Photo by Michael Wong
PASADENA, Calif. (Sept. 5, 2016) – The departure of four of a team's top performers, including the program's all-time kills leader, does not typically portend success the following year. An exceedingly young 2016 Caltech volleyball squad is prepared to challenge those odds, however, as five experienced incoming freshmen, a handful of key returners and a vastly improved team culture have the Beavers already setting their sights even higher than last year's modest success.
"We are actually further ahead of last year from an experience and developmental standpoint," Head Coach Tom Gardner said. "We are having fun, showing passion and positive energy, which I'm confident we can channel into improvement in every area on the court. We're focusing on cohesiveness and making the process enjoyable – a positive experience leads to success on the court.
Sophomore Sakthi Vetrivel (Redmond, Wash. / Overlake School) headlines a small band of returners, having ranked second on last year's squad in three statistical categories with just over a kill per set, 32 total blocks and 20 service aces. Junior Mayra Melendez (Salinas, Calif. / York) once again will have the first opportunity to lock down the libero position while senior Suzannah Osekowsky (Saratoga, Calif. / Saratoga) is also the early leader in the right-side hitter competition.
"We are counting on our few returners, and especially Sakthi, for leadership with such a young group," Gardner said. "She gained some good experience last year and has the versatility to play across the front row. Mayra is a key component in our serve-receive who will help solidify a young back row, while Suzy combines well with Sakthi to put up a big blocking presence."
Despite the graduation of the program's all-time kills leader as well as the departure of three other hitters ranked in the team's top five last season, the 2016 squad could post similar production thanks to a more balanced attack as freshmen Alexa Lauinger (Ortonville, Mich. / Brandon) and Lauren Li (Bellaire, Texas / Bellaire) enter Caltech ready to stake their claim to the outside hitter berths for the next four years.
"Alexa and Lauren are going to be great six-rotation players," Gardner said. "They can play both offense and defense at a high level, have a variety of different shots and compete hard and push each other."
Building chemistry with a pair of new setters will of course be key, with classmates Ellie Walker (Minneapolis, Minn. / Blake School) and Mei-Ling Laures (Chicago, Ill. / British Int'l School of Chicago) both showing they are capable of manning the position on their own or splitting duties, at least in the early stages.
"We're fortunate to have brought in two players with setting experience; now we're just looking to make good connections with the hitters and see how our lineup shakes out," Gardner said. "They're both doing a good job figuring out how to make the hitters better and put them in position to succeed."
Freshman Julia Fay (Oakland, Calif. / Coll. Prep School) rounds out the incoming group as a valuable front row piece who will contribute to the team's blocking presence in particular.
"We are more balanced, more experienced and more confident this year," Gardner said. "We are still finding out exactly what we have and where everyone fits, and with a small squad we need to stay healthy, but we feel good about being able to compete with the teams we have on the schedule. We are going to be able to weather more and longer rallies, side-out an overcome adversity, all things we struggled with last year. We're really going to challenge teams – there's not going to be anything easy against us this year."