With the 2014 season opener looming on Friday for the Hutchinson Community College volleyball team, third-year Blue Dragon coach Patrick Hall admittedly doesn't have many answers about his team. Right out of the chute on Friday, Hall's No. 19-ranked Blue Dragons will face No. 14 Odessa College and No. 17 New Mexico Military in the NMMI Classic in Roswell, New Mexico. In fact, the first nine matches to the 2014 season will be daunting for a team with 12 new faces and just two returners. But as the five-time Jayhawk West Coach the Year looks as his team, Hall knows he has options multiple options. Now the job is the find that combination that will help lead Hutchinson reach the always lofty expectations that accompany this program. "There are a lot of new pieces of the puzzle this year and right now we have just a couple of those pieces in place," said Hall, who is 55-22 in his first two seasons at HCC. "We are still working to figure out what that picture is going to look like on the court. This team has good chemistry, but we are still a ways from figuring out what we will look like when the game starts." The two-time defending Region VI champion Blue Dragons will play four matches over the weekend in New Mexico. Friday's opener with Odessa will begin at 11 a.m. (CT) and the New Mexico Military match is set to begin approximately at 7 p.m. (CT). That match will be videostreamed live via the NMMI Sports Information Department. On Saturday, HCC will close out with Yavapai at 10 a.m. (CT) and South Mountain at 1 p.m. (CT). The Blue Dragons will then open Jayhawk West play at Colby on Wednesday and then will play No. 3 College of Southern Idaho, No. 7 Salt Lake, Snow College and 2013 NJCAA Tournament participant in North Idaho in the CSI Classic in Twin Falls, Idaho on Sept. 5-6. The 2014 Blue Dragons are made up of two returning sophomores, two transfer players and 10 freshmen. The two returnees are Nicole Kinser, a 6-foot-2 sophomore middle blocker, from Hugoton and Rachel Griffitt, a 5-4 libero/defensive specialist from Wamego. Kinser was a mainstay in the middle for the Blue Dragons in 2013. She finished the season hitting .329 with 1.83 kills per set. She was third on the team with 229 kills on a team that didn't sometimes utilize the middle as effectively as Hall would have liked. Kinser was also the 2013 Blue Dragons' second-leading blocker with 0.78 blocks per game, totaling 97 overall blocks and 18 solo stuffs. Griffitt played as a reserve in 31 total matches (57 sets played). She had one service ace in 49 attempts and averaged 1.53 digs per set. The two transfers are both in-state players Lauren Darby from Olathe and Anna Proffitt from Sterling. Darby, an outside hitter played last season at Arkansas-Fort Smith. She played in nine matches and averaged 0.36 kills per set and hit .061 in limited action. Proffitt, a middle/right-side hitter, actually started her collegiate career on the University of Tulsa rowing team before transferring back to Sterling College to play volleyball last season. In 19 matches before a season-ending injury, Proffitt averaged 1.59 kills per set and she hit .222. She also averaged 0.36 blocks per set. "Last year at this time, we had only two positions that even offered us options at this time," Hall said. "This year we have five positions that offer us options. We are competitive at all positions, but we put so many different lineups together in practice, it's been difficult to punt one unit out there that will work well together. Having options is a good thing. "There is a lot of potential on this team."
POSITION BREAKDOWNS Setter - Freshman Tarynn Stueder (Great Bend) has been the most consistent setter in camp for the Blue Dragons in the preseason. Other setters in camp are Morgan Little (Las Vegas) and Aubrey Wilson (Bennington). "They are all working on their consistency and I think it will get there," Hall said. "They are all freshman and game management issues are still at the forefront for all three of them as they try to adjust to the pace of the game." This is the second-straight season that Hutchinson enters a season without collegiate experience at setter. Outside hitter - Big, big shoes will need to be filled as HCC must replace two-time Jayhawk West Player of the Year Teresa Wade - she was also a two-time NJCAA All-American - and all-conference player Dragana Micic. Those to players provided nearly 80 percent of HCC's kills in 2013. Several players are in the mix in 2014. Darby has the most experience at the position. Freshman Jai Chapman (Liberal) and Bailey Nickel (Scott City) are going to be in the mix as well as Petra Silic (Zagrab, Croatia), Skye Calvert (Moura, Australia) and Wilson. Silic is also slated to be in the middle. Calvert is a middle and right-side hitter and Wilson is in the setter mix. "It remains a fairly open position for us," Hall said. "We have some players who are going to look like completely different players a month into the season. It will be very competitive." Middle hitter - All eyes will be on Kinser, who was a second-team all-Jayhawk West and All-Region selection as a freshman. HCC will have four players who are 6-feet-1 or taller with Kinser, Silic, Calvert and Proffitt. "Nicole is looking very good and we are going to count on her," Hall said. "We have four options to look at in the middle and other than Nicole; we aren't sure where we will go." Hall is hoping to have much better blocking numbers from his middles in 2014. Last year, HCC got an average of less than one block per set out of its middles. Right-side hitter - This was another weak position in terms of blocking last season, but the options Hall has are much taller and appear to be better at the net. As 6-5, freshman Lexi Turner (Kaysville, Utah) has the ability to be a very strong blocker. Also in the mix on the right side will be Wilson, when she is not setting, and Proffitt. "Lexi puts up a very strong block for us," Hall said. "We think she, through the year and into next year, will become a stronger offensive presence," Hall said. "Aubrey Wilson can put up a very nice block and she has a lively arm. Anna has been a big surprise for us on the right side. This is another position that is wide-open for us." Liberos/Defensive Specialists - Griffitt is the only one of the four back-row players with experience. She is joined by freshmen, McKenzie Steele, Maddi Cumpston and Little. "Four people are competing for one or two position on the floor," Hall said. "Rachel has the experience, but we have three talented freshmen. It's going to be an interesting year in terms of our lineup." The Blue Dragons averaged 14.3 digs per set last season.
SEASON NOTES + HCC is the preseason pick to win the Jayhawk West in 2014. The Blue Dragons start the season ranked No. 19 in the NJCAA Division I Volleyball preseason poll. + The 2013 Blue Dragons finished the season 27-12, sharing the Jayhawk West title with Colby. Those two teams met in the Region VI championship match, won by the Lady Dragons in three sets. HCC then dropped back-to-back straight-set losses to No. 3 Western Nebraska and No. 14 Hill College in the NJCAA Tournament at Casper, Wyoming. + Hall would like to see a better overall block from his 2014 team. Last year's 257 team blocks were the fewest since 2010 and it was the only time since 2001 that an HCC volleyball team had fewer than 300 team blocks. The 1.84 blocks per set were the fewest since 1997. + The Lady Dragons will open the home season on Sept. 10 with a Jayhawk West match against Butler, which returned to Division I volleyball after several years competing at the Division II level. HCC will have 10-straight days at home with matches against Dodge City (Sept. 15) and Seward County (Sept. 17) before playing host to the HCC Blue Dragon Volleyball Classic on Sept. 19-20 at the Sports Arena. + One statistic that HCC must improve on is its record in five-set matches. HCC was 0-6 in five-setters last season, going 27-6 in matches that didn't go five set.