Photo: Taylor Soule
Pass, go and hit. Pass, go and hit.
Drake volleyball knows the drill.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
“Yes!” shouts Drake head coach Tony Sunga with every thunderous kill.
Ah, the sweet sounds of spring progress.
After Sunga’s turbulent first season at Drake’s helm, spring practice brings fundamental focus for the Bulldogs.
“This is a breakdown of some of the small things that were preventing us from success, and we’re doing that,” Sunga said. “It’s more about passing and delivering that first ball.”
However, before the Bulldogs pass, serve and dig into spring success, their 2011-2012 season losing streak stands.
Drake finished 9-23 overall and 5-13 in the Missouri Valley Conference last season, good enough for eighth place.
Offensively, the Bulldogs finished last in conference play, averaging just 13 percent hitting from the floor.
Defensively, Drake averaged 2.09 blocks per set, ranking seventh in the MVC.
The Bulldogs graduated four seniors including setter Caitlin Johnson, Drake’s leader in digs.
Despite a rocky 2011-12 season and a young roster, Sunga is confident entering spring play.
“Everyone’s going to have an opportunity this year, and they see that, so it’s an opportunity to improve during the spring and again when we come back in August,” Sunga said. “It’s going to be very competitive.”
With players already battling for positions, Sunga anticipates Drake’s youth movement. Six incoming freshmen will join the Bulldogs next season.
“We’ll be relying on our younger crew,” Sunga said. “We have seniors that will step up, so the young ones are going to have to challenge those seniors and juniors.”
Almost one year ago, freshman outside hitter Amanda Platte stepped onto Ron Pearson Court for her first Drake volleyball practice.
For Platte, playing in a new city under new leadership proved challenging.
“This was Coach Tony’s first year and our first year meeting him, so I think we were just kind working out the kinks with kind of starting over,” Platte said.
After finishing the 2011-12 campaign, Platte and the Bulldogs opened spring play with fundamentals in mind.
“We’re practicing four days a week and really working on serve receiving because serve receiving is the base of the volleyball play, so we’re starting out with the basics,” Platte said.
These improvements, Platte hopes, are stepping-stones toward MVC prowess.
Alongside Platte, junior outside hitter Bentley Mancini is ready to surprise the MVC faithful next season despite Drake’s limited roster.
“We’ve decided that we obviously have a small team, and we’ve just decided that we need to outwork everybody else, and we’ve definitely been doing that in the weight room,” Mancini said. “We’re just going to have to outwork our competition on and off the court.”
Before Drake opens MVC play in September, though, replacing key players is atop its to-do list.
Last season, the Bulldogs bid senior middle blocker Michelle Reidy farewell.
Sophomore middle blocker Haley Brightwell recently announced transfer plans, opening both middle blocker positions.
Filling Drake’s vacant positions is both demanding and promising, Mancini said.
“It’s going to be tough because we lost two key middles,” Mancini said. “We lost our setter (Johnson) who had been serving the team pretty much the whole time she’d been here, but Halli (Meyer) is our new setter, and I think she’s completely capable of running the team. We have two incoming middles who are going to need to step up right away and have confidence when they come in.”
The Bulldogs are already boosting confidence, technique and teamwork this spring.
“The spring is really just to kind of break down our technique, and we don’t really get a chance to do that very much in the fall when we’re playing games,” Mancini said.
“We’re really looking forward to getting better and getting stronger in our technique and skills.”