The Grace College volleyball team is primed for a strong year under sixth-year head coach Katie Van Hofwegen.
The Lady Lancers have consistently grown their program’s reputation in a challenging conference under Van Hofwegen, despite the Crossroads League getting seemingly harder each year. In 2019 the league had two teams in the NAIA national quarterfinals, including the eventual national champion.
Because of the schedule changes due to COVID-19, Grace will only play a conference schedule this fall — an 18-game gauntlet through nationally-ranked teams.
But Van Hofwegen was confident that Grace’s team was up for the challenge of a daunting league schedule.
“Playing in such a tough conference forces you to compete every week. This will be a shortened fall with no easy wins. Every game counts,” Van Hofwegen said. “The competition sharpens our players, though. We have a team that’s known for having a fighting spirit. We know we can compete in a league with the national champions, and it fuels and motivates our ladies.”
Grace has averaged 21 wins per season since 2017, and the team has won when it counts. The Lady Lancers have won a postseason match in each of the past three seasons, highlighted by a pair of trips to the NCCAA National Championships.
A key cog of that recent success was graduated setter Alexa Hill, an All-American performer for Grace. Filling Hill’s sneakers will be senior Gabbey Harrington, a hard-working, offensive-minded setter.
Harrington played on the front row a season ago. She produced 210 kills (2.1 per set) on a .196 percentage, picking up All-League recognition in the process. But Harrington has also filled in as a setter in multiple contests, including a key stretch during her sophomore season.
Late in the 2018 campaign, Harrington became the de facto starting setter after an injury to Hill. Harrington’s first match resulted in an eye-popping 52 assists to beat Goshen in four sets. Three days later, she handed out 37 sets in a sweep of Taylor in the quarterfinals of the league tournament.
“Gabbey has seen big moments and delivered for us in the past, and I’m excited to see how she steps into this new role,” Van Hofwegen said. “She will be very offensive minded, which should open up our hitters even more.”
Harrington will have the benefit of a deep and talented back row to pass her the ball. The Lady Lancers boast three returning defensive specialists as well as two dynamic freshmen.
Seniors Gina Novotny and Emily Sharp provide leadership and stability in the back row, and Grace Erwin gained significant playing time as a freshman a year ago. Novotny was a Second Team All-League performer in 2019 as Grace’s libero, tallying 595 digs.
Joining the returning trio are two freshmen: Julia Nagy and Brittany Baize. Nagy, a three-time All-State player from Blackhawk Christian, changed her commitment from DePaul University (D1) to Grace. Baize is from a storied Yorktown program who won a state championship just two years ago. Both freshmen have worked hard and were eager to contribute through preseason workouts.
“The amount of energy our back row brings every day really sets the tone for our team. They are the driving force right now for us, and their ability to pass and control the ball will play a huge part in our success this year,” Van Hofwegen said.
Grace’s front row is filled with experienced returners. Makaela Lochmueller and Makayla Bell headline the middle hitter position. Both players hit .190 or better for the year. Lochmueller led Grace with 287 kills on a .248 percentage, adding 16 solo blocks and 70 block assists. Freshman Jenna Mueller gives Grace height and depth at the position.
Anna Frey, another second-year hitter, was dynamic last year. She led Grace with 3.5 kills per set and was third with 2.5 digs per set. Frey battled injury throughout the season to play in 16 matches, but she is fully healthy and has looked impressive during preseason, according to Van Hofwegen.
The Lady Lancers added three stellar players to the front row. Paige Eakright is a transfer from Huntington University who earned All-League honors in 2019 with 416 kills and 327 digs.
Cassadi Colbert also transferred to Grace after redshirting her freshman year at South Alabama (D1). Kate Sperry is a versatile freshman from Frankton High School who is poised to see the court often this fall in Van Hofwegen’s estimation.
Despite having a shortened preseason, Van Hofwegen was pleased with how the team was coming together. The incoming class has appeared more confident and experienced than a typical group of freshmen, “playing with a sense of poise and maturity that you’d expect from upperclassmen,” according to Van Hofwegen.
The Lady Lancers are also playing with an extra dose of motivation — a feeling of gratefulness to have a season at all. “The team is excited to be having a season. The players are taking advantage of the opportunity to be on the court, recognizing that not all teams get this privilege. That has been fueling us for the past few weeks.”
Grace officially opens its season on Sept. 5 with a road match at Taylor. The Lady Lancers’ first home match is Sept. 12 against St. Francis.