The Gamecocks recently were picked to finish fourth in the East Division by the league’s coaches and sports information directors. Defending OVC tournament champion Belmont was picked first, followed by Morehead State and Tennessee State.
"Our expectation is always to put ourselves in the kind of position where we can win a championship," Jacksonville State coach Joseph Goodson said. "That (philosophy) has been in place since my first year here. We're physically capable and tactically capable. We just had a little bit of inconsistency last year."
Jacksonville State returns nine players from last season's team that reached the first round of the OVC tournament. While the Gamecocks look young on paper -- boasting just two seniors and three juniors on their 15-player roster -- dig a little deeper and one will find a team with more talent and experience than the eye would suggest.
"Last year we played really well in stretches, played not so well in stretches which is indicative of a young team," Goodson said. "Getting the girls to focus on the success we had … with a lot of returners it's a lot easier to get them to buy into our system. Going into this season, we have full expectation to be there at the end of the year."
JSU will be powered by a pair of sophomores on the outside: 5-foot-11 Emily Rutherford and 5-10 Taylor Long. Rutherford was third on the last year's team with 240 kills, including career highs of 19 kills and 23 digs against Austin Peay. Moreover, she was second on the team with seven double-doubles (kills and digs). Long, a left-hander from Louisville, Ky., who Goodson said "has one of the biggest arms in the conference" and will assume the role left by Jen Meyer and her team-leading 306 kills from last year's team.
“Taylor could be a huge offensive weapon for us," Goodson said.
Senior libero Kelly Cole heads the middle of the court where she ranks 11th in school history with 908 career digs, looking to become the 10th JSU player to finish with more than 1,000 career digs. Senior setter Abbey Heredia returns for her final season after finishing second on the team with both 4.28 assists a set and 13 services aces last season.
"Our two seniors have tremendous leadership," Goodson said. "Kelley has played in every match the past two seasons, except for two due to injury. Abbey has been one of our best setters for the past two years. There is a tremendous amount of experience and leadership between those two."
Two juniors, 6-3 middle blocker Nicole Merget and 5-10 setter Alina Agamy both return for their third season at JSU, and second as starters, after both garnered valuable playing time as freshman. Agamy led the Gamecocks with 6.16 assists a set in the regular season while ranking seventh in the OVC with 9.34 assists against conference foes. Merget led the team with 118 blocks and finished with 2.16 kills a set.
JSU will also add junior college transfer Victoria Cross from Dodge City Community College. Last year, Cross finished in the top 10 in the NJCAA in blocks.
Additionally, the Gamecocks will add five freshman to the roster: Molly Jo Aiken from Vestavia Hills, Kacy Clinkenbeard, Trisha Mockapetris, Liza Pflugradt and Laney Torkelson. Sophomores Kaitlyn Zelhart , Samantha Bohne and Grace Anbouda round out the roster.
"The five freshman come from outstanding club programs and are used to playing at a high level," Goodson said. "They are athletic and have really high volleyball IQ's. We want to stay the course and get our players to learn and understand our system. Then take it out on the court because clearly it's effective. We really like the team we have."
JSU opens its season with quite possibly its stiffest challenge of the year, taking on No. 6 ranked Minnesota in the UAB tournament on Aug. 30. The Golden Gophers, who finished last season at 27-8 and were within one game of reaching the NCAA Final Four, had yet to sign up to play in the UAB tournament when Goodson made arrangements for JSU to play in it. As it turns out, the Gamecocks will be tested by one of the nation's best in Birmingham.
"We use preseason (tournaments) to solidify our lineup," Goodson said. "It gives us four weeks to work the kinks and figure out who will be our main seven going into conference play. During pre-conference play we aren't as concerned with the other teams as we are with what's going on on our side of the net."
In between non-conference tournaments, JSU will play a home match on Sept. 9 at Pete Mathews Coliseum against Auburn, now coached by former Gamecock great Rick Nold. A three-time OVC coach of the year, Nold led the Gamecocks to three regular-season conference titles, three conference tournament titles and three NCAA postseason appearances during his nine-year tenure at JSU.
"It's going to be great matchup for us," Goodson said. "We're looking forward to doing exceptionally well in that match."