PALATINE HILL -- For the first time since 2011, the Lewis & Clark Pioneers will open a season at home when the Pios host the first day of the Oregon Trail Classic tournament on Sept. 1.
Even with the change in venue, the level of competition the Pioneers will face before the start of Northwest Conference play won't differ much from last year. A season ago, Lewis & Clark faced five teams that finished the year with a .627 winning percentage. Two of Lewis & Clark's first five opponents this year are ranked in the American Volleyball Coaches Association NCAA Division III Coaches Top 25 Preseason Poll.
"Our preseason goal is to play the toughest level of competition that we can in order to have our team philosophy and focus ready for NWC games," said Stacie Matz-Gordon, who enters her fifth season as head coach this year. "That said, we are excited for the opportunity to play at home to begin the season and have our first four matches overall in Oregon."
Nine of Lewis & Clark's 11 student-athletes are upperclassmen, with eight returning from last year's 5-18 finish. Six juniors return for their third year in the program. In 2015, that group was part of a 10-win season that included seven conference victories, the most for the Pios since 2011.
"We are so excited to see how this group reestablishes what it means to compete for Lewis & Clark volleyball," said Matz-Gordon. "I'm eager to find out how this team defines the season."
Matz-Gordon will work with first-year assistant coach Emily Hayes, who joins the Pios after assisting on three different staffs including her alma mater, Hope College, which won the 2014 NCAA Div. III national champion. Jeannette Lee begins her fourth year as an assistant coach.
The Pioneers plan to emphasize versatility throughout the season, with most student-athletes playing a variety of positions. Seniors Bailee Cragun and Anneke Banda are in their second year with the Pioneers and both provide the team needed perspective and leadership having transferred into the Lewis & Clark program. Cragun will be utilized across the front row, and in the back as well, while Banda provides flexibility for the Pios in the middle and right side.
Kortney Meyer earned NWC Student-Athlete of the Week honors last year after posting a .704 hitting percentage with 20 kills in an October win over Willamette. The team's leader in blocks last season, Meyer will be one of Lewis & Clark's best offensive weapons as well. Along with Cragun and Meyer, Casey Myszkowski and Emma Contreras were in the top five in kills per set last year for the Pios. Myszkowski remains a spark plug for the team and is a proven player in the middle. Contreras, who has shown tremendous growth through the team's training programs, will be called upon to be ultra versatile. She was one of three Pios to have more than 130 kills last season.
Mikayla Lopez has been a stronghold in the Pios lineup since her freshman year and has a contagious work ethic that benefits the whole team. Lopez led the team in assists last year. Sam Yorke also had more than 300 assists in 2016 and will provide the team different lineup options this year through her ability to attack in addition to setting duties. Annika San Nicolas is an emotional leader and defensive anchor for the Pios. She has become a mainstay in the back row.
Hannah Robles is one of three new Pios, and the team's only transfer this season. From San Diego City College, Robles is a triple threat, supplying offensive, defensive and setting capabilities.
Freshmen Makena Ohlmaier and Kayla Valdez will be key additions for Lewis & Clark this year. Ohlmaier is a strong competitor with capabilities in all facets of the game. Valdez is disciplined in the back row and adds a key voice to the team. Along with Robles, the trio is expected to have a bright future for the Pios.
Despite opening at home, one thing that won't change in 2017 is a heavy road schedule to end the year. Lewis & Clark plays five of its final six games on the road before wrapping up the year with Senior Night on Nov. 4.
Following the Oregon Trail Classic on Sept. 1-2, Lewis & Clark travels to the UW-Whitewater Invite in Wisconsin. The NWC season opens Sept. 13 with a midweek game at George Fox. Lewis & Clark's conference home opener is on Sept. 22, the start of seven of the next eight matches at home.