The Atlantic Sun Conference (ASUN) is led by Stetson, No. 9 in the AVCA preseason poll after finishing seventh in the NCAA Championship in 2016.
The Hatters were 28-9 last year in a league that includes North Florida, which upset Stetson in the league tournament final but did not get a bid to the NCAA gathering. The league also includes Florida Gulf Coast, Mercer, Jacksonville and Coastal Carolina.
Stetson: The Hatters had their best season ever and return Kaylee Anderson (All-ASUN first team, 26-11), Emily Carroll (All-ASUN first team, 25-11), Kristin Lind (ASUN player of the year, 24-12), Rachel Noble (21-11), Alexa Richardson (25-9), Jamie Walsh (25-9) and Samantha Harris (10-9).
Fourth-year head coach Kristina Hernandez (68-21 career) will have the opportunity to fully focus on beach this year, as indoor and beach now have separate coaches.
She needs to replace some quality players: Vendy Strakova (32-3), Sara Putt (32-3), and Madison Akins (24-12).
“I feel like we are at a more advanced place than we have been in the past,” Hernandez said, “but our schedule is a lot tougher right off the bat, so I think we have to be much more prepared for that first match. We are not going to have the luxury of working through a couple of games figuring out some tweaks. We are going to have to hit the ground running.”
She said the team is serving well and is strong defensively.
“We have been working a lot on sideout, especially with our defenders, off of defensive transition. I think we have always been a good defensive team, and that is just learning how to terminate a little faster and not get into the huge long rallies. That is something we want to focus on when we play bigger teams so that we are not getting into this heavy, pound-for-pound match with bigger teams. For us, our kids are learning every day. They are doing some advanced stuff in terms of our block and defense. We are hoping that plays into our strengths a little bit more.”
UNF: The Ospreys finished the year 24-9 and ranked No. 12 in the final DiG poll. They tied with Stetson for the regular-season title and sixth-year head coach Steve Loeswick (78-34) returns five starters (including three preseason All-ASUN picks) from 2016: Kimberly Ferguson (No. 2 pair, 19-14), Carina Hoff (No. 5 pair, 15-9), Chaney Howard (preseason All-ASUN, No. 4 pair, 27-6), Courtney Miller and Katarina Raicevic (both preseason All-ASUN picks, No. 4 pair, 26-7).
Three starters are lost from last year: Ambre Desaulnay (No. 4 pair, 27-4), Lauren Ford (No. 2 pair, 19-14), and Megan Crawshaw (No. 1 pair, 19-14).
“We are excited for the beach season to get started,” Loeswick said. “We lost a good number of important pieces from last year’s squad, but I have been very pleased with the returners and their progress.
“We also have a good number of dual surface kids, so sometimes it takes us a little time to really find our pairs and our game, but we are still very excited to host a great event down in St. Augustine this coming weekend and attempting to repeat as A-Sun Champs later in the year.”
FGCU: The Eagles finished a program-best 11-8. Florida Gulf Coast finished fourth in the ASUN Championships, behind two wins over Coastal Carolina (4-1) and UNF (3-2), but would subsequently lose to Stetson (4-1) and UNF (5-0).
The Ospreys return Karissa Rhoades, Madi Wilcox, Kellie Pernula, Caroline Jordan, Amanda Caroll, Mackenzie Allen, Ashley Glickert, and Leigh Pudwill. Third-year head coach Matt Botsford (40-22) loses Marlene Moeller, Vanessa Bernke, Katherine Puisis, Kaitlin Krivdo, and Elisa Anne Aldrich, but brings in new blood in Eleonora Kazarian and Halie Werkmeister.
“We have made huge strides as a program,” Botsford said.
Mercer: The Bears went 10-13 in 2016, same as 2015. Mercer finished fourth at the ASUN Championship with a 2-2 record.
Fifth-year head coach Damian Elder (30-63 career) returns Emily Krogman (ASUN All-Conference), Claire Waliczek, Danielle Faust, Morgan Macgilvary, Amber Gibson, Tori Penrod (ASUN All-Conference).
The Bears will need to replace Ellie James, Maria Avramova, Paige Alsten, Olivia Nation, Taylor Spence, Heather Swann, Bailey Noon, Hannah Noon, and Gabbi Meyering.
Stepping into their shoes are Elli Gibson, Abigail Moss, Alyssa Kirkman, Marina Chavez, Emma Peel, Demi-Shay Watchorn, Jessia Johnson, Sophie Peel, Lela McIntosh, Madison Kerr, and Erika Hettenbach.
Jacksonville: The Dolphins, 8-16, have returning starters in Cristina Finan (All-ASUN preseason, 9-8), Mackenzie Swan (9-8), Hanna McMahon (5-7), Shelby Babowicz (6-10), and Katie Krawczyk (9-6)
First-year head coach Ryan Sullivan will need to replace Emily Laskelle, Maya Prestes, Gaby Nieto, and Kelly Koop.
“We are a lot smaller this year but I think that our mental approach to the game is a lot better,” said Julie Darty, the school’s director of volleyball. “I think the defense we play will be a lot more solid. We know we are going to have to scrap and really put ourselves in a good position with tough serving against most opponents since we are so undersized.
“We have a great group of players here who are all savvy and smart, and if we trust the process early on, I think that we will be pleased with the result when we get into the heart of our conference schedule. I’m excited to see what some of our younger players are capable of, especially since we have some veterans who should provide stability for us this season.”
Coastal Carolina: The Chanticleers were 3-11 in the program’s first year.
Justin Stack enters his first season with plenty of continuity, returning Aleksandra Djuric (7-4), Natasha Savovic (7-5), Sara Boothe (2-10), Leah Hardeman (2-8), Tahleia Bishop (5-7), Shelby Ladewig (2-6), Carla Cahill (2-10), Dora Lulic (1-4), Iva Mandic (1-7), and Mika Mierzwa (3-9).
The Chants lose only Annayka Legros (2-7) and Alise Petersone (7-5). They add Kate Federico, a junior transfer from Clemson, Kate Davis, a senior transfer from UNC Asheville, and freshmen Autumn Otto and Kinga Windisch.