Volleyball set to continue upward trend in 2017

Third-year head coach Melissa DeRan directs a preseason Bates women's volleyball practice on Aug. 31, 2017. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College) 

LEWISTON, Maine -- The Bates volleyball program graduated its only all-conference player in the past decade last year in outside hitter Chandler McGrath, but the loss doesn't seem to faze this year's squad, which looks poised to continue the progress initiated by third-year head coach Melissa DeRan.

Bates finished the 2016 regular season with a flourish, defeating eventual NESCAC champion Middlebury 3-1 at home to even its final conference record at 5-5 -- the program's best mark since 2003. The Bobcats made the NESCAC playoffs for the second year in a row, where as the seventh seed they faced Middlebury for the second time in a row and fell 3-1, for a final record of 11-14.

Preseason practices have been outstanding, DeRan says, most notably for the excellent play she has observed from each and every player on the 2017 roster. Yes, every player.

"Every single player on my team right now could play; could start," DeRan said on the first Bates Bobcast podcast of the academic year. "Every single one of them are just rocking it right now. They're making my life really hard as far as deciding who plays."

DeRan has a couple more practices to decide before the Bobcats open this weekend at the Vassar Invitational, where they'll play four matches over two days, beginning with Medaille College and the University of New England on Friday.

After facing King's (Pa.) College and Vassar on Saturday, the Bobcats play their home opener against the University of Southern Maine on Tuesday, Sept. 12 at 7pm.

A wealth of depth will help make up for the loss of McGrath, and indeed may change the entire look of Bates' attack. "I've got five people who can come in and fill that void. It's a tremendous relief as a coach to know that I don't have to look to just one person," said DeRan.

With senior right-side hitter Lisa Slivken (New York, N.Y.) unfortunately out of action due to injury, sophomore outside hitter Taylor Stafford-Smith (Calabasas, Calif.) and junior middle hitter Claire Naughton (Darien, Conn.) are the leading returning players in terms of average kills per set last season. They're supported on attack by junior middle hitter Reilly Murphy (Marshfield, Mass.), junior outside hitter Lauren Brough (Killingworth, Conn.) and sophomore right-side Samantha Schecter (Riverside, Conn.), as well as a quartet of promising first-year hitters in 6-foot-2 Angel Echipue (Munich, Germany), 6-0 Delaney Mayfield (Santa Barbara, Calif.) 5-9 Ruby Lightbourn (Los Angeles, Calif.), and 5-8 Olivia McCulloch (Sunderland, Mass.). All of the above are ready to push for playing time right away.

"It's great to have young players competing for each position," said senior third-year captain Jacqueline Forney (Bloomington, Ind.). "The first-years are all great, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what they bring this year."

Though she is Bates' assists leader for three years running, Forney, too, may fight for playing time with the Bobcats' other setter, sophomore Julia Panepinto (Buffalo, N.Y.), who found playing time as an effective back-row defender in the second half of last season.

Whether or not Panepinto plays there, Bates should be more than solid in the back row. The unit is led by sophomore Gabi Eustache (New York, N.Y.), who ranked third in the NESCAC in digs per set in 2016, with 5.01. Senior Augy Silver (Manhattan Beach, Calif.) and sophomore Jordan Camarillo (Tucson, Ariz.) round out the group.

Forney and her fellow seniors have seen the team progress from 9-16 overall and 0-10 in the NESCAC under former head coach Margo Linton in 2014, to 10-15 and 3-7 in DeRan's first year in 2015, to 11-14 and 5-5 last year.

"We have fantastic kids -- whether I recruited them or not, every player is such a wonderful person," said DeRan. "We always say better people make better Bobcats and we have great people in our program.

"I think our growth has been expected, it's been at the proper speed and proper pace, and hopefully it continues into this year."