Trying to regain the throne

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Southeast's Jessica Koeper scored on a kill shot over two Memphis Tiger players during a game last season.

Koeper, a Jackson graduate, is among six players returning for Southeast, which was 11-19 in 2003.

By Marty Mishow ~ Southeast Missourian

Southeast Missouri State University volleyball coach Cindy Gannon doesn't ever remember her team being picked to finish so low in the Ohio Valley Conference.

But the OVC's preseason poll, based on voting by the league's coaches, has the Otahkians ranked fifth among 11 squads -- not that Gannon expected anything different.

"I expected that, but I think we'll catch a lot of people by surprise," Gannon said. "We're as athletic as we've ever been. We just need court experience."

A young Southeast squad opens the 2004 season Wednesday with a 7 p.m. home match against defending Missouri Valley Conference champion Southwest Missouri State.

The Otahkians went 11-19 overall last year for Gannon's first losing record -- she is 355-194 entering her 15th season -- but were 10-6 in the OVC, good for a third-place tie.

That third-place OVC finish was Southeast's second straight after a fourth-place showing in 2001 that marked their worst performance since joining the league in 1991. When the Otahkians captured the title in 2000, it was their seventh conference crown in eight years.

"The OVC has gotten unbelievable. Schools have really upped what they put into their volleyball programs," said Gannon, who led Southeast to a co-championship during that inaugural OVC season in 1991. "We dominated for a while, then teams caught up. Now we have to make a statement again, and I feel good about where we're heading."

But Gannon knows it won't be easy climbing back to the top of the OVC this year because the Otahkians graduated their three top players from last season in Emily Scannell, Suzanne Gundlach and Emily Frost.

Scannell, a four-year starter at setter who was first team all-conference the last two years, is second in the OVC in career assists. Gundlach, second team all-OVC last season, and Frost were by far Southeast's top two killer leaders with 392 and 328, respectively.

"Those are three very big shoes to fill," Gannon acknowledged. "But the good thing is, the people we have returning saw a lot of playing time and the new players are really good."

Southeast's six returning players -- seniors Ashley Smith and Kristen Clark-McElroy, junior Jill Miller, and sophomores Jessica Wilfong, Jamie Baumstark and Jessica Koeper from Jackson High School -- all saw at least some starting action last year.

Wilfong, from Park Hills Central High School, made the OVC all-freshmen team last year. She is Southeast's top returnee in kills with 164 and blocks with 59.

Miller, who played the defensive specialist libero position last year but is now a hitter, was second in digs with 375. One of the Otahkians' two captains, along with Clark-McElroy, Miller believes Southeast can surprise the rest of the OVC.

"I think a lot of people have counted us out, but I like coming up from the bottom," Miller said. "I think we can have a good year."

Baumstark had a strong freshman season with 149 kills while ranking second in assists with 50 and service aces with 40. She will take over at setter for Scannell this year.

"I feel very good about the team," Baumstark said. "We have great chemistry."

Koeper (111 kills) had a solid rookie season, as did Smith (71 kills, 49 blocks) after transferring from junior college, while Clark-McElroy (178 digs) joins Miller as the only Otahkian entering her third year of play in the program.

Gannon will be counting on immediate contributions from most if not all of her six newcomers, including five freshmen. The lone junior college transfer is Lauren Scannell, Emily's younger sister who is from Belleville, Ill.

The five freshmen are Linden Hahs from Jackson High School; Sirma Ozenir from Turkey; Brenna Schlader from Columbia, Mo.; Shannon Muesenfechter from St. Louis; and Brittany Hastings from Wichita, Kan. Schlader's older brother, Zac, plays basketball at OVC rival Austin Peay.

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