New head coach. New assistant coach. New conference.
New is the word around the 2013 version of the Covenant volleyball team. First-year head coach Joanna Ehman, along with new assistant Jason Rhine, mixed with a new conference membership in the USA South make up much of the storyline for this year's Lady Scots.
Ehman takes over for Heather Taylor, who stepped down after eight seasons and 124 victories, after serving for two seasons as Taylor's top assistant and a four-year playing career as a Lady Scot.
The first-year coach also recently brought along Rhine from Trinity International University to be her full-time assistant.
The last two seasons have yielded two of the best teams in school history. Last year's squad finished 25-8 overall and a perfect 10-0 in the Great South Athletic Conference to capture the program's first conference championship since 1979. In 2011, the Lady Scots finished 22-9.
Gone are the days of the Great South Athletic Conference as Covenant was officially accepted into the USA South Athletic Conference this summer. In addition, Covenant was accepted as active members of NCAA Division III meaning eligibility for postseason competition at both the conference and national levels.
The USA South offers a step up in competition, but Ehman believes her team can compete.
"It's exciting to think about the level of competition we are going to face this season," said Ehman. "Every game in every match is going to be important, and not just for us. It's going to take a lot of focus and hard work from our girls, but I know we are in a good position to establish ourselves as strong competitors in the USA South."
USA South coaches also believe that Covenant can compete as they voted the Lady Scots to finish second in the South Division and fourth overall in the 13-team league. Only Maryville, Averett and North Carolina Wesleyan were ranked above the Lady Scots.
The key reason why both Ehman and the USA South feels that Covenant can play at a high level? Four returning starters, plus a returning libero, and incoming freshmen that could play an immediate role.
Covenant returns the reigning Great South Athletic Conference player and freshman of the year in Chelsea VanDyk. The sophomore from Manhattan, Mont., led the GSAC in several offensive categories last year. VanDyk registered 433 kills, the most for a Lady Scot since Kate Hampson's 490 in 2006, while averaging 3.77 kills per set and producing a hitting percentage of .390. VanDyk earned GSAC player of the week honors twice during the year and was also selected to the NCCAA Mid-East all-region team.
The lone senior on this year's squad is libero/defensive specialist Estes Carlson. The Eaton, Colo., native played in every set last season and tallied 501 digs (4.36 per set) to easily lead the team and the conference. Carlson was named to the GSAC all-conference team and was an NCCAA Mid-East honorable mention. Her leadership will be counted on as the Lady Scots have a roster with 10 of 12 players as either a freshman or sophomore.
Another key member of this year's squad will be junior setter Stephanie Kirkpatrick. The all-academic performer from Huntsville, Ala., showed what she was capable of last season in her first year of being the starting setter. Kirkpatrick recorded 1021 assists (8.88 per set) and had 40 or more assists in four matches, including a career-high 52 against Piedmont. Kirkpatrick was named to the GSAC all-conference team, NCCAA Mid-East all-region squad and earned academic honors from the GSAC and CoSIDA Academic All-District.
"Those returners will play an important role as we move forward," noted Ehman of VanDyk, Carlson and Kirkpatrick. "Other underclassmen will have the opportunity to take on new roles as well."
Sophomores Cora Schroeder and Hannah Rogers also return after each having a successful freshman season to solidify the rotation. The other returner from last season is sophomore Kelsey Mathis.
Ehman has brought in four freshman in Journey Amos (Houston, Texas), Caroline McLeod (Dallas, Texas), Caroline Cone (Altamonte Springs, Fla.) and Mariah Corney (Fullerton, Calif.).
"I am looking forward to seeing our freshmen class contribute this season," continued Ehman. "We are bringing in a great group of girls who are eager to work hard and establish themselves quickly in the program and I believe they have the tools necessary to make that happen."
Sophomores Jaclyn Stuart (Locust Grove, Ga.) and Anna Swain (Woodruff, S.C.) round out the 12-member varsity team this fall.
The schedule is a tough one for the Lady Scots as they have only eight home matches this season. Covenant will host a USA South quad-match on October 19 with North Carolina Wesleyan, Maryville and William Peace coming to Lookout Mountain. Covenant will play two matches that day against North Carolina Wesleyan and William Peace.
"With the combination of moving into a new conference and a significant amount of travel with this year's schedule, we definitely have our work cut out for us," Ehman added. "This team is made up of hard workers who are motivated to build on the success the program has been experiencing over the past few seasons, though, and I know we are up for the challenge."
Covenant begins its season in earnest on Saturday as they host a tri-match. Covenant will take on Oglethorpe at noon followed by an Oglethorpe-Wesleyan tilt at 2 p.m. The Lady Scots will then take on Wesleyan at 4 p.m. to complete the day.