CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – In just three days, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi volleyball will open its 2016 campaign on Friday afternoon versus Prairie View. The matchup is part of a two-day, three-match Baylor Invitational to kick off the season, which will see the Islanders take on UTRGV and the host Bears as well.
Excitement surrounds the Islanders who are coming off the best season in program history in 2015, going 31-5 and capturing their first Southland Conference Championship. Now a new team, balanced with eight returners and eight newcomers along with a new coaching staff, is set to take on a challenging 2016.
The Blue and Green is facing perhaps its most difficult schedule in program history, riddled with bouts against top 50 and top 100 foes. Some of the most strenuous matches await right from the start as the Islanders face a Baylor squad, which finished 47th in the RPI before taking on preseason No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 26 San Diego a week later.
All of that comes before the home opener on September 6 versus UTRGV as part of the South Texas Showdown presented by NavyArmy Community Credit Union.
Chalk the tough schedule up to preparation. Following the 2015 success and an NCAA Tournament appearance, the Islanders are aiming for another taste of the postseason.
"We haven't lowered our standards by any means," said junior libero Kate Klepetka. "If anything, we set our goals higher because of what we did last season. We're returning half the team and we know we can do good things. We're ready to go."
The sense of anticipation has been growing ever since the Islanders stepped back onto the court of the Dugan Wellness Center. While it's a new team with a host of new faces, the identity will likely be familiar with a strong back row and defensive presence. It's something the new staff has put an emphasis on heading into the difficult non-conference slate.
"Competition-wise everybody wants to win and that's what we all look at, but really it's about our side especially early in the season," said head coach Steve Greene. "We can't control what the other teams are going to do. We're going to focus on our side, on ball control. Serving and passing is key for us and the better we serve and pass, the better our team will be."
Among the eight returners from last season, five were selected to the Southland Preseason All-Conference teams. Setter of the Year Kristyn Nicholson and Libero of the Year Kate Klepetka return along with juniors Brittany Gilpin, Madeleine Doud and senior Morgan Carlson to form a solid core of upperclassmen.
Even though they've been there before, the feeling of anticipation is still the same. The veterans and now leaders of this team are ready to get things going.
"I'm excited," said lone senior Morgan Carlson. "I'm in the locker room before practice just like 'can it be gameday already?' I get those feelings when we walk to the gym with our music and all the girls are excited. Every practice we're coming out with that energy which just gets me excited to play games."
After a breakout season, Carlson is set to be a major key for the Blue and Green in 2016. Although a senior and the most experienced player, she admitted butterflies will be fluttering in her stomach come Friday. Not to worry, Carlson says the nervousness is a good sign.
"Oh yeah, I think nerves are kind of good," said Carlson. "It means you really want to win, want to do it. Once the first play goes, I think we'll all be fine though."
The veteran isn't the only Islander anxiously awaiting 4 p.m. on Friday. The season opener also marks the first match as a collegiate head coach for Steve Greene.
"It's going to be exciting, I'm not going to fake it," said Greene. "If I'm not nervous or excited for a match I shouldn't be doing this anymore I guess. I've been coaching for a long time, but this is the first year as a head coach for an NCAA Division I program so I'm really excited to see how the team does. I'm thrilled with how we've been training and everyone is pretty healthy right now. I think we're ready to go. We're kind of itching to compete against someone other than ourselves."
That chance arrives in three days when the Islanders kick off the 2016 slate at the Baylor Invitational Friday afternoon. A winding road with plenty of challenges will play out over the following three months as the Islanders hope and aim to repeat as Southland champions and return to the NCAA Tournament.
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