a far cry from the 22-71 mark team accumulated from 2006 to the end of the 2008 season.

Now, with a fast start to the season and conference play beginning next week, the Seahawks look ready to break through to the upper echelon of the CAA.

“We’ve turned a huge corner in the past four seasons that I’ve been here,” Bambenek said. “Our girls have a lot of confidence. Any negativity they hear towards our program, they just ignore it. It’s taken a while to change the mentality of the players on the team and have them play like champions, and strive for a championship.

”Now, that’s a realistic goal we have for our team this year.”