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MCGILL: Veterans, Newcomers Mesh as Season Begins

Aug. 24, 2017

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- The Marshall volleyball team, which opens its regular season Friday afternoon in the Austin Peay Tourney in Clarksville, Tennessee, will certainly miss its most recent graduating class, which included two all-conference players and another with the rare feat of 1,000 career kills and digs.

Overall, six of the top 12 Thundering Herd players -- in terms of sets played -- are gone from the roster after a 22-8 season that featured a third place finish. But there is plenty of reason for optimism for Mitch Jacobs' program, so much so that the Conference USA coaches voted Marshall fifth in the league's preseason poll. The Herd was picked to finish eighth last season, but jumped five spots higher in the final standings.

Three of the reasons for the sunny forecast exist in the sophomore class, which features 5-foot-10 setter Madelyn Cole, 5-10 outside hitter Jac'cara Walker and 6-1 middle blocker Madison Hill. All three players were named to the C-USA all-freshman team last season, and all three participated in the European Global Challenge this summer. The 10-day trip to Croatia and other countries helped the Herd's super sophomores get ready for what lies ahead in 2017.

"There was a lot of good talent," Hill said. "We played a lot of different countries and traveled through a lot of different countries playing local teams. It was great to see how other people interact and how different the game is over there. Overall, it was a great experience."

Hill, a native of Rockwall, Texas, will again play a major role after starting 26 of 29 matches last season and leading Conference USA in hitting percentage (.418).

Walker (Gainesville, Florida) trailed only graduating senior Cassie Weaver with 336 kills last season. Cole (Dallas, Texas) had a team-high 764 assists as a rookie.

Those three will help mitigate the losses of all-conference players Allie Kellerman and Ally Kiekover, as well as Weaver, who accomplished the aforementioned 1,000/1,000 career feat. The Herd also lost Taylor Riedel, Kassidy Lemons and Audrey Shannon, the latter two of whom would have been expected to step into Kellerman's libero role. Those duties will now fall to sophomore Amber Weber, a transfer from the University of South Florida, and true freshman Jessa Long.

"One of the biggest question marks coming into this year was how to replace Allie Kellerman, Kassidy Lemons and Audrey Shannon," Jacobs said. "Jessa Long and Amber Weber have sufficiently given this team a confidence boost because they are doing so well."

Added Hill: "They bring a lot. They're both really fast and really solid on defense. I think they'll be good additions to our team."

Weber and Long are only two of the newcomers who could see significant action. Tiffany Isaacs is a 6-3 freshman from Hurricane who redshirted last season. Isaacs, along with true freshmen Katie Jacques (Mount Pleasant, South Carolina) and Addisyn Rowe (Limestone, Tennessee) give Marshall three players at 6-2 or taller. Jayden Jacobs, a 5-6 setter from Huntington, is also a newcomer this season after sitting out 2016 as a transfer.

"We're having to help them a lot because they are mostly freshmen and a sophomore from a different school, but that also really helps the rest of us," Cole said. "They have a lot of questions and it helps keep us educated. It makes us better leaders. It's great how they are helping us become better, too."

Marshall certainly has talent outside of the freshmen and sophomore classes, too. A trio of seniors return: 5-10 middle blocker Justice Craft, 5-10 outside hitter Taylor Pelton and 5-9 setter Kayla Simmons -- a trio who combined to start 31 matches last season. Simmons was second on the team with 516 assists.

The junior class features 5-11 outside hitter Shelby Conley and 5-11 outside hitter Lauren Mattmuller.

"We have got some really competitive kids but we have to see how they start to come together when they get on the floor," Jacobs said. "We have really good kids; we don't have a bad kid on the team. I'd be shocked if we had anybody break a rule on this team."

Marshall's opening day of play begins with Friday's 1:30 p.m. match against No. 19 Missouri. The Herd will also play at 9 p.m. on Friday against host Austin Peay. MU will play UMKC on Friday at 1:30 p.m. to wrap up its opening event of the season.

The youngsters who played in the Global Challenge see it as the first step of many for the Herd.

"We have great potential this year and in the years ahead," Cole said. "This is just the beginning of our era."