Binghamton volleyball returns to the courts to kick off the 2007 campaign Friday at the Delaware/Asics Invitational in Newark, Del.

The Bearcats take on South Carolina on Friday, with a 4:30 p.m. start., followed by matches with host Delaware as well as Boston College on Saturday, at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. respectively.

BU bring back seven letterwinners and three starters, including two all-conference honorees, from last year's team that posted an overall record of 15-17, including a 9-3 conference mark, good for a second-straight second place regular season finish.

Coming into the season, the Bearcats have won 21 of 27 conference matches - the second best stretch of any America East team. And, after running off a program-best 7-0 mark on its home floor in 2006, the Bearcats enter the fall riding a school-record 14-match winning streak.

With eight new faces, including a five-member freshman class, Binghamton volleyball will sport a new look when it takes the court this fall. Gone to graduation are three starters, including Megan Hoag and Ashley Meffert, a pair of all-conference selections and staples of the BU program over the last four years.

While the names have changed, however, under ninth-year head coach Glen Kiriyama, the goals remain the same: a fourth consecutive trip to conference postseason play and the program's second-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.

"Every year is different, and with a lot of new faces, there are a lot of unknowns," said Kiriyama. "It's been a fun and productive preseason. We're really looking forward to seeing how the team develops and begins to find its identity in the early part of the season."

Senior Jacki Kane (Centennial, Colo.), a two-time All-America East first team middle hitter, leads the list of returnees. In 2006, Kane led the conference in blocks (1.36 b/g) for the second straight season and finished third in the conference with a .271 hitting percentage. She enters this fall in sixth on the Bearcats all-time blocking log with 423 career blocks.

Fellow senior and Colorado native, Kathleen Schauer (Littleton, Colo.), returns after earning being named second-team all-conference in 2006. Schauer enjoyed her finest season at the right-side hitter position, finishing second on the team in kills (2.69 k/g) and hitting in double figures on 20 occasions. This year she will assume the captain role.

"We will really be looking to Jacki and Kathleen to take charge on the court and get the team ready to play," said Kiriyama. "They are our two most experienced players and they should assume greater leadership roles both on and off the court."

Returning to anchor the back row defense is the junior duo of Jaclyn Strader (Kettering, Ohio) and Katherine Courage (Virginia Beach, Va.).

Strader, a two-year starter, brings a fearless abandon as the team's defensive specialist at the libero position. In 2006, she led the team in digs with 418, averaging 3.48 per game, and had 46 service aces.

"Jaclyn is a vocal leader on the court," said Kiriyama. "Her ball control and serve receive has improved and we will continue to count on her to anchor the team defense."

Courage took on an increased role for the Bearcats as a sophomore. She appeared in 28 matches for the Bearcats and ranked fifth on the team in digs averaging 2.29 per game.

"Katherine comes to play every night," said Kiriyama. "She has great ball control and is an asset on the back row."

Both junior Ashley Allen (Mill Creek, Wash.) and sophomore Dawn Lammert (Sussex, Wis.)will man important spots on the front row this fall. Allen started 29 matches and ranked third on the team in blocks (0.76 b/g) last season.

"Ashley has really returned this fall as a more aggressive player," said Kiriyama. "She has a lot of experience under her belt after starting last year and I expect her to continue to step up her play this fall."

Lammert appeared in 21 matches during her freshman campaign, seeing increased playing time as the season progressed.

"Dawn has improved the most of all the returnees from last year," said Kiriyama. "She will play a key role for us in the middle."

Rounding out the list of returning players are senior hitters Rachel Ayers (Canandaigua, N.Y.) and Ashley Hoin (Menands, N.Y.), who are both expected to push for spots in the rotation.

With the departure of several key seniors to graduation, the Bearcats will count on the arrival of its incoming five-member freshman class and a pair of transfers to make immediate contributions.

The youth movement begins at the setter position where BU welcomes freshman Lindsey Mueller (West Bend, WI) to the fold. Mueller, a first team All-Wisconsin pick and four-time high school team captain, has large shoes to fill as BU's setter, as she replaces the graduated all-time career assist leader, four-year starter and two-time All-America East selection, Ashley Meffert.

"Lindsey is quick, gets to a lot of balls and blocks quite well for her size," said Kiriyama. "She is exactly the type of player you look for at the setter position. She will step right in and be counted on to be a focal part of our offense."

Freshman Megan Rogers (Liverpool, N.Y.) is also expected to push for time quarterbacking the Bearcat attack. Rogers was the primary setter for Liverpool HS this past fall.

Despite its unfamiliar look, with Mueller and quality depth behind her, BU's offense figures to be in good hands.

The Bearcat offense expects to receive a great boost with the return of a familiar face in sophomore Brianna Strong (Elkhart, Ind.). Strong, who earned America East all-rookie honors in 2005, returns to the squad after attending Indiana University South Bend last season. As a freshman, Strong was among team leaders in digs (2.18 d/g), kills (2.04 k/g) and hitting percentage (.158).

"Brianna is one of the best athletes on the team," said Kiriyama. " We are glad to have her
back as she will be counted on to contribute on the outside as she did her freshman year."

A pair of New York natives, Katie Thomas (Wappingers Falls, N.Y.) and Julia Vint (Endicott, N.Y.), return to their home state to suit up for the Bearcats. Last season with Sacred Heart, Thomas finished third in the Northeast Conference in digs, coming up with 4.07 per game.

"Katie has strong experience coming from Sacred Heart," said Kiriyama. "She is an aggressive player and is a welcome addition to our back row unit."

Vint comes from Division III SUNY Potsdam, where as a freshman she led the team in kills, service aces and was second in digs. She played her high school ball locally at Union-Endicott.

"Julia is local girl with some good experience," said Kiriyama. "She is a hard worker and is eager to play at the Division I level."

A trio of talented freshman hitters joins Mueller and Rogers to round out the 2007 freshman class. Michelle McDonough (Orland Hills, Ill./Andrew), Sandra DeVito (Manlius, N.Y.), and Mercedes Montford (Gilbert, Arizona) are all expected to move right into the front line rotation and see time at a number of positions.

McDonough, a three-sport athlete (volleyball, basketball, and track) at Andrew High School, was a two-time all-conference and all-area honoree and graduated as the school's all-time leader in kills.

"Michelle comes to the squad with a great deal of high-level club experience," said Kiriyama. "She is a smart player with a lot of different shots in her arsenal."

Devito, a 6-0 middle hitter, was a three-time first team all-league and all-section selection for upstate New York's Fayetteville-Manlius High School. She completed her tenure there as the school's all-time leader in kills (528 - 3.05 per game), aces (137 - .79 per game) and blocks (93 - .54 per game).

Montford is a three-year starter and team captain at Highland High School. She is a two-time first team all-region honoree and was named honorable mention all-state this fall.

"Sandra and Mercedes are very versatile athletes that will help us out immediately at both the outside positions."

The Bearcats celebrate their seventh season of competition at the Division I level when they open their 34-game slate at the Delaware Invitational on August 24-25, the first of five in-season tournaments.

The 2007 campaign is highlighted by five dates with NCAA Tournament participants from a year ago and seven first-time opponents.

Binghamton will host nine home contests at the West Gym, hosting all six conference foes along with upstate N.Y. neighbors Syracuse (Sep. 11), Siena (Oct. 9) and Cornell (Oct. 23).

"I continue to be impressed with the enthusiasm and energetic environment our fans have created," said Kiriyama. "Having that kind of support behind you definitely gives the girls a boost, especially during close games. It's going to be exciting to get out in front of our home crowd again this fall."

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