Volleyball preview: With a number of key returnees, Bobcats look to build on strong 2018 campaign

Senior libero Gabi Eustache leads a Bobcat volleyball team coming off its best season in a decade. (File photo by Theophil Syslo/Bates College)

LEWISTON, Maine -- Coming off the program's best season in a decade, the Bates volleyball team is hungry for more entering 2019. 

The Bobcats finished the 2018 season with an overall record of 14-9, their best record since 2009, falling to Wesleyan in the NESCAC tournament quarterfinals. 

"I think that was a good season, but I think it also left a little bit of an empty taste in our mouths and we want to do even better than that," fifth-year head coach Melissa DeRan said on this week's episode of the Bates Bobcast. "So I think it's just the right mix of seeing some improvement but also feeling like we left some stuff on the table. So it's been a good way to kind of push into 2019."

Bates opens the 2019 campaign Friday at the Husson Invitational, taking on Saint Joseph's (Maine) at 6pm and host Husson at 8pm. 

The Bobcats have a strong senior class, led by libero and 2017 NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year Gabi Eustache (New York, N.Y.). A team captain in 2018, Eustache led the Bobcats in digs (378) and finished third in the NESCAC in digs per set (5.32). 

Offensively, senior outside hitter Taylor Stafford-Smith (Calabasas, Calif.) led the Bobcats in kills with 202 and kills per set (3.01) last season.

Senior setter Julia Panepinto (Buffalo, N.Y.) made a lot of those kills possible with 9.81 assists per set, good for fourth in the NESCAC. A team captain last year, Panepinto earned a spot in the starting lineup after backing up All-NESCAC setter Jacqueline Forney '18 the previous two seasons.

"Panepinto bid her time and worked so hard for two years and was just the most solid teammate and really in some ways our MVP as our second setter who was running our practice courts," DeRan said. "So she certainly deserved her chance last year and she made the most of it."

Bates has been a stout defensive team in recent years. One of the points of emphasis this fall has been making the offensive attack more efficient.

"We defend very well, we rally very well, but we exhaust ourselves doing those things so really our focus now is offense and getting our kills per set and our hitting percentages higher," DeRan said. "It's going to be a very strong focus for us in our first few weeks of the season."

Among the returnees, junior middle hitter Angel Echipue (Munich, Germany) led Bates with a .233 kill percentage last season. She is a force defensively as well, pacing Bates with 0.67 blocks per set. Fellow junior middle hitter Delaney Mayfield (Santa Barbara, Calif.) finished second to Echipue in blocks per set last year with 0.62. Both will play a big role for Bates once again in 2019.  

"Having strong middles makes the other team's defense really miserable so, while they may not get set as often, their kill percentage tends to be higher," DeRan said. "The goal for us is to get our middles established as early as humanly possible and that's really going to free up our outsides; their job is going to be a little easier if we can do that."

Other Bobcats to watch this year include junior outside hitter Ruby Lightbourn (Los Angeles, Calif.), who averaged 2.53 kills per set, 2.95 digs per set and 0.45 service aces per set last year, and sophomore Sydney Phillips (Wrentham, Mass.), who averaged three kills per set in limited playing time as a first-year.

Bates welcomes four first-years to the 2019 team, including six-footer Charlotte Morris (Manhattan Beach, Calif.), who attended the same high school (Notre Dame) as Stafford-Smith. 

"Better people make better Bobcats; they're just amazing young women." DeRan said. "I think the big thing is (the first-years) are going fit the culture that our seniors have had a big part in creating."

"Going with the offensive theme, we have two first-year hitters that are very versatile and then we have two setters. So we're looking for more offensive firepower with this class."

The Bobcats have increased their win total each season under DeRan and she's looking forward to seeing what is possible this season.

"Success for us is going to be defined by making the NESCAC tournament, doing damage when we get there, and being in the mix for an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament, if not outright winning the conference championship," DeRan said. "Putting ourselves in those conversations, that's what we're chasing and that's where we should be. It's just the process of getting us there."