With seven new recruits for the 2009 season, the Indiana University Northwest Lady RedHawks volleyball squad has nearly doubled its size from last year. And, after leading his team to a best-ever 13 wins in 2008 despite playing with a shallow bench, IU Northwest head coach Omar Vazquez is thrilled about his prospects for this season.
“It’s a big-time upgrade,” Vazquez said during a recent signing luncheon for his incoming players. “We’re definitely going to get better offensively and defensively.”
“Match after match, our average points were 25-19. That was our average set,” he said. “If these kids give us five points (more) as a unit, then our record is going to soar.”
New recruits for 2009 include: from Hammond Morton High School, defensive specialist Carolina Salazar and outside hitter Kristen Kenney; from Bishop Noll High School, libero Nikki Serrano and outside hitter Malory Rokosz; from Merrillville High School, outside hitter Tiffany Robertson and defensive specialist Kelsey Barrick; and from Crown Point High School, setter Amronik Williams.
“Obviously, we’ve got some area players who have played against each other,” Vazquez remarked to his new players at the signing. “So now it’s time to make some friendships and go from there.”
This year’s recruiting class, the largest ever for IU Northwest volleyball, should help ease the sting of losing last year’s offensive leader, Lisa Saberniak. The Merrillville product was an offensive powerhouse and earned All-Conference honors in the NAIA Association of Independent Institutions, but she departed for IU Bloomington to pursue a specialized major. The team does return several players, however, including Saberniak’s fellow Merriillville grad and reliable table-setter Ashley Contreras, as well as the Lady RedHawks’ dominant middle blocker, Ashley Howard.
Rokosz, who was a member of Bishop Noll’s 2007 sectional championship team, said it was IU Northwest’s proximity to home, plus its reputation as a program on the rise, that led her to commit to the RedHawks.
“I came to here because I wanted to stay closer to home, and I didn’t want to stop playing volleyball,” said Rokosz, who will study elementary education. “I knew that they were getting better, so I decided to come here and play.”
Rokosz, like Vazquez’s other recruits, brings a reputation for athletic leadership and academic success to the team. A volleyball team captain last season at Noll, she was awarded the team award for Best Mental Attitude and was named Noll’s Scholar Athlete of the Year for her senior year. Rokosz had a 94 percent serve percentage last year for Noll and notched 75 aces to go with 117 kills, 50 blocks and 259 digs.
Her Bishop Noll teammate, Serrano, was also an honor roll student, as well as a First-Team All-Conference volleyball player who earned Athlete of the Year honors in her senior year. Serrano had 42 blocks in 44 attempts and picked up 327 digs and 133 kills.
But it wasn’t just her numbers that appealed to Vazquez, the coach said. It was also her heart.
“We spent some time on her, because I saw her in the sectional final, and she had tears coming out of her eyes. She was mad about losing,” he said.
“Coach actually recruited me, and he’s pretty persuasive with words, so he got me,” confirmed Serrano, who plans to major in accounting.
Hammond Morton recruits Salazar and Kenney are also expected to bring versatility and consistency to the floor for the RedHawks. Salazar posted a 99 percent serve percentage for Morton last year and had 405 digs. Kenney, who will major in marketing at IU Northwest, averaged two kills per game.
“Our emphasis this year was to get floor defense and scorers,” Vazquez said. “That is the reason we have (Kenney) here, because she will get us some points.”
IU Northwest got the best of both sides of the net with its two Merrillville pickups. Vazquez compared Robertson’s offensive skills with those of the departing Saberniak — Robertson set records at Merrillville for most attacks, most digs and highest kill percentage. And Barrick anchored the defense with a variety of record-setting efforts, including most serve receives in a single season with 651 and most digs in a single match with 26. Barrick also lead the team in serve percentage, committing only eight errors out of 300 attempts in 105 games.
“She’s one of the defensive specialists we brought in to help us out on our floor defense,” Vazquez said of Barrick, who was also a standout swimmer and tennis player at Merrillville, and who competed in the tennis regional in her senior year.
Barrick and Robertson both cited their love of volleyball, and their desire to continue playing competitive athletics, as the impetus for their decision to join the Lady RedHawks.
“I have a lot of friends who go here ... and they told me how much fun it is (to play here),” said Robertson. “I decided it’s a plus to stay home and play volleyball at the same time.”
“I couldn’t quite give up sports yet,” Barrick said. “So I’m going from three (sports) down to one.”
Williams, who played volleyball at Michigan City for two years before transferring to Crown Point, had a family connection to IU Northwest, since her mother is an alumna. The honor roll student confessed that she recruited Coach Vazquez, rather than the other way around.
“I wrote Omar when I saw they were looking for volleyball players. I just wanted to continue playing,” said the elementary education major.
Vazquez said the addition of so many quality athletes would shore up one of his squad’s critical weaknesses last season — the ability to finish long matches.
“We lost three or four matches in five sets because of the (lack of) depth. You’ve got to have some depth,” he said. “Now we’ve got depth, we’ve got talent, we’ve got offense, and we’ve got defense. Hopefully, we’re going to take off.”
The coach admitted that his team’s one remaining need is more height. But with so many athletic defenders on the roster, Vazquez believes his squad will be able to compensate.
“We’re going to play a faster tempo to accommodate for that, and we’ll spread out the floor defensively,” he said.