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Bearcats reload for coming season

As the Bearcats steered their way through the program's second Division I campaign and first in the America East last season, there was a sentiment that the team was one or two players away from making an impact in the conference.

However, head coach Glenn Kiriyama returns four starters from last season's team and has added to the depth with a recruiting class of five freshmen who will have an immediate presence on the court.

"We weren't very deep last year," Kiriyama said. "This season, our offense has a lot more depth and we will be looking to our experienced players to increase our attack percentage."

Leading the way will be the junior trio of Anne Crocus, Jen Smith and Michele Heck. After enjoying successful freshman seasons in 2001, each member of the threesome established themselves as an all-around player last season.

Crocus is a dominant middle blocker who ranked eighth in the nation with 1.55 blocks per game in 2002. She also ranked third on the team with 2.46 kills per game and led the squad with a sterling .302 attack percentage. She led the conference in blocks, ranked third in attack percentage and was the team's lone representative on the All-Conference team.

"Anne is a dominant blocker and it's hard to imagine her getting much better at that skill," Kiriyama said. "However, her all-around game has improved across the board, not just her hitting skills but even her serving and defensive play in the back row."

Since arriving at Binghamton, Smith has been one of the team's most versatile players. After playing on the right side as a freshman, Smith moved to the middle last season and saw time as both a middle hitter and occasionally the team's setter. Now, Smith will move back to the right side and be expected to continue developing her hitting skills.

"Jen has been asked to fill a lot of different roles and make significant contributions," Kiriyama said. "That will be the case again this season as she will once again be a right-side hitter. She has been game every step of the way and her all-around game continues to improve."

As a sophomore, Smith led the team in kills (3.27) and service aces (0.41), while ranking second in digs (2.83). She ranked in the top 10 in the conference in both aces and digs.

Completing the trio is Heck, who has been one of the team's strongest all-around players in each of her seasons at Binghamton. In 2002, Heck averaged 2.85 kills, 2.45 digs and 0.54 blocks per game, ranking among the top three on the team in all three categories. She also set the school's all-time record for hitting percentage in a single-match, producing a 14-2-16 (.750) outing against Lafayette on September 24.

"Michele is one of our best all-around players and maybe the best athlete on the team," Kiriyama said. "She is going to see a lot of opportunities on the outside and the team will rely on her contributions."

Senior Allison Beard also returns in the middle and is one of the team's most consistent hitters. Beard led the squad with a .357 attack percentage as a freshman and finished second last season with a .227 mark while averaging a career-high 2.20 kills per game.

"Allison has improved every year she has been on the team," Kiriyama said. "We expect that she will become an even greater force in her final collegiate season."

Freshmen Megan Hoag and Katelyn Robertson will also battle for playing time in the front row. Both are experienced players who will bolster the team's offensive attack.

"Megan toured with a strong club team in high school," Kiriyama said. "She is a good athlete and will add to our depth at the middle hitter position. As she improves her skills and adjusts to a new team, she will see a lot of playing time in the front row."

Robertson is a 6-0 outside hitter from Canada who played with the Seekers Volleyball Club that was ranked among the top five teams in Ontario along the way to garnering provincial and national medals.

"Katelyn adds some height to our front line and is a consistent hitter," Kiriyama said. "She has developed into an effective hitter by making few errors and relying on placement."

Junior Morgan Jimerson will also boost the team's offense. Jimerson was one of the team's main offensive contributors in 2000 and 2001 before taking a medical red-shirt last season.

"Morgan's rehab is going well," Kiriyama said. "She has been out for a year and a half, though, and it will take her time to return to form. If she is in shape and healthy she will once again be one of our impact players."

Role of setter is up for grabs

While Kiriyama can count on the production he will get from his experienced front row hitters, a battle for playing time as the setter will also shape the squad's offense. Freshman Ashley Meffert was an all-state player in high school and will be given a chance to be the team's starting setter.

"The setter is the most important player on the floor, and for that reason it is difficult to predict how the team will do with a new setter," Kiriyama said. "Ashley will need to learn a new team and a new offensive system in a short amount of time. She is a skilled player and we believe she will be up to the challenge."

Jen Smith has been a setter at times in her first two seasons on the team, and Kiriyama expects she will share in that role again this season.

Kelly and Savin bolster strong back row

Seniors Shannon Kelly and Nicole Savin each saw significant time as the team's libero last season, and the duo will share that role once again. Kelly ranked fourth in America East with 3.16 digs per game in 2002, while Savin enjoyed her best all-around season, averaging 2.23 digs and 0.67 kills per game.

"Shannon is an excellent communicator on the court and she will once again see a lot of playing time in the back row," Kiriyama said. "Nicole's passing really improved during the spring and her greatest contributions will come on our serve/receive sets.

Rounding out the squad are freshmen Becky Forman and Lydia Lormand. Forman is an outside hitter who will compete for time in the front row.

"Becky has a strong passion for the game and wants to make an impact on the team," Kiriyama said. "She will bolster one of our weaker positions from last season."

Lormand may see time as both an attacker and a back row specialist.

"Lydia has excellent ball-control and she will bring a set of skills that all teams can use," Kiriyama said.

Team focused on qualifying for America East Championship

The team's main goal this season will be to qualify for the America East Championship. The top four conference teams from the regular season advance to the tournament, held at the facility of the conference's top team.

"As a whole, we are much deeper than last season and we expect to compete well in the conference," Kiriyama said. "At the same time the conference has gotten stronger and every team looks to be better this season. Nothing will come easy, and no team will be overlooked."

UMBC joins the conference this season after competing in the Northeast Conference. The Retrievers are a strong team and will likely battle conference powers New Hampshire and Northeastern atop the standings.

Binghamton will also face stiff competition in its non-conference schedule. The Bearcats open the season with three matches at the Syracuse Big Orange Tournament, where they will take on Colgate and Siena in addition to the host Orangewomen. Highlighting the non-conference slate is the Binghamton Invitational (Sept. 12-13), which will feature Quinnipiac, Youngstown State and Canisius. BU will also compete in tournaments hosted by Central Connecticut State, Columbia and Canisius. Among the teams Binghamton will face are Iona (CCSU Invitational) and Winthrop (Columbia Classic). Both teams won at least 20 matches and finished first in their conferences last season, and Winthrop advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

"Our results this season will hinge primarily on the continued development of the upperclassmen," Kiriyama said. "Their continued progression and the amount they are able to improve during the year will determine whether or not we compete for the conference tournament. We are hoping for good things from the incoming freshmen and we are confident that they will do well. They will be counted on a lot during the year and they are a strong complement to our returning players."
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