The Southeast Missouri State volleyball team returned to Ohio Valley Conference prominence last year.
Southeast captured its first OVC regular-season title since 2000 as the Redhawks shared the crown with two other squads.
Thanks to winning 12 of their final 13 regular-season matches, the Redhawks posted a 20-12 overall record and a 15-5 OVC mark.
The 20 wins equaled the program's most since 2002, while the 15 OVC victories represented the program's most since 2000.
"I definitely think we've gotten it [the program] back on track," junior outside hitter Karleigh DeLong said.
But one thing did not go right for the 2007 Redhawks: They suffered an upset loss in the first round of the OVC tournament, which determines the league's qualifier for the NCAA tournament.
That defeat has motivated the Redhawks entering the 2008 season that begins Friday against South Dakota State at the Blue Raider Bash hosted by Middle Tennessee State University.
"Last year was bittersweet because we were on such a winning streak," said Renata Nowacki, the 2007 OVC coach of the year who enters her fourth season in charge of the Redhawks. "This year everything is focused on [being] NCAA tournament bound.
"That's our ultimate goal. We're putting everything into that."
Said junior setter Sarah Barth: "Last year we had a taste of success, and this year we want to take it further."
With many of their key players returning, the Redhawks are confident they can repeat as OVC regular-season champions and win the OVC tournament to reach the NCAA playoffs for the first time since 2000.
"We got to taste success [last year] and I think that will make us want to work even harder," DeLong said. "Our goal is to have the regular-season championship to ourselves, win the OVC tournament and get to the NCAA tournament."
Southeast, which returns five starters and nine letterwinners, is led by a trio of all-star candidates.
DeLong was first-team all-OVC last year. She led the team with 433 kills and 31 aces, while ranking fourth in the OVC with 513.5 points.
Aubrey Dondlinger, a senior outside hitter, was a member of the OVC all-newcomer squad after transferring from junior college. She led the Redhawks with 22 double-doubles and was second with 418 kills.
DeLong was voted first-team preseason all-OVC, while Dondlinger made the preseason second unit.
"We're again looking for big things from Karleigh and Aubrey," Nowacki said.
Junior libero Molly Davis is the Redhawks' defensive sparkplug and all-around energy source. She ranked seventh in the OVC with 637 digs to set the school single-season Division I record.
"Molly does everything with intensity," Nowacki said.
Barth returns at setter after pacing the Redhawks with 1,197 assists. Senior Alyssa Aston made seven starts at setter as those two battle it out for the No. 1 spot.
Sophomore outside hitter Claire Keaton started 18 matches and ranked third on the team with 250 kills.
Senior outside hitter Kim Unnerstall started 17 matches before being sidelined with a foot injury, while sophomore middle blocker Emily Hughes also started 17 matches.
Also returning from last year is sophomore defensive specialist Kelly Benacka, who made no starts but saw action in 27 matches.
Nowacki will also look for contributions from Southeast's four newcomers.
Particularly impressive in practice has been freshman Paige Dossey, who because of injuries to other players has moved from the outside to the middle and is scheduled to start during the opening tournament.
"She has learned a new position and done great," Nowacki said.
Southeast's lone junior college transfer is outside hitter Amanda Rickhoff, who earned first-team juco All-American honors last season at Southwestern Illinois College.
Sophomore setter Meagan Webb comes over from the Southeast softball team — she will be a two-sport athlete — while freshman middle blocker Emily Maher rounds out the squad.
DeLong and Unnerstall will serve as co-captains.
"We have two captains and 13 leaders on this team," said Nowacki, whose squad plays its first home match Sept. 19 against Eastern Kentucky in the OVC opener. "I absolutely love this team."
The Redhawks hope that affection will lead them to the promised land of the NCAA tournament.