Tough challenges ahead for No. 17 Rocky volleyball

2014-08-19T14:30:00Z 2014-08-20T14:26:09Z Tough challenges ahead for No. 17 Rocky volleyballBy BILL BIGHAUS bbighaus@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

The good news for the women’s volleyball team at Rocky Mountain College is that all 13 players return from last year's 25-win team, and the Battlin’ Bears also learned Tuesday afternoon that they’re the 17th-ranked school in the NAIA’s Top 25 preseason poll.

The daunting news is that Rocky’s killer schedule is about to get underway.

With 16 practices already under their belts, the Bears will fly to California on Wednesday to face Westmont College and No. 2-ranked Concordia University, both California schools, on Thursday at the Biola University/Red Lion Hotel Summer Slam in Anaheim.

Rocky will follow up with matches against No. 13 Dordt College of Iowa and No. 18 College of Idaho on Friday.

The Bears will also have to contend with No. 1 and reigning national champion Texas-Brownsville, No. 2 Concordia (again), No. 8 Biola University, No. 11 Georgetown, Ky., and No. 21 Embry-Riddle, Fla., the following two weeks at tournaments in Daytona Beach, Fla., and Butte.

That's eight ranked teams in the season's first 12 matches, all on the road.

“If you want to be the best in the nation, you’ve got to play the best in the nation,” said eight-year Rocky head coach Laurie Kelly, whose Bears were the top-ranked blocking team in the NAIA last fall.

Rocky compiled a 25-9 record last season, captured the Frontier Conference postseason tournament title and won in five sets at the College of Idaho in a play-in match to qualify for a trip to the national tournament in Iowa.

The Bears dropped three five-set matches during pool play at nationals, but return all of their starters and stars, which led to their high ranking in the preseason poll.

“I think we’re worthy,” Kelly said.

She likes the depth and chemistry of this year’s team, with seven of eight seniors having played together since their freshman season. The other senior, middle blocker Yang Yang, transferred to Rocky last year from North Idaho College.

Yang and fellow senior middle blocker Anna Dewald were first-team all-Frontier players a year ago. They also received All-America recognition.

Junior outside hitter Ahlea Billis was second-team all-conference selection last season, while sophomore outside hitter Kylie Nielsen was on the league’s all-freshmen team.

For the first time under Kelly, her Bears are also the preseason favorite to win the Frontier. Rocky is the lone conference team ranked in the national poll

“I think they have a lot of confidence right now,” Kelly said of her Bears.

Rocky's nonconference schedule, however, presents quite a challenge -- and she is eager to see how her players respond.

“I’m hoping they can be competitive at all times even though things are going to fall apart once in a while,” Kelly said. “We’re human, they’re kids, and not everything works out all the time. I want to see how they react. It’s hard to tell until they get in a game.

”I do know they're a hard-working bunch of kids that will fix what we need to fix."

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