Second to none

The volleyball team is tired of being a bridesmaid.

For three of the past five years, the squad has finished second in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament, falling short of an NCAA Tournament bid. In 1998, Eastern won the regular season conference title only to finish second in the tourney to Southeast Missouri State.

This year the squad will again play second fiddle as it was picked second in a preseason conference poll receiving three first place votes from coaches in the league.

Tennessee-Martin was picked to finish first and received six first-place votes.

The defending conference champion Skyhawks were picked third.

Second-year head volleyball coach Brenda Winkeler said she’s confident this season will be the year the Panthers can get over the hump.

“The key for us is that we’ve done some team building activities on this team,” Winkeler said. “They’re committed. They’ve got a really strong work ethic which is also important. We’ve got to be able to out-work everyone in the conference.”

Winkeler had a different approach to getting the squad in the right frame of mind for the upcoming season. During the first week of practices, Winkeler had each member of the squad paint a rock stating her goal for the season.

She then told the team that each individual rock could be `kicked around,’ but together the rocks are solid. Each player then put the rocks in a blue bucket which has been stored away in Winkeler’s office for further motivational purposes.

“Every day they can look at that bucket to remind them that they’re committed to Eastern volleyball,” Winkeler said. “When they put the rocks into that bucket, that was their commitment.”

Winkeler is hoping her six returning seniors are committed to the squad, as their success could make or break the Panthers’ chances at a conference title.

Leading the sextet of seniors is Leslie Przekwas. The 5-foot-11 middle hitter was a first team all-conference selection last fall and was named to first-team preseason squad. Last season she had a .333 hitting percentage, which broke a school record.

“She’s worked really hard in the off season,” Winkeler said. “She plays really hard and sometimes in a game she can just take over.”

Also receiving all-conference honors and returning this season is Carrie Stevens, who was named to the second team.

Stevens reached double-digit kills 13 times and double-digit digs 15 times.

Junior Karen Liss should also play a factor in the team’s success this season. Liss, a preseason second team all-conference selection, was second on the team in kills per game (3.1) and led the team in attack attempts.

“She’s showing a lot more maturity this year,” Winkeler said. “And she’s already got two years of playing experience under her belt.”

Together, the six seniors and three returning juniors make up the core of this year’s squad. How well they mesh with the five newcomers on the squad will be a determining factor in getting an NCAA tournament bid, which has eluded the Panthers.

“We’re really close as a team right now,” Liss said. “We back each other up and we don’t blame each other for mistakes.

“When someone’s down, we help pick each other up. That’s going to be a huge factor in helping us this year. If we get anything less than an NCAA tournament bid this year, then we’ll be disappointed.”

Sophomore Alexandra Harold, who redshirted last season, will add some needed depth to the squad in addition to freshmen Erica Gerth, Lindsay Perkins, Shanna Ruxer and Shannon Winkeler, who is the cousin of coach Winkeler.

“Last year we didn’t really have a class of freshmen and so this year I was teasing the freshmen by telling them that the seniors were waiting for a freshman class to be hard on and to boss around,” Winkeler said.

“But the freshmen are really glad that the seniors are a very cordial group and are really helpful. We’ve got some freshmen vying for position and they’re very comfortable being out there with the seniors.”

And the team is also comfortable with Winkeler. This year’s senior class has seen three different coaches in four years.

The squad will be tested early in the season as it competes in the Super 8 Tournament this weekend at Lantz Arena. Wright State, Central Michigan and Montana will be Eastern’s opponents in the tourney. The Panthers will then travel to Anchorage, AK the following weekend for the Nanook Classic. Eastern will play against Navy, Maine and host Alaska-Fairbanks in the tourney.

“The beginning of the season is a time for us to figure out the team’s strengths and weaknesses before we get to the conference season,” Winkeler said. “It’s also a way for us to get respect within the volleyball community.”

Stevens said she believes the team has already gained respect.

“We want to keep improving as we go,” she said. “I don’t think it’s as important to start off really strong. You don’t want to start off as good as you’re going to get; you need room to build on.”