Transfers, depth have Willis’ hopes high in 2010

There is a wave of new faces on the Missouri Southern volleyball court this year.

The Lions have brought in seven new players to help the team rebound after a disappointing 13-21 season in 2009.

During the offseason, Head Coach Chris Willis signed three junior college transfers including Rachel Olinyk, Kelsey Erwin, and Shakila Balkhi to add depth to the roster.

“Balki comes in and gives us an anchor out there on defense,” Willis said of the transfer from Simi Valley, Cal.

“She stands in and takes the heat really well and reads the game at a high level. We’re excited to have her out there.”

The Lions also added four freshmen from Arkansas to the squad. Kristin Hylton, Haley Martin, Katie Collins and Sydney Marsellis have all signed on to play for Southern in 2010.

Even with all of the new faces on the team, the Lions have been able to come together quickly.

“They all came in last January, so that gives us a huge advantage, and they have had time to and opportunity to mesh with the rest of the team,” Willis said of the junior college transfers. “We’re also extremely familiar with the freshman. They are familiar with our program and system so the adjustment period should be a lot shorter than most.”

Not everybody is a newcomer for the squad this year. Southern returns five seniors from last year’s team including Jeanna Feldmann and Ashlee Russell.

“Ashlee is in her fifth year with the program,” Willis explained of the senior opposite. “She chose to come back after graduating last year because she is excited about what this team can do.”

Russell must have been on to something. The team has been working hard during the off season and Willis has noticed.

“I feel like we’re well ahead of schedule compared to last year, and we’re a much more physical team this year,” said Willis.

“We feel that overall we are a much more mature team, but we have depth at every position.

“We do have a couple injuries right now, but we’re taking them in stride because we know we have other players ready to step in and play.”

The most notable of those injuries is Jeanna Feldmann. The senior outside hitter has been sidelined to little practice time and is going to be limited in this weekend’s season opening tournament in Quincy, Illinois.

The action starts today as the Lions will take on Clarion University at noon followed by the host Quincy University at 7 p.m.

Southern will continue the tournament tomorrow when they take on Alderson-Broaddus at 10 a.m. and St. Joseph’s (Ind.) at noon.

Even though the Lions will battle unfamiliar teams, Southern feels it is important to get a quick start to the season and do well in this tournament.

“We haven’t seen those teams in a few years,” Willis said of this weekend’s opponents. “They will have good athletes and we can’t take anybody in this tournament lightly. “I think for this team to learn how to win early is going to be vital. Winning is a habit and losing is a habit.

“We need to learn the habit of winning early on.”

If Southern can succeed early they will be better prepared for what could be one of the toughest conferences in the country.

“This conference is as tough if not tougher than any other conference in the country, and it’s just as strong this year,” explained Willis. “I believe we’re going to be in that mix of top 25 teams this year and we’re excited about putting them on the floor and seeing what they could do.”

Southern was picked to finish seventh in the preseason coaches’ poll, and the Lions will continue action next week when they travel to Austin, Texas, for the St. Edward’s University Tournament.